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Originally published February 17, 2012 at 7:57 AM | Page modified February 17, 2012 at 7:57 AM

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Bennett says Sonics could lose $60 million if forced to stay in Seattle 2 more years

Wrapping up his testimony in a federal trial, Sonics owner Clay Bennett predicted a bleak final two seasons if the team is forced to play out its KeyArena lease.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sonics owner Clay Bennett on Wednesday predicted a bleak final two seasons if the team is forced to play out its KeyArena lease.

Wrapping up his testimony in a federal trial over whether he can break the lease before it expires in 2010, Bennett noted he is "not real popular" in Seattle and said the dark cloud hanging over the Sonics would make it difficult to sign players and sell tickets.

But Paul Lawrence, Seattle's lead attorney, continued his assault on Bennett's credibility, suggesting that e-mails prove Bennett and his partners had staged a show of "good faith" in Seattle to clear the way for a move to Oklahoma City.

Bennett ended a friendly cross-examination by his attorney, Brad Keller, with a statement that sounded like a farewell.

"We bought this team with grand visions for success," Bennett said. While acknowledging that he'd made mistakes in Seattle, he added: "I believed from the bottom of my heart we would succeed. And I am personally disappointed that we did not."

Bennett hopes to convince U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman that a cash payment should be sufficient to break the KeyArena lease. City officials argue that Bennett knew the lease terms when he bought the team and that no amount of money can compensate for the loss of the team.

Although Pechman has given no strong indication which way she will rule, she has sustained many of the Sonics' objections, and appeared irritated at times with the city's legal team.

The Sonics say they will lose $60 million in Seattle if required to play two more seasons here. The team predicts a profit of $17 million over that period if it's playing in Oklahoma City.

Sonics CEO Danny Barth, who testified after Bennett, detailed a steep decline in fan interest in the Sonics over the past few years — reflected in slumping ticket and advertising sales and poor TV ratings that could get even worse. For example, Barth said, of the 48 KeyArena luxury suites, only 5 ½ were leased for 2007-08.

Bennett was again questioned about his efforts to get state lawmakers to fund a $500 million arena in Renton — the only arena plan his ownership group proposed before asking the NBA to let them relocate to Oklahoma City.

"We were out of options in this region," Bennett said. "No facility, no prospects for a facility, certainly what had unfortunately become an acrimonious relationship with leadership."

Lawrence challenged Bennett's sincerity, pointing out that the Sonics had blown the Legislature's deadlines with the Renton proposal and refused to consider covering cost overruns despite being advised that would likely kill the plan.

After lawmakers rejected the arena plan, Bennett rejected an entreaty by then-Renton Mayor Kathy Keolker to keep working on an arena, according to e-mails introduced into evidence Wednesday.

Keolker e-mailed Bennett on April 20, 2007, to ask whether he'd consider a revised arena plan that would include a promise by the team to cover cost overruns.

"Sorry Kathy, this is just nothing we can consider," Bennett responded the next day.

That was just a few days after Bennett's famous "man possessed" e-mail exchange, in which he and some of his fellow owners appeared to enthusiastically discuss moving the team to Oklahoma City. Bennett has maintained that his e-mail has been misinterpreted and that he was really referring to his desire to keep the team in Seattle.

Bennett also rejected other arena ideas by the Muckleshoot Tribe and Seattle developer Dave Sabey.

Lawrence also returned to the August 2007 e-mail by Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon in which he apologized for his comment to an Oklahoma newspaper that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle."

McClendon e-mailed Bennett: "Clay oh no I just read this have I created problems for you. The truth is we did buy it with the hope of moving to OKC, but we did first have an obligation to Seattle to negotiate in good faith, which of course you have done."

Bennett responded that he "didn't mind the PR ugliness" but was concerned "from a legal standpoint" that the comment could undermine the ownership group's "good faith" promise.

Lawrence asked Bennett why he didn't tell McClendon, "Hey, why did you say something so wrong?"

Bennett said he told McClendon that in a phone call.

While Bennett has testified he was always clear that "KeyArena was never an option," Lawrence pointed to an e-mail from June 2007 in which Bennett seemed concerned that he ought to at least pretend to look at it.

In that e-mail to fellow owners, Bennett suggested the team should send signals to Seattle that "we will consider a renovation of KeyArena" before making any decision to relocate.

"But in fact, you never even made that offer?" Lawrence asked.

"No," Bennett said.

Lawrence: "But you talked about it. Because what you were worried about, what you were reporting to investors is, how do we make sure we meet our good-faith best-efforts requirements?"

Bennett: "Continuing to make sure we kept it at top of mind, yes."

Bennett repeated Wednesday that KeyArena lacks the ability to get "high end revenue extraction" through restaurants and exclusive clubs, and so was never viable. Only a new arena, he said, could give the Sonics a chance to turn a profit.

His attorney, Keller, disputed the city's efforts to portray Bennett as having violated his "good faith" agreement with former owner Howard Schultz by not considering KeyArena. Keller pointed out that the "good faith" language in the 2006 purchase and sale agreement referred specifically to a "successor venue" to KeyArena.

The contract also gave Bennett's group "sole discretion" to decide what sort of arena deal was suitable.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

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