SEATTLE -- The Seattle SuperSonics' new owner told the NBA
on Friday that he plans to move the team to Oklahoma City.
Clay Bennett had set a Wednesday deadline for having a plan to
replace KeyArena, which he says is outdated. He and the city are in
a dispute about the arena lease.
He has until March 1 to file for relocation with the NBA if he
wants the team to play the 2008-09 season anywhere besides Seattle.
The Sonics are the city's oldest major professional sports
Bennett briefly backed off his deadline, not wanting to distract
from the start of the season. He watched Thursday night's home
opener against Phoenix from his suite, spending most of the second
half chatting with Hall of Famer Bill Russell while fans chanted
"Save our Sonics!" during the game.
"Today we notified commissioner [David] Stern that we intend to
relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma City if we succeed in the pending
litigation with the city, or are able to negotiate an early lease
termination, or at the end of the lease term," Bennett said in a
NBA spokesman Tim Frank confirmed the league received notice and
is referring the matter to the owners' relocation committee.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said the latest development was
"no surprise'' and the state will "continue to work with others
on the arduous process'' of keeping the Sonics and the WNBA's
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett called the news a "significant
step'' but urged caution.
"The history of sports is littered with franchises that
intended to relocate, said they would relocate and for whatever
reason didn't relocate,'' said Cornett, a former television
sportscaster. "Things change. I don't anticipate anything
changing, but things do change.''
Bennett became owner just more than a year ago and also owns the
WNBA's Seattle Storm. He bought the Sonics from a local group led
by Starbucks Coffee chairman Howard Schultz for $350 million and
has said the club is not for sale. Schultz, also unhappy with
KeyArena, and his group paid $200 million for the team in 2001.
Bennett is trying to void the final two years of the lease. The
city wants to hold the Sonics to the agreement, which calls for the
team to play at KeyArena through the 2009-10 season.
Bennett said the team lost $17 million last year because of the
lease. The Sonics had sought arbitration to decide the matter, but
this week a federal judge blocked the team from seeking an escape
through arbitration. That kept alive the city's attempts to gain a
court order forcing the Sonics to play in Seattle.
Bennett championed a proposal this year for a new arena in the
suburb of Renton that called for about $300 million in public
money. The plan failed to get backing in the state Legislature.
"We now understand and respect that there is very limited
public support for such a public investment," Bennett said.
Bennett long has said he had no intention of splitting the
Sonics and Storm, but appeared to hedge on that Friday. He said
plans are not set for the WNBA team, which will play the 2008
season in Seattle.
"Mr. Bennett's announcement today is a transparent attempt to
alienate the Seattle fan base and follow through on his plan to
move the team to Oklahoma City. The deadline for notifying the
league of his intent to move is March 1," Seattle City Attorney
Tom Carr said. "Making this move now continues the current
ownership's insulting behavior toward the Sonics' dedicated fans
and the citizens of the city."
"The move today was no surprise," Washington Gov. Chris
Gregoire said. "We continue to work with others on the arduous
process of keeping the Sonics and Storm in Seattle."
A few hours before Bennett's announcement, a group of local
investors offered to buy the Sonics and keep the city's oldest
major league professional sports franchise from moving.
The group headed by Dennis H. Daugs, a private wealth manager
and managing director of Lakeside Capital Management LLC, issued a
news release Friday saying it had written a formal letter of
interest to Bennett.
"We want to recapture the spirit and love of basketball in
Seattle by bringing the Sonics and Storm back to local ownership,"
said Daugs, a former minority owner of the NBA franchise.
Dan Mahoney, a spokesman for Bennett, had no comment on Daugs'
offer, other than to reiterate that the "teams are not for sale."
"This town loves the Sonics and Storm," Daugs said in the
statement. "We have a genuine appreciation of the fan base. We
respect the many loyal fans and we want to build a populist
movement to keep the teams here. We believe there is strong local
support for the Sonics and Storm."