SEATTLE — Economists, a pollster and a rabid fan of the SuperSonics gave sometimes conflicting views in federal court Thursday about the impact the NBA team has on this city, whose government is trying to block the team's relocation to Oklahoma City for two years.
In the fourth day of the trial over the city's dispute with the Oklahoma City-based owners, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman denied a request from the owners' attorneys to end the trial today, a day early. The judge said she didn't want to hear closing arguments until she'd had a chance to pose some questions for attorneys from both sides and see their written proposals for what she should rule. Testimony in the case is expected to end today, but closing arguments will be held next Thursday. The judge is not expected to rule immediately after those arguments. The city sued the owners to force the Sonics to play out the last two years of the team's lease at a city-controlled arena; the owners want to buy out the remaining term and move to Oklahoma City now. A key focus on Thursday was the testimony of economists, who gave contradictory opinions about the economic activity generated by the Sonics. Lon Hatamiya, an economist who once served as commerce secretary for the state of California, said he relied on a model that is widely used by public and private entities to gauge economic activity and determined that the Sonics have had an impact of nearly $1 billion over five years in King County, where Seattle is located, and an adjoining county. He said the money spent by fans would not necessarily be spent on other activities if the Sonics leave. "If your first choice isn't available, you're not necessarily going to spend it on your second choice,” Hatamiya said. The city wants to show that the Sonics have value here beyond the lease payments made by the owners for a city-controlled arena. The law often allows tenants to get out of a lease by paying what is owed under the terms, but the city argues that wouldn't adequately compensate for the loss of a team that, it claims, delivers substantial direct and intangible benefits. Brad Humphreys, an economics professor at the University of Alberta, followed Hatamiya to the stand as the first witness for the owners and gave an entirely different view of the Sonics' economic worth to the city. Humphreys said he has spent the last several years researching the economic activity related to sports teams and that the departure of a professional football, baseball or basketball team as "no detectable” impact on a metropolitan area.