Sonics: We're worthless

The NBA team makes a bizarro-world argument as it tries to escape Seattle.

Published June 19, 2008 8:40PM (EDT)

The Seattle Sonics trial continues to be weirdly fascinating. The team is trying to get out of its lease with the city's Key Arena two years early so it can move to Oklahoma City. The city is trying to enforce the specific terms of the lease, which the lease explicitly says either side has the right to do.

The news Wednesday was the rough day noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist had on the witness stand. Sonics attorney Paul Taylor flustered the Smith College professor by pointing out the word-for-word similarities in large sections of reports Zimbalist had written for Seattle and in a lawsuit between the city of Anaheim and the Los Angeles Angels.

In the two reports, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports, Zimbalist reached different conclusions regarding the value of a professional sports franchise to a city. The exchange made him look like a hired-gun hack.

More interesting, though, were the arguments that were being made in the matter Zimbalist was addressing.

Seattle is insisting that a team brings economic benefits to a city just by playing there. The team is saying that it can "make the city whole" on the deal by simply paying the two years' rent on the arena. In other words, the team brings no value to the city other than the rent it pays.

Cities bounce back and forth on this argument all the time. When they're trying to get the voters to tax themselves to build a new stadium, cities argue that the stadium and the team are good for the city's economy. When they're negotiating with the team, of course, that idea doesn't sound so good to the city.

But when's the last time you heard a team arguing that it brings no value to a city? It's a bizarro-world argument.

We've seen before how sports economics can lead to upside-down arguments. Every labor dispute in sports is essentially the workers crying for an unfettered free market and the bosses demanding socialist management of the economy in the form of salary caps and revenue sharing.

But the Sonics argument really takes some gall. Are you as confident as I am that the team will carry it over to Oklahoma City when it needs a new arena or an upgrade? "No, don't raise taxes or anything," the Sonics will say to OKC. "Let us pay for it. We don't bring any value to town beyond the rent we pay anyway."

Owner Clay Bennett is certainly not lacking in gall. The Oklahoma City native, who has made no secret of his long-standing desire to bring an NBA team to his hometown, has testified that he had every intention of keeping the Sonics in Seattle when he bought the team in 2006, and that he made a good-faith effort to get an arena built to make that happen.

Is there anyone in the world who believes that?

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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