Clay Bennett's true motives becoming clearer and clearer

RBCCorrespondent IJune 17, 2008
After months of speculation and arguing, the time for trial between the city of Seattle and the Seattle SuperSonics has finally come.
The trial started yesterday with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels taking up most of the time. Today, we got to hear Sonics owner Clay Bennett. Bennett wants to break free of the lease the Sonics have with KeyArena, which lasts through 2010, and move the team to Oklahoma City as early as this Fall.
Much was made yesterday about Nickels and his struggles in court yesterday as he was consistently hammered by Sonics lawyer Brad Keller. Keller attacked Nickels’ passion for the Seattle Supersonics, citing that in the past ten years he’s only been to two games as well as the fact that Nickels’ apparently told Washington legislators to reject any proposal for a new arena. Nickels said he thought KeyArena could be remodeled for half the cost and still be good enough.
I wasn’t impressed with Nickels’ testimony yesterday, but I have to say, I was even less impressed today with Bennett’s.
There was so much discussed that it would be hard to put it all down. But I will briefly touch on the most important parts.
As everyone expected, Bennett was hammered about an e-mail exchange he previously had with co-owners Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon where Ward asked, “Is there any way to move here (Oklahoma City) next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?”
To which Bennett replied, “I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys. The game is just getting started.”
According to Bennett, he meant he was possessed to keep the team in Seattle. After showing more e-mails from the same conversation from Ward and McClendon which indicated they wanted to watch basketball games in Oklahoma City, Bennett was then asked, “Did you respond back and say, ‘I meant I want to keep the team in Seattle?’” Bennett responded, “I did not.”
An e-mail was then submitted where Bennett asked NBA executive Joel Livitin if there was any way to move the team to Oklahoma City next season. Paul Lawrence, the city of Seattle’s lawyer who was questioning Bennett, then said, “So the man possessed to keep the team in Seattle is asking how he can move the team to Oklahoma City.”
Another e-mail was then submitted between McClendon and Bennett where McClendon asked, “Where will we be next year?” Bennett simply responded that he was working hard. Lawrence then asked, “Did you tell Aubrey, ‘no, no I’m working hard to stay in Seattle.’” Bennett said he did not.
Bennett also admitted that he contacted the Ford Center in Oklahoma City to reserve dates for the 2008-09 season.
Personally, I don’t see how any judge in America could believe Bennett when he says he was ‘possessed to stay in Seattle.’ Bennett claims he didn’t need to tell McClendon and Ward about his desire to stay in Seattle because they already knew. But obviously they didn’t based on how they responded to his ‘man possessed’ comment. If they knew, they would have said, “Alright Clay. Try your little game some more. Try to keep them in Seattle. But we hope to see them in Oklahoma City.” The flow of that conversation was perfect. They were seemingly on the exact same page.
Ever since Bennett purchased the Sonics he has stated without equivocation that a brand new $500 million arena must be built. He claims there is no other alternative. So while Nickels wants to just renovate KeyArena, Bennett says that’s not good enough. The taxpayers of Seattle have been made to think (from everything Bennett has said) that KeyArena is just too lousy to even be renovated.
But Lawrence submitted as evidence a report from a consultant who told Bennett that KeyArena was a viable venue. According to the report, “It’s not that Key is not a functional building. It is that Key can never be the entertainment venue that the entire Seattle area really deserves.”
Basically, this is the difference between a need and a want. Nobody will argue that KeyArena, as constructed today, is a viable venue for an NBA basketball team. We all agree it’s too small. We agree that there are not enough luxury suites. Even Nickels admitted yesterday that in it’s current state, KeyArena is not good enough. Nobody is arguing this. What we are arguing is that there is no need for a $500 million arena. Would we like to see an arena as flashy as the one Bennett proposed? Of course. But we just simply do not have the money. With as much money tied up in Safeco Field and Qwest Field (and with costs to the Kingdome STILL being paid off), there just isn’t enough money for such an extravagant facility. Why force a city to construct such an arena, when such an arena isn’t necessary? You get what you can for as much is absolutely necessary. But you don’t try to force something that’s impossible. Forcing the taxpayers of Seattle to do as Bennett wants is just not possible.
Moreover, the $500 million arena would be the most expensive arena in the NBA. How much does that say of the ridiculous nature of this proposal? The city of Seattle, which is being taxed to death as it is, is now being asked to pay for an arena that is more expensive than ANY OTHER ARENA in the league.
A $500 million arena wouldn’t even be so bad if the taxpayers of Seattle felt like Bennett was contributing a reasonable sum. But Bennett agreed to pay just $100 million. So that leaves $400 million for the taxpayers. He didn’t even announce the amount he wanted to pay to the public. “While I am prepared for us to take responsibility for securing private money in order to ensure this is a true public and private partnership, I will not be committing to a dollar figure for our ownership group.” How can Bennett possibly expect Washington state taxpayers to fund a $500 million arena proposal when they don’t even know how much Bennett is willing to contribute?
No wonder it got shot down so quickly.
To cap it all off, this $500 million arena was the ONLY one that Bennett proposed. And once it got rejected, he lost hope and started looking to move the team. He claims he was a man possessed. But how possessed could he have possibly been to give up after just one effort? Usually when negotiations are taking place, both sides will throw out ridiculous demands to kind of feel each other out. Nickels wanted KeyArena to be renovated for a cheap amount. Bennett countered with the $500 million proposal. But once both offers got rejected, Bennett gave up. Between Aug. 8, 2006 and July 2007, Bennett did not once meet with Nickels. Not only that, but Bennett himself admitted today that he did not have the legislation, a detailed arena plan to submit to the state Legislature on time.
What today showed to me was nothing more than more evidence that Bennett had no intentions of keeping the team in Seattle. Clearly, he wanted to move the team to Oklahoma City from the very beginning. He made very little effort to keep the team in Seattle. He can talk about the money he spent, but just because he spent money, doesn’t mean he tried very hard. Money does not equal effort.
What this trial is about is whether Bennett should be allowed to break his lease with KeyArena and move the team. Bennett admitted that he is unaware of any provision in the contract whereby the contract can be breached. Therefore, Bennett is obligated to stay in Seattle for two more years, no matter how much money he may lose. But what this really does is set up nicely the case later on between former owner Howard Schultz and Bennett. Schultz is contending that Bennett lied to him when he sold the team. Bennett signed a document promising to make a good-faith effort to keep the team in Seattle. But it has been clearly shown in the past, and just reiterated today, that Bennett failed to make such an effort. If Schultz wins his case against Bennett, Bennett will be forced to give the team up to local ownership.