Will the oldest professional sports franchise in Seattle still be there next season? The City of Seattle and current owner Clay Bennet began day one of a six-day bench trial Monday, in the Federal District Court of Seattle. It now comes down to Judge Marsha Pechman to decide if the Sonics will stay in Seattle or if it is best to move the team to Oklahoma City.
Before discussing the trial, here is a little history on how the Sonics and the city of Seattle arrived in this predicament to begin with. The Seattle SuperSonics were founded in 1967, making them the oldest professional sports team in Seattle’s history. Seattle boasted the worst record in the league this year. The start to this tragic lawsuit began when former owner and Starbucks Coffee mogul, Howard Shultz sold the team to Clay Bennet for $350 million in 2006; Bennet is a wealthy businessman from Oklahoma City. Bennet agreed to and signed the lease, which specifically stated the team stays in Seattle until 2010. For some odd reason Bennet unloaded the team’s best players from the previous year while obtaining the #1 pick in the draft, future all-star Kevin Durant.
Since Bennet and his ownership group have been in charge of the team, he has received criticism for not finding funds to build a new stadium and for trading star Ray Allen to the world champion Boston Celtics in order to save money. The fan base for the Sonics drastically decreased over the past several years and talks of moving the team to chairman Bennet’s hometown of Oklahoma City only added fuel to the fire. Discussion about settling this dispute before Mondays court date remained hopeful, but neither side heard what they wanted to at the discussions.
Although Seattle has been making the team’s relocation a big deal, this is certainly not the first time that a team has attempted to move away from a decomposing city. The Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens and owner Art Modell fought this battle in 1995, and baseball’s Los Angeles of Anaheim Angels (2005) most recently went through the same legal battle.
This case deals primarily with the area of contract law between the city of Seattle and Sonics owners, a typical landlord-tenant dispute. However, the underlying issue in this case, as in previous professional sport relocation cases, regards the “specific performance” clause in the city’s contract. Specific performance has to do with the team’s ownership group being forced (through a court order) to fulfill their contract obligations and lease at KeyArena in the city of Seattle for the remaining two years, until 2010.
KeyArena is the NBA’s smallest site; its dilapidated appearance is the smoking gun in this trial. The city, fans, players and even Bennet (maybe not whole heartedly) have all attempted to acquire funds for the arena or a new site in Washington State to move the team to. This case covers many highly controversial and debated issues between the ownership and the city of Seattle. The city’s main claim is that Bennet bought the team with the intentions of moving it away from Seattle and that he needs to honor the remaining two years on the lease or find further funds to renovate KeyArena.
Bennet claims that he has attempted to find funds from the City and other private sources to renovate the arena, but that has not gone smoothly. The Sonics owners argue that they are loosing more than $30 million a year by staying in Seattle, while a move to Oklahoma City would make them around $9 million a year. Bennet and his lawyers are asking that the specific performance remedy be ignored and that “equitable relief” not be given to Seattle, because the city and former owner Shultz “did not play fairly,” when the team was looking to relocate.
Ultimately this tough decision will come down to Judge Pechman and whatever outcome she believes will mediate the two sides the fairest. In usual landlord-tenant situations, the courts have ruled to end the relationship between both sides and have the tenant (Bennet and the owners) pay the landlord (the city of Seattle) the remaining amount of the lease, along with other accrued damages because of the tenant’s departure. However, this is anything but a “usual” landlord-tenant situation as it involves a whole city, an NBA franchise, and their entire fan base.
Each side will have fifteen hours to present their case to the judge over the next six days. The first to take the stand on Monday was Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Nickels was followed by ex Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson and KeyArena manager Jyo Singh. The controversial key witness, Clay Bennet, took the stand for three hours on Tuesday as both sides interrogated him on a panacea of issues from his absurd “lame duck” emails to his original intentions when buying the team. We also saw leading sports economist Andrew Zimbalist’s video taped deposition. Bennet will shortly be back on the stand after the videotape and will continue on the stand Wednesday.
Judge Pechman will be in charge of writing a decision briskly after June 26th. She can either decide to mandate the Sonics to Seattle for the remaining two years, or she could settle the dispute with monetary damages to the city of Seattle, leaving Bennet and the team to find a better situation elsewhere. Whatever decision she makes, it is likely that both sides would file an appeal on her ruling and attempt to settle the matter again in the ninth circuit court of appeals.