If Sonics leave town, what's next for KeyArena?

Updated: July 19, 2006, 11:14 PM ET
Associated Press

SEATTLE -- If the Seattle SuperSonics and Storm leave the Emerald City following their sale to Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, their home court could become a giant video arcade.

That's one idea pitched by Seattle City Council President Nick Licata for the future of KeyArena.

No, really, he's serious.

"It would be an opportunity for a real public-private partnership of a different sort than, say, professional sports," Licata said. "We could convert KeyArena to a new type of facility that would reflect new 21st century technology."

"In Las Vegas, 15,000 show up for a national gaming conference. Why not have those people come to Seattle?"

Licata's idea may seem far-fetched, but finding a viable financial solution for KeyArena and providing upgrades to the surrounding Seattle Center is a significant issue for local officials. The Seattle Center was the site for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair.

Former Sonics' majority owner Howard Schultz announced Tuesday that the teams had been sold for $350 million to Bennett and other participants in the Professional Basketball Club LLC, who represent a cross section of top Oklahoma City businesses.

David Heurtel, Seattle Center's director of marketing and business development, cautioned against moving forward with any specific plans. He's operating under the belief the Sonics will be playing in KeyArena through the 2010 expiration of the team's lease.

If the Sonics were to leave early, they would have to pay off the remainder of the lease and the city would most likely seek damages. Bennett said Tuesday his group would spend the next year trying to negotiate with local and state officials for a new arena or upgrades to KeyArena.

"There's lots of options if you look at Seattle Center as a whole. There are things to look at with the entertainment sector and technology sector," Heurtel said. "But where we are right now is the idea process. We don't have a definite task identified."

Licata believes the Sonics will eventually leave town -- the only question is whether it will be before the expiration of the lease. Discussions about what to do with the arena if the Sonics leave have already started.

"It's not good news. I'd prefer the Sonics had remained in Seattle with local ownership," Licata said. "But the big issue for the city right now is we need to focus our attention on Seattle Center and make a proposal in the Legislature to revitalize that as a regional center. The silver lining is we have an opportunity to create an exciting venue at KeyArena."

Future uses of KeyArena could include setting up a permanent display of the region's videogame and film industries, Licata said. Executives at Microsoft Corp., RealNetworks Inc. and other companies have complained of having few venues to showcase their technology, and showed enthusiasm during a recent tour of KeyArena.

A pair of citizens' task force groups examined various options for both Seattle Center and KeyArena. One suggestion for KeyArena was spending about $20 million to upgrade the arena as a smaller, downsized venue.

That option may become more probable if the Sonics move and the arena's other main tenant, the Seattle Thunderbirds, vacates as well.

The Thunderbirds, a junior hockey franchise in the Western Hockey League, are in preliminary discussions with the southeast Seattle suburb of Kent about becoming the main tenant in a proposed 6,500-seat, $35 million arena, Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farrell said.

KeyArena, once it was renovated in the mid-90s, "was not a great fit for us hockey-wise. It's so expensive a building for us to play in," Farrell said. "I understand where the Sonics are coming from with their lease."

Farrell has many of the same lease complaints that Schultz had. Farrell said the Thunderbirds pay 2 1/2 times what anyone else in the Western Hockey League pays for rent -- about $300,000 per year. Much like NBA commissioner David Stern, who called the Sonics lease agreement the worst in the NBA, Farrell believes the Thunderbirds deal is the worst for any minor-league hockey team in North America.

Farrell's frustration only increased when the Everett Silvertips joined the WHL in 2003, playing in the brand new Everett Events Center.

"They were able to build a state of the art building 30 miles up the road with a market rate lease and they're doing well and we can't even get close to that," Farrell said. "Everything that's happened in the building has hurt us. Reality is, I don't think we're a fit for them anymore."

The same question applies to the Sonics and Storm now.

"It has to be a mutual kind of relationship that will keep them here," Seattle City Councilman David Della said. "Our hope is that it works out and the Sonics and Storm stay beyond 2010."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press