Building a new arena is about more than keeping the Thunder — it’s about keeping the NBA

Building a new arena is about more than keeping the Thunder — it’s about keeping the NBA

Jenni Carlson: Folks in Oklahoma City may not like the amount of money the Thunder is putting towards a new arena, but if they like the NBA, they have to vote to approve the plan.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Oct 27, 2023, 9:00am CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Oct 27, 2023, 9:00am CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — I wish the Thunder owners were paying more, too.

Ever since Oklahoma City mayor David Holt announced the plan to build a new downtown arena — a plan that will be decided by voters in December — there’s been one complaint above all others. Not the $900 million (minimum) price tag on the arena. Not the extension of a current one-cent sales tax.

No, easily the biggest issue has been how much the Thunder is kicking in.

Only $50 million.

A little over 5%.

I would have liked to have seen a bigger contribution. Even though $50 million isn’t chump change, it is a small percentage. That paltry percentage has caused disappointment in many and outrage in some.

I get it.

But here’s the thing: if Oklahoma City votes down a new arena and the owners (current or future; remember, Clay Bennett and his band of civic-minded Oklahomans aren’t going to own the team forever) decide Paycom Center is untenable, many of the cities that will start calling and wooing the Thunder will ask them to pay less. Much less.

Like, $0.

As the Thunder prepares for its home opener Sunday — the reigning champ, Denver, will be in town — there’s a good chance the countdown has started on how many home openers Paycom Center has left. Either the Thunder will move to a new arena in six or seven years, or the team will leave town at some undetermined point.

If you don’t think the hyenas are waiting for OKC to stumble so they can pounce, you’re sorely mistaken.

A couple of weeks ago, Seattle Times sports columnist Larry Stone started off his column this way: “If you haven’t heard what’s going on in Oklahoma City these days, it might make you chuckle, in a ‘now it’s your turn, chumps’ kind of way.”

But wait, there’s more.

“Check out this quote in The Oklahoman; it’s by a spokesman for a group called ‘Oklahoma Progress Now,’ but turn the clock back and it easily could be Seattle’s own ‘Citizens For More Important Things,’ circa 2002-08.

“‘Our arena is going to be 95% on the backs of taxpayers. We’re in a city that has a tremendous amount of needs. We are often asked to delay things, to delay services that we desperately need, and we just feel that’s an unfair bargain.’

“I’m quite sure that right about now, a bunch of you are thinking, perhaps screaming, ‘Heck, we’ll take them back in a heartbeat, if it falls apart in OKC.’

“Seattle, after all, (finally) has a brand spanking new arena, state of the art, earmarked for the Kraken and Storm but designed with the NBA’s return in mind.”

You know how much the Thunder would have to pay for that arena?


That would also be the case if the franchise moved to Las Vegas or Kansas City or Nashville or several other cities that already have newer arenas or have them in the works. The Thunder could move in without paying a dime for arena construction.

We might not think $50 million is enough for this arena project, but I guarantee the owners would be giddy to save that much.

Here’s something else to ponder: If OKC doesn’t build a new arena and the Thunder leaves town, there’s a snowball’s chance in Vegas that the NBA would ever come back to Oklahoma City. 

Sit down and make a list of potential expansion cities, places where the NBA would want to have a team. Where would OKC rank? Even now, it might not rank in the top five, but if voters reject a new arena, it wouldn’t make the top 10.

Lose the Thunder, and OKC loses the NBA.

Had Sacramento or Milwaukee not built new arenas and lost their teams as a result, the NBA would’ve found its way back to each of those cities eventually. Sacramento is the capital of California. Milwaukee is only an hour from Chicago. They are NBA cities, and even though it might’ve taken some time especially for Sacramento, they would’ve been so again.

OKC? I’m guessing it would be a long time before the NBA returned if the Thunder left. The NBA wants to be in Vegas and Seattle, Kansas City and Nashville, Mexico City and Montreal way more than it wants to be in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City was gifted the opportunity of a million lifetimes in 2005. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and forced the Hornets to look for a temporary home, the NBA picked Oklahoma City not because it had the best available arena or best corporate partners. The association chose OKC because it had a workable arena, an amenable business community and was a little over an hour by air from New Orleans.

OKC got the gig because of geography, not because it was a potential NBA market.

Even though we became an NBA market, we aren’t supposed to be in the club.

There are small markets, and then there’s us. 

We are an outlier in every way. We have to fight every single day to keep our spot in this exclusive society. We have to scratch. We have to claw. And frankly, if we decide not to build a new arena, we’ll be giving up the fight. 

Honestly, the Thunder itself has fought hard to make itself as much a part of the club as it can. The franchise put together contending team after contending team, making great picks in the draft, developing their talent, then paying a bunch of those players as much as the NBA rules allowed. At the height of the Thunder’s success, its payroll was every bit as robust as any team in the league.

Sometimes, the team even overpaid to sign or keep a player it felt could help. That’s something small-market teams have to do every now and again.

That’s pretty much what Oklahoma City is being asked to do with this arena. As a small market, we are going to have to shoulder a bigger-than-average burden and pay more than other cities have.

But really, we shouldn’t be worried about other cities, other deals, other percentages. We should be worried about what happens if we decide not to build the new arena and the Thunder leaves. 

Where does that leave us on the expansion/relocation list?

Nowhere close to the top.

I’m not saying any of this as a way to minimize the frustrations about how much the Thunder has offered to pay for a new arena. I wish the owners had decided to put up more, too. Even another $40 million, which would bring the total up to 10% of the proposed cost, would likely make all of this largely a moot point.

But we need to remember that we are a small market, and where in the NBA, small markets sometimes have to pay more to get what you want.

What do you want, OKC?

If you want the NBA, you have to vote for this new arena. Otherwise, the NBA might leave and never come back.



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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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