SEATTLE — Judging judges is tricky. But one thing is clear after a week of trial here over the Seattle SuperSonics: U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman is interested in numbers. Because that's what this case is about — or isn't. It's Pechman's job to determine whether someone, possibly a jury, can come up with a number of dollars that would adequately compensate this city's government if the Oklahoma City-based owners of the Sonics are allowed to break their lease with the city and move to Oklahoma City in time for the next NBA season.
Numbers gamePechman presided over the trial with frequent admonishments to attorneys to follow the rules about phrasing questions and entering evidence, but she asked very few questions of the witnesses. The ones she did ask were about numbers. She asked a sports economist — who testified that the good feelings generated by a sports team can translate into dollars — to clarify whether he had attached a dollar figure to that "intangible benefit” in another case. "Do I understand that you came up with a number in Los Angeles ... that would be $7.75 million but you are unable to come up with a number in Seattle?” she said. "Yes, and as I explained ...” Andrew S. Zimbalist said. "Thank you. You've answered my question,” the judge said. When the interim president of the Sonics said the team was experiencing high turnover of employees because of the uncertainty over relocation, she wanted to know how many employees were on the staff (about 125). And after another economist testified about a model he used to determine that there's been nearly $1 billion in economic activity associated with the Sonics in the last five years, she said: "It's your opinion then that every business can be evaluated with a dollar number? And there's nothing unique about the type of business.” "Correct,” Lon Hatamiya said. "So evaluating a sports team is no different than evaluating a box store?” "That's correct.” The city doesn't want Pechman to rule that a dollar figure can be attached to the Sonics' value to this city; the city's attorneys argued directly to the judge and through witnesses last week that the Sonics should have to play out their last two years at the city-controlled arena because two years of lease payments wouldn't make up for the loss of the 41-year-old franchise. The owners want to pay their way out of the lease and pack up for Oklahoma City, and the law often allows a tenant to break a lease if damages can be computed. The trial will resume, for one day, on Thursday.
Legal arguments, angles varyPechman heard a lot of numbers last week, a lot about the business of professional sports and a lot about Oklahoma City investor Clay Bennett's actions after buying the team to find a new arena in the area for the Sonics to play. How much she cares about whether Bennett and his Oklahoma City co-owners ever intended to keep the team in Seattle remains to be seen. That is actually the subject of a separate lawsuit against the owners; the previous owners say Bennett's group didn't do enough to find a successor arena and want to rescind the deal. Pechman sat through hours of testimony from Bennett and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, both of whom testified at length about the events leading up to Bennett announcing the team would relocate to Oklahoma City, without asking them a question. She also heard about the charitable activities of the Sonics players, the ethnic diversity of the Sonics' fans and the history of KeyArena, the Sonics' home and the arena that Bennett's group says is too outdated for today's NBA. And she heard: •About e-mails from "sophisticated businessmen” in Oklahoma City and Seattle that those businessmen probably never wanted to see in court or newspapers; •Extreme opposite opinions from economists with degrees from some of the nation's best universities; one said they're an economic boon to cities while another said they can actually be a drain; •That the Sonics will lose $60 million more if forced to stay here for two more years; •That the owners knew what they were getting into when they signed the lease; •That the city participated in a plan to force the Sonics to stay here for two years so the bleeding would force a sale to a local group of owners; •That the city never sought to harm the owners and had stated since 2006, when Bennett's group bought the team, that it wanted the lease honored; •That the team can't make money in KeyArena because it's the worst lease in the NBA; •That the team could make money in KeyArena if it could actually win some games (the team had the worst record in its 41-year history last season).
Looking aheadPechman put the two sides on the clock at the beginning of the trial, giving each 15 hours to make their case. And though little was revealed last week that wasn't already in reams of briefs, depositions and exhibits before the trial started, she never prodded the attorneys to move faster through witnesses, allowing them to use their time as they saw fit as long as they adhered to courtroom rules. She did tell the attorneys that she has some questions for them and that she'd like for them to address those in their closing arguments. The judge said she had found some previous cases that hadn't been cited by either side in this suit, which was filed last fall, and that she wanted them to review those. Pechman isn't expected to announce her ruling on Thursday, though she's aware of the tight timeframe if the owners are to relocate the team this year. She is planning to read her decision in open court at a date to be announced later. Earlier this year, the judge rejected a request by the owners' attorneys to compute damages if she finds that the Sonics can relocate to Oklahoma City this year. The judge said the owners were trying to expand the scope of the case long after its parameters had been established by both sides. Attorneys for the owners have declined to comment on the case this week. But Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the city, told reporters that if the judge rules that the owners can leave, the city won't ask her to decide the money damages. "The measure of monetary damages is something that typically a jury decides,” he said. "So it's the position of the city that we'll never get there. But if we do get there, we would ask for a jury.”