Seemingly out of the blue, Mayor Mick Cornett has called for a new one-cent sales tax to finance $100 million or so worth of upgrades to the Ford Center, with the specific goal of landing a permanent or as permanent as those things ever are National Basketball Association tenant. The tax, if approved by voters, would replace the existing MAPS for Kids one-cent tax, which expires at the end of 2008.
That $100-million figure raised some eyebrows, since construction of the Ford Center cost less than $90 million only five years ago. The city, at the time, said only that it met the standards of the National Hockey League. Hurriedly pressed into service as an NBA venue in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina dislocated the New Orleans Hornets, the Ford served pretty well, balancing an above-average seating capacity (19,163) with below-average amenities. The Hornets found it satisfactory, not least because they drew better in Oklahoma City than they had in New Orleans. There was some talk that the team might actually stay beyond the two years it took to get the New Orleans Arena back up to snuff, but the Commissioner's office put a stop to that: the Hornets, said David Stern, would return to New Orleans, and that was that. The official announcement came in January 2007, as the Hornets declined an option to play a third season at the Ford.
But by then something else was in the works. As I wrote in December 2005, barely into the first year of the Hornets' residency:
If the Hornets return to New Orleans, as everyone involved swears they will, this is the most likely spot the Sonics will end up: team support here is running well beyond original expectations, and NBA Commissioner David Stern would much prefer to have another team move here than to deal with angry Hornets fans in Louisiana.
[Clay] Bennett and Oklahoma Professional Sports LLC, the ad hoc business consortium that backed Oklahoma City's bid to host the Hornets from 2005 through 2007, have set up a corporation to seek an NBA franchise for the city, be it the Hornets if they stay, or another team should they go. Meanwhile in Seattle, [Howard] Schultz is making noises about selling out.
As we all know by now, Schultz did sell out: to Bennett and company, doing business as the Professional Basketball Club LLC, who, after demanding and not getting a deal for a new facility, on 2 November 2007 filed papers with the league to relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma City, pending the settling of the team's lease on Seattle's KeyArena, which ends in 2010.
This is not, frankly, the way I wanted things to work out. But my own preferred scenario Stern, after two years of 30th-place attendance in New Orleans, relents, and Hornets owner George Shinn does one last move wasn't all that likely to pan out, and Shinn's lease on the New Orleans Arena, as it happens, is even longer than Bennett's lease on the Key. So the Sonics move is predictable enough. (It must have been, if I could predict it.) It helps that (1) Bennett and Stern are old friends and (2) Stern's already complained about the terms of the Sonics' lease.
There are some aspects of this whole affair which strike me as a trifle askew. For one thing, Bennett has repeatedly said that he wanted a new arena in Seattle; renovation of the Key would not suffice. Yet Bennett has applauded the Oklahoma City proposal to spruce up the Ford Center: "Mayor Cornett and the city have taken a visionary and appropriate step towards becoming an NBA city," he said. Then again, the Ford is bigger than the Key, and the Key, last remodeled in 1995, is forty-five years old.
More pertinent, from the purely-financial standpoint, is that Oklahoma City is a smaller market than Seattle: 45th, says Nielsen, versus 14th. Bennett partner Aubrey McClendon, acknowledging this fact this summer, suggested that finances weren't the major priority and that they'd planned this move from the get-go. The league fined him a quarter of a million dollars for having had the temerity to say such a thing.
And there's the question of whether doing this sort of thing for a mere sports team constitutes some sort of "corporate welfare." This argument predates Bennett's acquisition of the Sonics, of course; a spokesperson for a group styling itself "Taxpayers On Strike" complained about Howard Schulz's attempts to get a new arena:
Howard Schultz has a $29 billion Starbucks empire, 11,000 stores in 37 countries, five new stores open every day, sales double every two years. He bought the Sonics as a hobby or toy. He knew what he was getting into. He needs to step up to the free-throw line and throw in the $220 million himself!
Philosophically, I have to agree with this sort of argument.
Just the same, I'm still going to vote for the sales tax. It wouldn't be the first time I chose to support something that would cost me money: I've been a fairly vocal proponent of passenger rail despite the fact that I expect it to cost zillions of dollars and to have less ridership than its boosters claim. And the reasoning is much the same: if you're going to act like a Big City, you're expected to do some Big City things, and hang the cost. Roy Williams of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce put it this way:
This is why you do these things to position your city so that when opportunities like this come along, you can get them. This is why we've done all this. This is why we've built all this infrastructure.
And Mayor Cornett adds:
On a very superficial level, what cities your team plays in the world of sports reflects on your status as a community. If our companies are trying to recruit talent from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Boston, it helps if our sports teams are playing teams from those communities.
So long as the world remains superficial in other words, so long as it's run by fallible, occasionally goofy, people the least we can do is get ourselves onto the playing field.
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Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill