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Originally published Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Sonics CEO: Fans are apathetic

Morale is low, attrition is high and the sales staff's phones are quiet inside the Sonics downtown headquarters on Third Avenue. Danny Barth, Sonics interim...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Morale is low, attrition is high and the sales staff's phones are quiet inside the Sonics downtown headquarters on Third Avenue.

Danny Barth, Sonics interim president and CEO, painted a bleak picture of the atmosphere surrounding the Sonics during testimony Wednesday in the trial between the NBA team and the city of Seattle.

He said 23 of 125 employees have left the team in the past six months. He expects more resignations and said it would be difficult to fill those jobs during "lame-duck" seasons if Judge Marsha Pechman forces the team to honor the remaining two years of its KeyArena lease.

"The fan apathy and our brand recognition, ... it has been very difficult," Barth said. "Even when it comes to looking at our ticket sales, we have had an indication where we have had no interest.

"For example, after the Board of Governors voted to relocate for Oklahoma, we received no phone calls, either positive or negative."

Barth noted that after last month's announcement that the Sonics would receive the fourth pick in next week's NBA draft — usually a time when fan interest heightens — not a single customer called to purchase season tickets.

But during a cross-examination, Jeffrey Johnson, one of Seattle's attorneys, forced Barth to admit the team is not marketing tickets or even accepting money for them with the lease situation up in the air.

When asked to explain the apathy, Barth said: "Individuals obviously have a problem with the fact of our ownership group and their being from Oklahoma. The apathy towards that has been very strong."

Barth said the Sonics have suffered wide-ranging setbacks recently that include:

• $27.6 million net losses in the 2007-08 season.

• The Sonics sold just 5-½ of KeyArena's 48 suites in 2007-08, a dramatic decline from 19-½ the previous season and 24-½ in 2005-06

• The Sonics sold just 72 of 1,100 available season tickets for club seats in 2007-08.

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• Nearly 30 percent of fans who purchased tickets did not attend games in 2007-08.

• The Sonics ranked 27th out of 30 in the NBA in both average net gate receipts and average paid attendance.

• Ratings for Sonics games on FSN declined 61 percent since Seattle's last playoff appearance in 2005 and plummeted to 1.24 last season.

During Monday's testimony, former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson said most of the Sonics' financial woes were the result of the team's franchise-worst 20-62 record.

The Sonics could recoup their losses if they were more competitive on the court, she said.

"A significant portion of revenue to the team accrues from the playoffs," Anderson said. "I recall as much as 40 percent of an annual revenue to a team could be associated with the playoffs.

"If you don't make it into the playoffs, you don't get the revenues. So were the team to turn around and go into playoffs and go to the end, you could literally nearly double the revenue. Would your sponsors come back, would your media pay more, would your ticket sales go higher, would your club seats sell out, would your people buy another beer? All of the above is true."

Paul Lawrence, the lead attorney for Seattle, has little sympathy for the Sonics and their troubles.

"The lame-duck status is a function of their decision to announce they're moving to Oklahoma City three years early," he said.

Times reporter Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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