SEATTLE — A key witness in this city's case against the Oklahoma City owners of the NBA SuperSonics was subjected to intense scrutiny in federal court Tuesday after claiming that Seattle enjoys significant "intangible” economic benefits from having the team.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who has written several books on sports economics, testified that a sports team can "lift morale” in a city and provide "a sense of togetherness.” That "consumer satisfaction,” Zimbalist said, produces an economic value but one that can't be accurately measured in dollars.
Zimbalist was called as a witness by the city, which sued the team owners to force them to play out the last two years of the lease at a city-controlled arena rather than relocating to Oklahoma City.
The professor's testimony, which came on the second day of the trial in the case, is key to the city's case because the law typically allows someone to pay their way out of a contract if that's an adequate solution. The owners want to pay for the last two years of the lease and move to Oklahoma City, but the city claims that a dollar figure can't be put on the value of a sports team.
During cross examination, Paul Taylor, an attorney for the owners, showed that Zimbalist had copied his expert report commissioned by the city almost verbatim from a report he gave in a legal case involving the Los Angeles Angels in 2005. Taylor challenged Zimbalist's estimation that it took him 20-25 hours to write the report, questioning how it could have taken so long to make a few changes. Zimbalist said that he does a lot of lecturing and writing on the topic and so is prone to using the same language in different efforts.
Taylor said Zimbalist had testified in a deposition earlier this year that he had written the Seattle report "from scratch.”
"How many thousand dollars did you charge the city of Seattle to take your report from Los Angeles and bring it up to Seattle?” Taylor said.
Zimbalist said he didn't remember how much he charged the city. An attorney for the city told reporters later that he also didn't know how much the professor had billed the city.
Taylor said Zimbalist's theory about intangible economic value also includes commonality on such things as the weather.
"You even assign economic value to the weather here in Seattle because we talk about it,” Taylor said.
"It's possible weather can have economic value,” Zimbalist said.
Taylor also pointed out that a Kentucky judge in a NASCAR case in which Zimbalist had testified wrote in an opinion that the professor's methods "haven't been subject to peer review and publication” and that there was no evidence in that case that his theories are generally accepted in the scientific community.
Taylor said that, even though Zimbalist claims intangible benefits can't be pinned down to a dollar figure, that he had provided a dollar figure in the Los Angeles case. Zimbalist said the figure was only related to "quality-of-life” issues and wasn't meant to address the universe of intangible benefits.
Zimbalist denied to Taylor that the city of Seattle had told him not to provide a dollar figure because otherwise there would be a way for the judge to allow the owners to buy their way out of the lease.