Sonics speeding off to OK City? Not so fast

Updated: November 1, 2006, 2:35 PM ET
By Frank Hughes | Special to ESPN.com

After a group led by Clay Bennett was approved last week by the NBA's Board of Governors as the new owners of the Seattle SuperSonics, Bennett was required to do the requisite round of media interviews.

He met with Seattle reporters in a Manhattan hotel ballroom. He made phone calls to Puget Sound area radio stations. He was linked up by satellite with television outlets in the Emerald City.

(L-R) Adam Silver, Clayton I. Bennett, and David Stern
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images The man in the middle, new Sonics owner Clayton Bennett, is being pulled by two cities.

Then he had to do it all over again.

For Oklahoma City.

Such is the strange dance playing out between the Puget Sound area and the dusty plains, a tale of two cities eyeing each other suspiciously across an expanse of 2,000 miles as they wonder which will end up with the NBA franchise keeping them tethered together.

No matter how commissioner David Stern now equivocates about not knowing to which city the Sonics will depart if the state does not pony up some obscene amount of money and provide a new facility, everyone knows it is only lawyerly sleight of tongue.

Through all the legalese, the bottom line is this: The Sonics will be in either Seattle or Oklahoma City, the small town from which all eight new owners of the Sonics conduct their lives and considerable businesses.

In both cities, the actual basketball season -- There's a new ball? Really? -- is nearly obscured by the guessing games and oddsmaking over the outcome of the arena situation in Seattle and where the team will reside in the long term.

Every mundane occurrence is analyzed as a telltale sign that the franchise, celebrating its 40th season this year, is staying or leaving, that Bennett's intentions are pure or dishonest.

One reason for suspicion: There are no Northwest owners among the group that purchased the team from Howard Schultz for $350 million? Clearly, they are leaving.

On the other hand: Bennett is meeting with developers in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue and picking out colors for potential seat cushions? Clearly, they are staying.

Then again: Bennett doesn't like salmon? He's out of here.

The truth -- I think -- is that nobody knows. Not even Bennett.

Sure, that day in July when it was announced that Bennett was purchasing the team from Schultz, it was easy to assume that the tenure of Seattle's first professional sports team was over.

Bennett said he was shocked at the rude reception he got from Seattle media that day. But really, he should not have been.

Look at the facts, and a knee-jerk reaction seems obvious: A group of guys from OKC who subsidized the move of the displaced Hornets from New Orleans to Oklahoma City out of their own wallets then tried unsuccessfully to pry said Hornets franchise out of the hands of George Shinn have just forked over a grand amount of cash to procure your team. They do not live in Seattle. They have no plans to move there. Yet they want to purchase an expensive toy and allow others to enjoy it at their expense?

Luke Ridnour #8 and Ray Allen #34
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty ImagesHow much is it worth to see Luke and Ray in your hometown? That's the multimillion-dollar question.

It didn't add up.

And for many, it still doesn't.

But a closer look at the situation lends a murky film to the diagnosis, as it usually does.

First and foremost, this group of men is about making money. They are, by my estimations, worth about $6 billion, maybe more.

Two of them, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward, are on the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans, and another, Jeff Records, should be but Forbes doesn't have access to his information. They didn't get that way by making unsound financial decisions.

Does it really make business sense to move a team from the 12th-largest market in the country to the 53rd-largest and lose a boatload of cash in the process just so you can go to 41 games a year and be pals with Ray Allen?

Furthermore, the new guys are spending a substantial amount on pursuing this new arena. Granted, it says in the contract they signed that they must make a good-faith effort to procure a new building. But in my mind, that could mean hiring a few consultants and lobbyists.

Instead, Bennett is in the process of hiring law firms, investment bankers, real estate firms, site evaluation teams, architects, developers, engineers, public affairs consultants, public relations firms and probably some more lawyers.

I asked him how much he was spending on the project. "Considerable," he answered. He wouldn't reveal the number but said the public would be shocked -- and probably convinced that he is being candid about his desires to stay in the Seattle area.

If the Sonics actually get a new $400 million arena in Seattle, the price tag of the franchise goes up probably as much as 50 percent. If it moves to Oklahoma City and into what was built four years ago for $88 million, the value of the franchise probably goes down. You do the math.

Of course, none of this guarantees that the state of Washington is willing to pony up the cash necessary to build an arena when Bennett comes calling in January -- and that ultimately is going to be the determining factor in the future of the team.

Right now, the state needs about $10 billion or more worth of transportation fixes and politicians no longer seem to be willing to subsidize pro sports teams.

But Bennett's group is going to present it as a revenue-generating project on a grand scale. The new arena will go into Bellevue, a Seattle suburb where the area's affluent reside. New restaurants will go in. New condominiums. New shops. A ton of tax opportunities that will have a long-term, lasting impact. How could the state not embrace that opportunity?

Of course, it would help if the team would do its part.

"We've got to have a good season," Sonics coach Bob Hill said. "We have to make the playoffs, and impact the playoffs. That would be what we have to do to do our part, put a good team on the floor.

"I am pretty confident that new ownership wants to keep the team in town. The Sonics have been a part of Seattle's sports history for 40 years … so it is important for a whole lot of people to do their part to keep it there."

Having a good season might be easier said than done. The Sonics were 37-45 last season. They were the worst defensive team in the history of the league, and they are relying on new schemes and additional attention to remedy that, which is like demanding an alcoholic go cold turkey with very little rehab.

They didn't add much of significance over the summer, although 20-year-old rookie Mouhamed Sene will be starting in place of third-year center Robert Swift, who is out for the season with a knee injury.

The good news is they don't have the contract squabbles that were so distracting last season; they have a full training camp under Bob Hill; and they are deep, with rookie shooting guard Mickael Gelabale from France showing some promise.

As the San Antonio Spurs learned in 1999 when they won a championship, having a successful season can go a long way toward currying favor with the public.

But trying to figure out what's going to happen with the future of the team is like trying to put together one of those 1,000-piece puzzles with a blindfold on. There are too many variables that have a direct impact on each other, and nobody knows how they will play out.

Meanwhile, the kindly folks in Oklahoma City watch with interest as they are treated to one more season of the Hornets and want to know whether they'll get a lot more seasons of a team once known as the Sonics.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune, is a contributor to ESPN.com.