Part of the Ford Center's ongoing renovation project will soon include a name change. The Oklahoma City Thunder announced Thursday it has begun negotiating naming rights to its home arena with new potential partners. During the negotiation period, the facility will continue to be called the Ford Center and signage throughout the building will remain intact. The original naming rights agreement came in 2001, when the Oklahoma Ford Dealers agreed to pay $8.1 million over 15 years. That contract allowed an NBA franchise to terminate the existing naming rights agreement if a team came to Oklahoma City, which occurred when the Seattle SuperSonics relocated here in July 2008. The Thunder previously had discussions with the Oklahoma Ford Dealers, but a new agreement could not be reached. As a result, the Thunder officially has terminated the existing naming rights agreement and entered a period of negotiations with other potential partners. Thunder officials said in a release the team would have no further comment until those negotiations are complete. Since the Thunder's arrival, team owners have been free to negotiate a deal with new bidders that would guarantee the current payout of $409,000 per year to the city. Anything above that amount would have gone to the Thunder. Given the Thunder's resounding success last season — which included 31 home sellouts, a 50-32 regular-season record and a competitive playoff appearance against the world champion Los Angeles Lakers — naming rights to the arena no doubt will come at a higher price. The vastly improved Thunder has become the talk of the NBA and has been scheduled for 24 national telecasts this season. A study presented by ICON Venue Group LLC to Thunder owners prior to the team's move from Seattle projected naming rights for the Oklahoma City arena would be worth $2 million to the owners the first year, $3 million the second year, $3.5 million the third year and increase 3 percent a year for the remainder of the deal. Those estimates were based on an assumed average attendance of 14,569 for the 2008-2009 season and 14,269 the following year. The Thunder's average attendance its first season (2008-2009) was 18,594 and was 18,003 last season, when the capacity inside the Ford Center was reduced by approximately 1,000 seats. The naming rights business began in 1953 when Anheuser-Busch sought to buy the naming rights to Sportsman's Park, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and rename the park Budweiser Stadium. League officials were hesitant to name a stadium after a beer, but agreed to let Augustus Busch use his family's name on the park, and the Cardinals opened the 1954 season in Busch Stadium.
Some of the more lucrative current naming rights contracts to NBA arenas include: Philips Arena (Atlanta Hawks): average $9.3 million a year though 2019. American Airlines Center (Dallas Mavericks): average $6.5 million a year through 2031. Staples Center (Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers): average $5.8 million through 2019. FedExForum (Memphis Grizzlies): average $4.5 million a year through 2023. Pepsi Center (Denver Nuggets): average $3.4 million a year through 2019. AT&T Center (San Antonio Spurs): average $2.1 million a year through 2022. Bank of Oklahoma agreed to pay $11 million over 20 years to the city of Tulsa to name the BOK Center.