SEATTLE — The Seattle Sonics appear destined for Oklahoma City after the team on Friday took the first official step toward relocation. One day after the team played its home opener in front of a sellout crowd that filled the arena with chants of "Save our Sonics,” the Oklahoma City-based ownership group filed an application with the NBA to relocate to Oklahoma next season. The move came after the team and Seattle officials failed to reach an agreement on a publicly funded replacement facility for the outdated KeyArena. Sonics Chairman Clay Bennett, who announced the filing in a statement, had given Washington leaders until Wednesday to reach a deal. Bennett has maintained since his group agreed to purchase the franchise on July 18, 2006, that KeyArena is not an adequate NBA facility, and he would seek relocation if a replacement was not made available. He cited a lack of support from the Seattle public, politicians and business leaders as reasons for the filing.
Timeline to be determined"I fully expected to build a building here,” he said. "I expected that in time we would aspire to develop an elite basketball operation and that we would thrive in this very vibrant economy.” When the Sonics might arrive in Oklahoma has yet to be determined. The team is in the middle of a federal court case. A judge will determine whether they must play at KeyArena until its use and occupancy deal expires in September 2010. But Bennett said if the judge rules that the team is forced to stay in Seattle, and no concrete arena deal is in place by the end of the arena contract, he will move the franchise to Oklahoma City in 2010. Bennett reiterated Friday that the Sonics and WNBA's Storm are not for sale. He delivered his strongest statement yet when asked about a report in Friday's Seattle Times that cited Seattle investors looking to buy the teams. "The teams are not for sale, and the parties don't need to spend their time and energy working on that process,” Bennett said. Seattle officials attacked the ownership group's action. "Mr. Bennett's announcement today is a transparent attempt to alienate the Seattle fan base and follow through on his plan to move the team to Oklahoma City,” Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said. "The deadline for notifying the league of his intent to move is March 1. Making this move now continues the current ownership's insulting behavior toward the Sonics' dedicated fans and the citizens of the city of Seattle.” Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who offered the Sonics $100 million to renovate KeyArena, said he "will do everything in my power to enforce our lease and keep the Sonics and Storm.” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was cautiously optimistic after learning of the Sonics' intentions. "I think ‘patience' is the key word for us,” Cornett said. "This is a step in the process. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a franchise was going somewhere else and they ended up not going anywhere. You've just got to understand that's the way things are.” Bennett, nonetheless, said his group will begin working with Oklahoma City officials to start preliminary discussions regarding the city's facilities and lease terms, among other things. Bennett said he is absolutely convinced Oklahoma City can be a viable long-term NBA city, even though it's the nation's 45th-sized market and has only a two-year trial run of professional sports via the temporarily displaced New Orleans Hornets. Bennett cited the success of the Hornets, the city's growing economy and the potential for being the state's only major league team as reasons for his optimism. "Basketball is the right sport, and the NBA is the right product,” he said. "It's a good fit.” The Sonics still would need approval from the NBA to relocate if they are allowed to escape the final two years of their KeyArena contract. NBA Commissioner David Stern is expected to begin the relocation process by appointing a committee of no fewer than five governors within 10 days of receiving the relocation application. Stern has 120 days from the date he receives the application to make a recommendation to the appointed board. The board will vote from seven to 30 days after the recommendation is made. A simple majority vote is needed to allow a franchise to relocate. Bennett sounded as though he has the support of the league's 29 other owners. "We understand the fundamental requirement for a building that delivers the revenue streams required to support the business,” he said of the league's owners. "And quite frankly, that supports the operating needs today of teams and players and fans and sponsors. So there is a clear understanding that this team requires a new building to stay in the marketplace.”
What's aheadThe timeline for the Sonics' relocation remains fluid. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said league rules can be modified when appropriate, but if the league follows guidelines to the letter, here are some key dates: Nov. 12: After receiving the applicatio, NBA commissioner David Stern has 10 days to refer it to a relocation committee of no fewer than five NBA Board of Governors members. March 11: Within 120 days of receiving the application, the committee must report to the board and make a recommendation. If it does not recommend relocation, there is no appeals process. March 19-April 10: If the committee recommends the relocation request, the board must vote on it in seven to 30 days.