So Long, Seattle

Stadium welfare schemes


In November 2006 voters in Seattle overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative prohibiting taxpayer subsidies to professional sports teams. The vote effectively killed plans to build a $220 million taxpayer-funded stadium, shopping area, and practice court for the Seattle SuperSonics. The team had recently been sold to a group of investors led by the Oklahoma City businessman Clayton I. Bennett, who had threatened to move the team out of state unless he was given a new building.

In 2007 Bennett again unveiled plans for a new stadium, saying, "The net benefit of this building will provide an economic upside and will not be a tax drain." When that effort also failed, Bennett concluded his only option was to move the team out of state. But to do so he needs to get out of his lease with Seattle's Key Arena. The city argues that he should have to compensate it not just for the lost rental income but for the benefits the community receives as home to the Sonics. That puts Bennett in the uncomfortable position of now minimizing the team's impact on the city.

"The financial issue is simple, and the city's analysts agree, there will be no net economic loss if the Sonics leave Seattle," Bennett's lawyers argue in a brief. "Entertainment dollars not spent on the Sonics will be spent on Seattle's many other sports and entertainment options. Seattleites will not reduce their entertainment budget simply because the Sonics leave." The Seattle Times reports the team commissioned a survey showing that 66 percent of Seattleites say there would be "no difference" in their lives should the team decide to leave.

Even if Bennett's legal strategy in Seattle is successful, it's almost certain to come back to haunt him. If, as Bennett's lawyers argue and most sports economists agree, money not spent at professional sports events would otherwise be spent on other entertainment in the city, Bennett will have a hard time making his case to voters in Oklahoma City. There he's pushing for a $100 million subsidy package to fix up the city's Ford Center stadium and build a new practice facility in the hope of bringing the Sonics to the Midwest.