Thunder arena plan passes in vote that’s ‘beyond a landslide’

Thunder arena plan passes in vote that’s ‘beyond a landslide’

A vote to finance a new arena for the Thunder won big Tuesday, securing the franchise’s long-term future in Oklahoma City.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 12, 2023, 10:05pm CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 12, 2023, 10:05pm CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder is getting a new home. And it’s staying put. 

Voters here on Tuesday approved a financing plan for a new downtown arena — planned to open by the 2029-30 NBA season — that will serve as the home of the franchise.  

The yes vote accounted for 41,129 of 57,926 votes, a 71% majority that Mayor David Holt called “beyond a landslide.” 

“That’s a consensus,” Holt said. “So this is what we’re doing. Everybody’s on board, and let’s make the best of it. That doesn’t mean that there’s not tough conversations or important details that have to be worked out within the structure of this. But we as a community have clearly made a decision, and it’s to be a big-league city and to build this arena.” 

Among those details is finalizing a downtown location for the arena. Given the fast-tracked target opening, Holt said that needs to happen in 2024. 

But that’s a task for another time. 

On Tuesday, Holt was ready to celebrate the approval of an arena the Thunder has agreed to play in for 25 years once it’s built. 

“A signature of the Oklahoma City Thunder, beyond the team’s success on the floor, has been their deep connection to their fans and their community,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a release. “This vote for a new arena is another example of that bond.  We are grateful to the people of Oklahoma City for the confidence they have shown in both the Thunder and the NBA as we embark on a new era of global sports and entertainment.”

A no-vote wasn’t necessarily a death knell for the NBA in OKC. But the threat was real of losing the team at the end of its current three-year lease extension if no deal was reached on a new arena. 

Holt last week reeled off what he called a “terrifying” list of cities bigger than OKC without NBA teams — Seattle, Las Vegas and Nashville among them — who could make a push to relocate the Thunder. 

On Tuesday, Holt noted that his kids don’t know a life without the Thunder, which relocated from Seattle in 2008. 

“For those of us who are a little older who love sports, it always seemed almost surreal when the team arrived in 2008 that we could experience this, because we were so conditioned to playing teams from Amarillo and Wichita,” Holt said. “And now we were standing on the court with New York and L.A. and it just changes the way you see yourselves. And it still feels surreal. When I go to games I still pinch myself that this is really happening, and I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.”

Holt also knows that “it’s fragile,” he said. 

But for now, the franchise’s long-term future is secure. 

In a statement released by the team Tuesday, Thunder chairman Clay Bennett said the club is “deeply grateful for the confidence and pride our citizens have expressed in the future of our city.”

The approved proposal extends a current 1-cent sales tax increase that has paid for multiple MAPS projects in the past. The tax will take effect when the current MAPS 4 tax ends and will last for six years. 

The cost of the arena is expected to be at least $900 million. The Thunder is providing $50 million, and the city expects to have at least $70 million available from the MAPS 4 project, money that was originally earmarked for the team’s current arena, the Paycom Center. 

The city previously announced an agreement with the Thunder to commit to a 25-year lease in the new arena. That, plus the years it will take to construct the new building, will keep the team in Oklahoma City beyond 2050. 

The 21-year-old Paycom Center is the smallest current NBA arena by square footage and was not constructed as a basketball arena. The goal is to build an arena with seats angled to maximize basketball viewing, part of a state-of-the-art facility that would attract concerts and other entertainment. 

It’ll be a while before anyone gets a look at that building. Or even a reddening of it. Holt said that realistically, “something of this magnitude will take a couple of years to design.” 

“I think in the intervening months and years, what’ll be fun is, I know this team and our city government is committed to making a statement with this building and definitely making it uniquely Oklahoma City,” Holt said. “So I think that’s gonna be a fun process to really incorporate our city’s story and our narrative into this building, and ultimately emerge with something that people are incredibly proud of that really raises the bar aesthetically in our community.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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