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. "The Sonics clearly generate economic activity,” he said. "The question is whether the Sonics generate new activity.” He said consumers would simply spend their entertainment money on other options in the area and there would be no "net” impact. Humphreys said his research has been published in economic journals that require rigorous review by others in the field. He said he knows of no peer-reviewed articles that support the economic modeling done by Hatamiya and that, in fact, there was a broad consensus in his field that there is no net economic impact from the departure of a sports franchise. Humphreys said it was even possible that the Seattle metropolitan area might be worse off for having sports teams and that Oklahoma City might be worse off when it gets the Sonics. He did say the team provides intangible benefits, including community spirit and local pride. But the owners sought to show through a pollster that there wasn't a lot of local pride in the Sonics. E. Deborah Jay, who heads the Field Research Corp. in California, testified that she designed a poll for the owners that concluded earlier this year that two-thirds of the people 18 and older in Seattle either don't care if the team leaves or think they would be better off if the Sonics leave. The conclusion was the same for the broader metropolitan area. Jeffrey Johnson, an attorney for the city, noted that, if the poll was correct, nearly 800,000 people 18 and over do care if the Sonics leave. The city got testimony from one of those, local writer Sherman Alexie, a passionate Sonics fan who has been a season ticket-holder for several years. Alexie said NBA teams draw a more diverse crowd to games than other sports teams because of the large percentage of black players and the many foreign players on rosters. Alexie said he would attend the games if the Sonics are forced to stay another two years. "I want two more years of the great gods,” he said. But Mitchell Ziets, an investment banker whose company specializes in giving advice on sports franchises, testified that, if forced to stay, the Sonics would suffer deeper economic losses because of their lame duck status. Ziets, confirming testimony that had already been given by Sonics executives, predicted the team would lose between $61 million and $65 million over two years.
Trial highlights from Day 4
•Dueling economists testified about whether the Sonics have an economic impact in the city. The one hired by the city said it's been over $180 million a year for the last five years. The one hired by the owners said sports teams don't have a net economic impact since the consumer dollars spent would be spent elsewhere in the area. •The head of a nationally recognized polling firm testified that a survey she did for the owners as part of this lawsuit shows nearly two-thirds of the people 18 and older in Seattle and the metropolitan area don't care if the team leaves or think they'd be better off if the team left. The Seahawks, the city's NFL team, and the Mariners, the pro baseball team, fared much better. •U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman, who is hearing the case without a jury, rejected a request by the owners' attorneys to shut down the trial today, cutting off a day of the six scheduled. Testimony will continue today but, because of a scheduling conflict with the judge, it won't resume until June 26, and then for only one day.