SuperSonics, Seattle reach last-minute settlement

Updated: July 3, 2008, 3:40 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

SEATTLE -- Clay Bennett finally found a dollar amount that would sever his contentious relationship with the city of Seattle -- $75 million.

As a result, the SuperSonics are headed to Oklahoma City with Bennett leading the way, leaving behind the team name, colors and 41 years of history.

Oklahoma City will have an NBA franchise for the 2008-09 season after a settlement announced Wednesday between the team and the city of Seattle, severing the bond with the city that culminated in a six-day federal trial over terms of the team's KeyArena lease. The judge was scheduled to rule Wednesday afternoon.

"We made it," Bennett said after stepping to an Oklahoma City podium featuring the NBA logo and the letters OKC. "The NBA will be in Oklahoma City next season."

The settlement calls for Bennett and his Professional Basketball Club LLC to pay as much as $75 million to the city in exchange for the immediate termination of the lease. The team's name and colors will be staying in Seattle.

Bennett said the move would start Thursday and the first focus would be on the SuperSonics' players.

"In a perfect world I would have liked to see Clay Bennett leave, without the team at all," said Steven Pyeatt, the co-founder of Save Our Sonics.

The Document

The SuperSonics will be required to pay Seattle at least $45 million to leave for Oklahoma City. Read the other stipulations of the settlement between the team and city. PDF

It's a victory for Bennett, who purchased the Sonics in 2006 from Starbucks Corp. chairman Howard Schultz for $350 million, and will take the franchise to his hometown. Bennett faced harsh criticism in Seattle for his efforts in trying to build a new arena as a replacement for KeyArena, and the presumption he wanted to move the franchise all along.

"It was a tough experience for all of us that were involved in it. There was just so much that happened on both sides, so much misinterpreted, miscommunicated and misunderstood that it was difficult," Bennett said.

Bennett announced that the settlement calls for a payment of $45 million immediately, and would include another $30 million paid to Seattle in 2013 if the state legislature in Washington authorizes at least $75 million in public funding to renovate KeyArena by the end of 2009 and Seattle doesn't obtain an NBA franchise of its own within the next five years.

The settlement could become a victory for Seattle as well. In a statement, NBA commissioner David Stern reversed his previous stance and said that a renovated KeyArena could be a suitable venue for an NBA franchise in Seattle. But the time is short.

"We understand that city, county, and state officials are currently discussing a plan to substantially rebuild KeyArena for the sum of $300 million," Stern said in a statement. "If this funding were authorized, we believe KeyArena could properly be renovated into a facility that meets NBA standards relating to revenue generation, fan amenities, team facilities, and the like."

However, Stern added, "given the lead times associated with any franchise acquisition or relocation and with a construction project as complex as a KeyArena renovation, authorization of the public funding needs to occur by the end of 2009 in order for there to be any chance for the NBA to return to Seattle within the next five years."

Bennett said he and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels signed a binding agreement Wednesday, which would be formalized later, that keeps the SuperSonics' name, logo and colors available if Seattle gets a replacement franchise. Bennett said his franchise would create duplicate championship banners and trophies, leaving one set in Seattle and using the second set for undetermined purposes in Oklahoma City.

[+] EnlargeClay Bennett
AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Bryan TerrySonics owner Clay Bennett smiles in front of a backdrop with an Oklahoma City NBA logo.

"We have 30 million reasons why we have support for a future NBA team," Seattle city attorney Tom Carr said.

In April, the NBA board of governors approved Bennett's application to move the team to Oklahoma City, pending the outcome of the trial between the team and the city. The settlement came six days after the trial concluded.

"A really exciting day. We had been gearing up for the 2010 season, and to find out the team's coming two years early is a bonus," Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett said.

The settlement doesn't cover a pending lawsuit filed by Schultz, who is seeking to regain control of the team. Schultz claims that Bennett didn't follow through on an agreement to negotiate in good faith for a new arena in Seattle for one full year before seeking relocation options.

"We believe it's baseless, has no merit. We will fight it vigorously," Bennett said of that lawsuit.

Schultz's attorney, Richard Yarmuth, said his client's lawsuit will move forward. As part of the settlement, if the PBC is prevented from playing in Oklahoma City during the next two seasons because of Schultz's lawsuit, the city will be required to repay Bennett's group $22.5 million for each season. If the team is required to play in KeyArena for those two seasons, Bennett's group is released from the additional $30 million it would owe the city.

"We're not a party to this settlement and in fact we chose not to participate in it," Yarmuth said.

The trial between the team and city was centered on the lease agreement that called for the Sonics to play at KeyArena through the 2009-10 season. Sonics lead attorney Brad Keller contended that Bennett should simply be able to write a check to satisfy the final two years of the lease. Keller argued that the "specific performance" clause the city rested its case on should not apply in a garden-variety dispute between tenant and landlord.

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson reports that Schultz's case will be bolstered by the testimony and arguments of the federal trial and that there is still a chance that he could prevail.

Bennett and his ownership group previously offered to pay the city $26.5 million in February to buy out the final two years of the lease. They were rebuffed.

Nickels noted that Wednesday's settlement would cover lost rent, tax revenue and pay off the remaining debt on KeyArena.

"I believed all along enforcing our lease would allow us time to come to a better arrangement," Nickels said. "We now have that deal."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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