SEATTLE — The SuperSonics will suffer a variety of losses if forced to stay in Seattle another two years, owing to their lame duck status and the public's antipathy toward the Oklahoma City owners, an executive with the NBA team said in federal court Wednesday.
Danny Barth, the interim president of the 41-year-old franchise, said the team already is losing sponsors and that suite holders at KeyArena are reluctant to sign long-term contracts. Moreover, the team is losing experienced staff, and some of the expertise will be hard to replace, Barth said during the third day of a trial over the team's planned relocation to Oklahoma City. Barth said fan apathy has increased, and the team's brand has been hurt because of the public's "problem” with the Oklahoma City ownership. The public had the perception that the team would move as soon as it was sold to the out-of-towners, Barth said, even though the owners promised to try to keep the team here. "I think the challenges just get worse as we try to maximize every revenue that we can,” Barth said. Barth's testimony followed the second appearance this week of Oklahoma City investor Clay Bennett, a principal owner of the team, who has been so maligned here that he said he can't go to games anymore. Bennett faced more tough questioning on Wednesday about whether he made a sincere effort to find a new arena in the region for the team to play, or if he just went through the motions to fulfill a contractual obligation to the previous owners and the NBA. Despite the intense focus here on Bennett's true motives, the case is actually a complex landlord-tenant dispute: The owners want to buy out the remaining two years of a lease at a city-controlled arena and move to Oklahoma City now, but the city contends the Sonics have a value beyond the lease payments and it wants U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman to order the team to stay through the 2009-2010 season. An economist testified just before court adjourned on Wednesday that the Sonics have generated an average of nearly $190 million a year in economic activity here since 2003. Attorneys for both sides spent about six hours over two days questioning Bennett about his actions since buying the Sonics with other Oklahoma City businessmen in 2006. The 48-year-old Oklahoma City native said he fully intended to keep the Sonics in Seattle but gave up after a $500-million proposal — for a facility to be built primarily with public money — failed in the Washington state Legislature. The owners were left with "no facility, no prospects for a facility (and) what had become an acrimonious relationship with (Seattle city) leadership,” Bennett said Wednesday. "I believed from the bottom of my heart that we would succeed (in keeping the team in Seattle),” Bennett testified.
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