Sonic Boom or Bust: Franchise Relocation in the NBA

I.  Introduction

emergence of today’s state-of-the-art basketball arena has National
Basketball Association (“NBA”) team owners holding cities hostage. Team
owners seek public funding for these stadiums, and if the city refuses
to provide the funding, there are always smaller markets without
professional franchises willing to pony up. [1]
 The most recent example involves the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics have called Seattle home for forty years. [2] Their
future in the Emerald City appears bleak as the current owner, Oklahoma
City businessman Clay Bennett, plans to relocate the team to Oklahoma
City unless a deal to construct a new arena is agreed upon. [3]
 The City of Seattle, reluctant to provide funding for a new arena, has sought to keep Bennett from relocating. [4]

II. Legal Issue

The Sonics are currently under a commercial lease with Key Arena through the 2009-2010 season. [5] Rather
than stay through the lease, Bennett is attempting to breach the lease
and enter into arbitration to pay off the remainder of the term and
move to Oklahoma City. [6]
 The city is seeking to force the Sonics to play out the remainder of the lease. [7] The
City of Seattle brought suit against Bennett in an effort to keep the
dispute out of arbitration. [8] The case was removed to federal court
by Sonics ownership in an effort to keep a potentially partisan judge
from ruling against the move. [9]

Perhaps the ownership’s decision to remove to federal court was based primarily on Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission v. Minnesota Twins Partnership,
638 N.W. 2d 214 (Minn. App. 2002), where a seemingly biased judge ruled
against Twins ownership which sought to relocate the team. [10] In Metropolitan Sports Facilities, the Twins were forced to honor the lease. [11]
court focused on “positive externalities” and stated that if the Twins
relocated before the lease commenced, the harm could not be repaired.
 However, there was nothing to prevent the team from moving the following year. [13] By removing to federal court, Bennett will likely avoid a decision like the one handed down in Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission by avoiding a partial judge.

Judge Ricardo Martinez ordered a stay of arbitration, finding that Article II of the lease is excluded from arbitration. [14] The
city has won a minor victory, and is hoping that a judge will force the
Sonics to complete their lease, similar to what occurred with the Twins
franchise. Sonics ownership is willing to pay the lease in its entirety
if they can leave town and begin play in Oklahoma City by the 2008-2009
season. [15]

III. League-Wide Implications

Bennett succeed in moving the team, this may set the wheels in motion
for other franchises to relocate to cities willing to provide public
funding. Team owners can attempt to hold cities hostage by threatening
relocation. The threat may appear more credible should the Sonics be
successful. [16]
 With relocations from
Charlotte to New Orleans and potentially Seattle to Oklahoma City, the
threat of relocation will have teeth. [17]
implications behind an owner’s threats may handcuff a city into
providing more public funding or losing a city to a smaller market that
is starved for a professional team. [18]
have been rumblings that ownership in Orlando and Sacramento are
considering a move. If Bennett and the Sonics are successful in
abandoning their lease of Key Arena, the cities of Sacramento and
Orlando could follow this example to begin a domino effect which would
significantly alter the landscape of the NBA.

IV. Conclusion

entire issue could have been resolved without litigation if the Sonics
were willing to provide more than 20% of the financing for a new
arena. Bennett has offered to provide $100 million of the estimated
$500 million required to build a state-of-the-art arena, requiring the
public to come up with the remaining $400 million. [19]
is nothing stopping an owner from making a subpar offer, knowing that
the city will not come up with the additional funding, and moving the
team to a city that will provide a huge chunk of the financing for a
stadium. The decision in the aforementioned litigation may go a long
way to determine whether or not owners can pick up and move a franchise
for seemingly greener pastures, leaving loyal fan bases in the dust.

1. Bob Cook, SuperSonics' Move Could be First of Many, MSNBC, Jul. 21, 2006, last visited Nov. 7, 2007.

2. Marc Stein, Sonics Best Bet to Land in Oklahoma City, ESPN, Jul. 19, 2006, last visited on Nov. 7, 2007.

3. Jim Brunner, City Wins Court Ruling in Sonics Case, The Seattle Times, Oct. 30, 2007, last visited Nov. 7, 2007 

4. Id.

5. Id.

6. Greg Johns, Bennett says Sonics going to Oklahoma, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nov. 2, 2007,, last visited Nov. 17, 2007.

7. Id.

8. Id.

9. Id.

10. Geoffrey Rapp, Handicapping the Oklahoma City Supersonics, Sports Law Blog, Oct. 25, 2007,, last visited Nov. 9, 2007.

11. Id.

12. Id.

13. Id.

14. Johns, supra note 6.

15. Cook,supra note 1.

16. Id.

17. Id.

18. Id.

19. Id.