Sonics think $10M should buy out Seattle lease
AP Sports Writer
The SuperSonics' argument for why they should be allowed to move to Oklahoma City next season is succinctly stated in the trial brief for the team's upcoming court battle with the city of Seattle.
"Leases are generally not specifically enforceable," reads the first sentence of the Sonics' brief, obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday night after it was filed in federal court in advance of a trial set to begin here Monday.
The Sonics, Seattle's oldest professional sports franchise with 41 years in town, are seeking to break the final two years of their lease at KeyArena by paying the city a sum of no more than $10 million, which the team believes would satisfy the rental agreement with the arena. The team's states it lost $30 million this past season, when the Sonics were 20-62, their worst-ever record.
The city, which also filed its brief Wednesday, argues the lease requires "specific performance," that is, the Sonics need to play in KeyArena through the 2009-2010 season.
U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman is presiding over the non-jury trial, expected to wrap up June 26.
"Damages in the form of rent make the landlord whole," the Sonics' brief states. "The facts show it is time to end the relationship (with the city of Seattle), not continue it by force. Both parties will be worse off financially with forced performance, and there is no offsetting benefit."
In a deposition taken in April, Sonics owner Clay Bennett testified he and his co-owners would lose between $61 million and $65 million if forced to play in Seattle for two "lame-duck" seasons. Bennett said the Sonics would make $18.8 million should the court allow the team to play in his hometown beginning this fall.
"While the city relies on the interests of the public at large, the public is not a party to the lease. As nonparties, their interests are legally irrelevant," the team's brief states.
"The great majority of the public has a yawning indifference to the Sonics' departure," the brief adds.
While attendance decreased last season to 28th in the league, the team still officially drew an average of 13,355 fans per game - 78 percent of capacity in the NBA's smallest venue.
The brief counters that the actual in-house attendance per game was 9,146 last season. The team says that 28 percent of ticket holders paid for a seat but didn't go to the game.
"In other words, nearly one-third of those who paid for a ticket did not attend," the brief states. "This is, unfortunately, compelling evidence of the level of disinterest."
The brief cited a survey taken by the polling firm Field Research in November, 2007 - just after Bennett announced he was applying to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season. The survey said 66 percent of Seattle's residents believe it would make no difference to them if the team left or they would be "better off."
The brief, filed for Bennett's Professional Basketball Club LLC, also warned that if Pechman rules against the Sonics, she will be creating more work for her court.
"If forced to stay, the PBC may be forced to drastically alter its business methods," the team said. "There is little doubt that this would involve the court in a challenge to the team's business methods."
The team also reiterated its belief the city is trying through "forced bleeding" to push Bennett into selling to more Seattle-friendly investors - such as previously interested Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, who is mentioned by name later in the brief.
The brief also reminded the court that the Sonics under Bennett's ownership will leave Seattle after the lease expires in 2010 anyway, since the NBA has already approved the team's move to Oklahoma City.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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