On September 24, City Attorney Tom Carr filed a complaint in King County Superior Court against the group that owns the Sonics and the Storm. The city is trying to force the Oklahoma investors to honor their 15-year KeyArena lease and stay through 2010.
The suit was a firm response to Sonics owner Clay Bennett, who's been making it obvious he wants to split early. Last week, for example, Bennett said he was taking the city to arbitration hearings so the Sonics and the Storm (which he and a group of Oklahoma colleagues bought for $350 million from Howard Schultz's ownership group last year) could leave KeyArena.
It's cool that Seattle is (finally and officially) standing up to the bloated, entitled world of professional sports. Last year, Bennett tried to get $400 million in public subsidies to build a new arena.
But the city's suit, as righteous and beautifully bitchy as it is, ultimately doesn't make any sense to me.
Demanding that the superior court force the Sonics to stay, the city's complaint states: "[The city's 1993] agreement to construct a new professional basketball arena at public expense was premised on the condition that the Sonics would be the principal tenant. [If the Sonics breach the lease] the city would be responsible for paying the debt service without the promised income stream from the Sonics, a promise the city relied on when it decided to fund it."
This line of reasoning glosses over an inescapable and galling fact: There hasn't been an "income stream from the Sonics as promised." The city has been picking up the Sonics' tab to the tune of about $2.2 million a year since 2000.
If Carr and the city really want to get tough with the Sonics, they should sue Bennett for the $15.4 million in back rent. Better, the Sonics should make $15.4 million worth of free tickets available to the public. With an average price of $40, that's about 385,000 tickets.
I ran this idea by Carr, but he corrected me, saying the point of the city's lease agreement with the Sonics is to have the team play at KeyArena—and so, that's what he's trying to enforce legally.
My ticket giveaway plan, I told him, works perfectly with his end game. With 385,000 ticket giveaways to honor, the Sonics would have to stay in Seattle for at least another three seasons. Indeed, with 41 home games a year, there's no way they could give away a whopping 9,390 tickets a game. But over three seasons they could certainly give away a reasonable 3,130 tickets a game (about 18 percent of their seats) through 2010.
The public would finally get what it wanted when it agreed to fork over $74 million dollars back in 1993: the chance to go to a basketball game.