Jenni: Three things OKC will like about the plan to build a new downtown arena

Jenni: Three things OKC will like about the plan to build a new downtown arena

Start with the Thunder's 25-year commitment to OKC if the area vote passes.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Sep 12, 2023, 4:53pm CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Sep 12, 2023, 4:53pm CDT

The first building blocks for a new downtown arena were revealed Tuesday afternoon.

Even though we don’t know everything — where the arena will be built and what it might look like are two significant unanswered questions — the announcement from Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt had lots of important details. 

Prime among them: Oklahoma City voters will vote on the proposal for the new arena on Dec. 12, as long as the City Council calls for the election at its Sept. 26 meeting. 

Here are three things OKC will like about the plan:

The Thunder will commit to a 25-year contract to stay in Oklahoma City if voters approve the new arena.  When the Thunder came to OKC, it signed a 15-year lease with what was then the Ford Center. The team is now in a short-term three-year lease with Paycom Center, a deal done as a bridge while the city and the franchise figured out a proposal for a new arena. But a 25-year contract would keep the Thunder in town through 2050, which would secure professional basketball for another generation or two. That’s huge.

What’s more, a 25-year deal is largely on par with deals other NBA franchises have done when they’ve gotten new arenas. 

The Spurs signed a 25-year lease when they moved to the AT&T Center back in the early 2000s in San Antonio. The Mavs did a 30-year lease with the American Airlines Center when it opened around that same time.

More recently, the Bucks opened a new arena in Milwaukee and signed a 30-year lease.

Could OKC have gotten a few more years out of the Thunder? Sure. But a 25-year commitment is nothing to sneeze at.

The Thunder will contribute $50 million to the new arena. Thunder ownership didn’t have to provide a dime. Lots of pro franchises don’t. Truth is, every other downtown arena that Oklahoma City has built — the Civic Center, the Myriad and the current arena — were paid for entirely by taxpayers.

But Clay Bennett and Co. are anteing up $50 million toward the new publicly owned arena.

That kind of cash is significant. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander gets paid about $36 million a year, so $50 million could pay for a superstar for a season and a half. And we have seen what having those types of players can mean for a team.

Still, how does the Thunder’s $50 million arena commitment compare to what other teams have done?

In the Bucks’ deal with Milwaukee, they agreed to make annual payments that average about $1.5 million over the 30-year life of the lease. That’s a $45 million commitment, which compares favorably to their small-market counterparts in OKC.

But not all small-market agreements are the same. 

After a prolonged fight to keep the Kings in Sacramento, the team agreed in 2016 to contribute $254 million to a new arena. The project was estimated at $477 million, so even though the arena remained publicly owned, more than half of it was paid by the Kings.

Speaking of the price tag of a new arena …

The estimated minimum cost of the new arena is $900 million. Some might not see this as something to like. Spending $900 million? On an arena? That’s going to stick in the craw of some taxpayers, even though the cost would be paid with the extension of a current one-cent sales tax under MAPS 4. That means no new taxes for OKC residents.

But here’s why I like that price tag: it means OKC intends to do this arena the right way.

Our current arena was built on the cheap, not because Oklahoma City is cheap but because we didn’t have a tenant when it was built. We built it with the hopes that we might one day have a pro franchise. We built a shell of a pro arena.

Now, Oklahoma City has a chance to build a real and true NBA arena. 

I haven’t been to all the NBA arenas, but I’ve been to enough to know there’s a difference. The arenas that have been built with a specific team in mind have all the bells and whistles. The vibe is robust. The feel is rich.

Thunder fans deserve that.

An arena with a minimum cost of $900 million would put OKC in line with the league’s three newest arenas. The Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, which opened in 2017, cost $863 million. Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee opened in 2018 with a $524 million price tag. Chase Center in San Francisco cost $1.4 billion when it opened in 2019. 

Oklahoma City and the Thunder have built a great culture without a great arena. It’s fun to imagine what could be with a first-class facility.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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