Seattle SuperSonics Lawsuit Could Set Precedent for Relocation of Sports Franchises

The dispute between the Seattle SuperSonics and the City of Seattle, now on trial in federal court, includes the usual acrimony and public mud-slinging common when a sports franchise moves from one city to another.  The trial, based upon the Sonics’ attempt to escape from under its lease of Key Arena with the City, is essentially a breach of contract case.  The City argues for specific performance of the Sonics’ contract, asking the court to force the Sonics to play out their contract in Seattle until 2010 before moving to Oklahoma City.  The Sonics prefer to buy out the remaining 2 years of the contract and move to their new home immediately.

While the case certainly has multiple legal issues, the Sonics make an argument, that if successful, could set dangerous precedent in the sports world.  One of the Sonics’ core arguments against playing out its contract in Key Arena is that arena is unsuitable for basketball.  In other words, the Sonics are losing money at Key Arena.  The losses, as most franchises argue, are due to a lack of luxury suites.  ESPN.com summarized Sonics owner Clay Bennett’s justifications for moving as follows:

He said that if U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman forces the team to honor the final two years of the Key Arena lease, it would cost the Sonics $60 million…

He also extolled the virtues of Oklahoma City’s Ford Center, where, he said, the team could make $17 million over the next two years…

New courtside suites, exclusive lounge areas just off the court that Bennett said are becoming the trend in the newest NBA arenas, are expected to be installed in the Ford Center by the 2009-10 season. He said that is just the type of high-end amenity that KeyArena lacks.

If the court allows the Sonics to buy out their contract, it would only heighten tensions between sports franchises and taxpayers on the issue of new stadiums.  Every time a more economically attractive alternative is found, a franchise could threaten to buy out its lease and move.  This would bring even more pressure on state and local officials to provide public funding for new sports facilities while potentially having an adverse affect on fan loyalty.

The fact that a franchise could potentially make more money elsewhere is not a justification for relocation.  The Sonics are not concerned that one of its players will get injured because of the alleged unsuitability of Key Arena; nor is the team concerned about fan safety.  There simply are not enough luxury boxes and seats to make money.  Not exactly a strong legal basis to escape a contract. 

 

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