Oklahoma City cautiously optimistic about Sonics' possible relocation

Updated: November 2, 2007, 6:34 PM ET
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Mayor Mick Cornett expressed cautious optimism Friday after the Seattle SuperSonics' ownership group announced plans to relocate the NBA franchise to Oklahoma City.

Cornett called the announcement "a significant step forward" toward securing the Sonics but quickly noted that "I'm reminding people it's not the final step of the process."

Litigation is still pending over the team's lease agreement in Seattle and the league's Board of Governors would have to approve any franchise move.

"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."

Cornett noted that in November 2005, NBA commissioner David Stern -- impressed with the city's immediate and strong support of the New Orleans Hornets -- said Oklahoma City was at the top of the league's relocation list.

"This is the first time since then that a team has filed for relocation, so it shouldn't surprise anybody that we're at the top of the list," Cornett said.

Paul Sund, a spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry, said the governor had no comment about the Sonics' announcement.

Oklahoma City never had been home to a major-league franchise until the Hornets -- displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina -- took up residence in the city during the weeks before the 2005-06 season. That season, the Hornets sold out 18 of their 36 games at the Ford Center, where they had an average attendance of 18,717.

The Hornets opted to remain in Oklahoma City for a second season, averaging 17,954 fans a game and recording 12 sellouts at the Ford Center.

"We know firsthand that Oklahoma City is a viable NBA market," Hornets owner George Shinn said in a statement. "We appreciate their tremendous past support and wish Mr. Bennett and his group nothing but success."

Even an owner without a vested interest in the matter has noted Oklahoma City's major-league potential. During a visit to the city Thursday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he understood the desire medium-sized markets like Oklahoma City have for major pro sports.

"While large markets become more obvious, there's a lot of success in smaller markets, relative to the larger markets," Jones said. "I've never thought of Oklahoma City, in any way, being a small market. ... Oklahoma City's passion for sports can suit, certainly, an NBA team, in my judgment."

Despite the Hornets' success, Cornett never actively campaigned to keep the team in Oklahoma City, understanding the Hornets always had planned to return to New Orleans.

Even after an Oklahoma City-based ownership group, led by businessman Clay Bennett, bought the Sonics last year -- spurring talk of a possible move to Oklahoma -- Cornett has been careful not to publicly discuss that possibility.

"I felt all along that we were going to get a team," Cornett said Friday. "I have believed for two years now that we were going to wind up with an NBA franchise. I didn't know which franchise it would be or what season it would be."

When the Sonics might arrive in Oklahoma remains in question. The team has committed to play this season in Seattle's KeyArena but wants to buy out the final two years of its lease agreement. The city of Seattle is trying to hold the team to that agreement, which runs through the end of the 2009-10 season.

A federal judge in Washington state ruled this week that the dispute may not be resolved through arbitration, as the Sonics had hoped. The decision means officials may continue to seek a court order forcing the Sonics to play the next three seasons at the NBA's smallest venue.

The Sonics' statement Friday said "we intend to relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma City if we succeed in pending litigation with the City, or are able to negotiate an early lease termination, or at the end of the lease term."

Cornett previously has said that "if you're dealing with an NBA team, there is going to be an expectation of a [publicly funded] practice facility," calling it "an entry-level part of negotiation" of any potential lease. He also has said city officials foresee a time when the Ford Center, which opened in June 2002, will need to be replaced with a newer facility.

He said Friday afternoon that he had not discussed the Sonics' announcement with Bennett and that he would seek guidance from NBA officials about when the timing would be appropriate for Oklahoma City to negotiate a lease agreement with the team.

"Becoming an NBA city is a choice," Cornett said. "I am convinced our city is ready and most people would like to see us move forward in that direction. When you choose that, you know you are expected to provide facilities and venues that are comparable to other NBA cities."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press