Why OKC mayor’s arena plan stresses the importance of a long Thunder stay

OKLAHOMA CITY — It feels like such a fixture that it’s hard to remember sometimes how new the Thunder franchise is.  It arrived from Seattle in 2008, the year Iron Man hit theaters. Grey’s Anatomy is older than this city’s NBA franchise. So is Coco Gauff.  There had been a team in Boston for 62 [...]

By Published On: September 12, 2023

OKLAHOMA CITY — It feels like such a fixture that it’s hard to remember sometimes how new the Thunder franchise is. 

It arrived from Seattle in 2008, the year Iron Man hit theaters. Grey’s Anatomy is older than this city’s NBA franchise. So is Coco Gauff. 

There had been a team in Boston for 62 years by the time one relocated to Oklahoma. In the NBA — heck, in life — 15 years goes by in a blink. 

And it is, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt will tell you, not long enough to lock your NBA team in place. 

That’s why the plan his office announced Tuesday to finance and build a new arena for the Thunder would include a 25-year pledge by the team to remain in town. 

In addition, the city would chip in $70 million of MAPS 4 funds previously earmarked for upgrades at Paycom Center, the Thunder’s current downtown home. 

It’s an engagement meant to send a message to Oklahoma City voters: If you build it, they will stay.

“I would argue that — and obviously, the deal that we announced today reflects this view — we need a longer commitment than 15 years,” Holt said Tuesday. “That’s too frequent to have to do this. But to secure that kind of commitment under the rules (with) which the NBA cities function, we had to come forward with a state-of-the-art facility.”

Holt thinks he has a path to one. He’ll present it to the City Council on Sept. 26, and if it’s approved, OKC residents would vote on it Dec. 12. 

It would finance an arena expected to cost at least $900 million with funds generated mainly from a one-cent sales tax that would begin at the end of the current MAPS 4 one-cent sales tax. The new tax would last for six years. 

And Thunder ownership would pay $50 million toward construction. 

That might seem like a lot of money, all told, but Holt would tell you it’s the cost of doing business in the NBA. And he might ask you to consider the cost of not doing that business. 

At an impromptu Tuesday news conference inside the downtown Civic Center Music Hall  — he referred to it as fittingly “the city’s first arena” — Holt hit some key talking points. 

  • That there are 18 media markets larger than this one with no NBA team and that “some of them have billion-dollar arenas literally sitting there.” 
  • That Oklahoma City’s gross domestic product has increased 62% since the Thunder came to town in 2008.  
  • That the city has gone from the nation’s 31st-largest to its 20th over that same span. 

“So the growth is tremendous,” Holt said. “And you know, it just happens to coincide with the arrival of major league sports, which I don’t think is a coincidence.”

Holt sees the Thunder’s presence as vital to OKC, and with this proposal, he sees a chance to secure it. With a 25-year commitment to an arena the city and team hope to open in 2029, the Thunder would agree to stay in Oklahoma beyond 2050. 

“Truly another generation of being a big-league city,” Holt said. 

Without an arena, there’s less clarity on commitment. 

The team’s lease with the city expired earlier this year. It signed a three-year extension and will continue playing in the Paycom Center. The arena plan will play a part in where the conversation goes from there. 

“I think people need to understand the clock is ticking,” Holt said. “We only have this temporary agreement. So three years from now, 2026, there is nothing legally holding the Thunder in Oklahoma City.”

That doesn’t mean a “no” vote necessarily dooms OKC to a future without the NBA. But it would open competition should a city seeking a team of its own cast its eye in the Thunder’s direction. 

And if one of them has an NBA-ready arena? 

“I know what’s gonna happen,” Holt said. “They’re gonna start making proposals to the NBA and to our team leadership. We are not currently offering a state-of-the-art NBA arena. Bottom line.”

So he’s proposing a path to one — and to some stability. 

A new arena and the ensuing lease, Holt said, would mean “we’re not going to have to deal with this, chase anyone or try to build a new arena for a generation.” He said his kids would be his age by the time the agreement expired.

And though Holt expressed confidence that voters would pledge their support for the plan in December, he also stressed that “there’s no Plan B,” that the city needs to see the process through “if it wants to be big league.”

It’s hard sometimes to remember how new the Thunder franchise is to OKC. But everybody knows how it got here. This city has a team because another one doesn’t, and that wasn’t lost in Holt’s pitch for his plan. 

“I think we have to also remember that this team will not always be owned by local residents,” Holt said. “I can say that with certainty because everybody moves on at some point. And when that day comes, it’s even more vital that we have an arena in place and an agreement in place that holds this team here because we can’t always assume that we’ll have the sympathy of the ownership. We have to know that this is actually a pretty cold, hard business, and we have to do what cities our size do.” 

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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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