Why This Okie Doesn’t Support the OKC Thunder

Like many people from Oklahoma, my Facebook news feed is filled with statements like, “Thunder Up!”, “Metta World Peace sucks”, “There’s a Thunderstorm tonight” and Kevin Durant memes I’m sure someone finds amusing. But this Okie doesn’t cheer for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and here’s why (much is taken from an earlier post of mine):

Just as Oklahoma City stole the the state capital from Guthrie in 1910, it essentially stole the Supersonics from the city of Seattle. A group of Oklahoma City businessmen, led by Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon (who is now under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for improper business dealings involving personal loans taken out against his stock in his own company), bought the Supersonics in 2006 for $350 million, with every intention of moving the team to Oklahoma City. He (and the group of Oklahoma City wildcatters) demanded that the City of Seattle or the State of Washington build a new $500 million basketball arena or else. After much wrangling, the City of Seattle and Microsoft announced plans to build a new arena for the team, but Bennett declared in November 2007 that the team would be leaving for Oklahoma City as quickly as they could cancel their lease with the Key Arena. After calling Seattle home for 40 years, the Supersonics were ripped out of the city by out-of-town renegade businessmen. They never intended to keep the team in Seattle; the issue of building a new arena was a red herring, a disingenuous attempt concocted to appear as though they wanted to keep the team in Seattle.

To sweeten the deal for the NBA, Bennett and McClendon, with the help of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, then convinced Oklahoma City voters to spend $125 million on upgrades to the Ford Center (now the Chesapeake Energy Arena, after the company over which McClendon presides). The citizens of Oklahoma City had already spent $89 million to construct the facility in 2002.

What happened next is even more appalling: the group led by Bennett and McClendon convinced the State Legislature to amend a state law known as the Oklahoma Quality Jobs Program, a program which gives tax breaks to companies which bring high-paying jobs to Oklahoma, to specifically include the basketball team.

More specifically, the measure would:

Expand Oklahoma’s Quality Jobs Program to include the NBA, permit the Sonics to receive a rebate of a portion of payroll taxes paid by the team and places a reimbursement cap on the incentives not to exceed the top income tax rate in Oklahoma, which is currently 5.5 percent.

The measure will also permit the company to receive rebates on the taxable payroll paid by players from opposing teams when they play in the city. The rebate will be about $4 million a year and $60 million over its 15-year life.

The State Legislature passed the $60 million tax break swiftly and handily so that millionaire basketball players and team owners essentially didn’t have to pay taxes on a large portion of their income. That was never the intent of the legislation, which aimed to improve the quality of life and per capita income of Oklahomans by courting higher-paying jobs to the state. Meanwhile, funding for crucial upkeep on critical roads and bridges across Oklahoma was denied because the state’s revenue didn’t meet a growth benchmark. Keep in mind, Oklahoma has some of the worst bridges and roads in the nation, many of which were constructed prior to 1932. At the same time it gave the new NBA team millions in tax breaks, the Oklahoma State Legislature didn’t include transportation funding in the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget, and had to resort to creating a massive bond issue later on to provide that critical funding.

After having successfully lobbied the Mayor and citizens of Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma State Legislature, Bennett then approached the NBA Relocation Committee and got them to sign off on the deal. Described as a major coup for the entire state, it was revealed early on that Oklahoma City’s close proximity to Tulsa was a key, integral factor in the committee’s approval of the move. Without Tulsa’s large population such a relatively short distance away, it would have been a no-deal because of the limited size of the OKC metro compared to other metros with NBA franchises. When NBA Commissioner David Stern suggested that the team should be named for the state, since it would be a statewide franchise, not just an Oklahoma City one, Oklahoma City’s Mayor Mick Cornett threw a fit and called the matter non-negotiable:

Yahoo! Finance article:

…Her presence [Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor] — and the role Tulsa-area residents could play in supporting an Oklahoma City franchise — was noted by NBA Commissioner David Stern. During a press conference following last Friday’s vote, Stern mentioned Tulsa a half-dozen times.

Stern said the owners learned “how close Tulsa is” to Oklahoma City “and how many citizens of Tulsa will consider the team to be, and did consider the (New Orleans) Hornets when they were there …a state franchise.”

[Oklahoma City Mayor Mick] Cornett said 10 to 20 percent of the Sonics’ ticket sales in Oklahoma City will come from the Tulsa area, and Taylor noted that it’s “90 minutes door-to-door” from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Those numbers are why Cornett said it only made sense to include Tulsa leaders as part of Oklahoma City’s presentation to the NBA.

“When you talk to NBA owners, the idea of people driving 1½ hours to an NBA game is something they’re comfortable with,” Cornett said. Including Tulsa as part of the team’s sphere of influence meant the owners would “see a larger metropolitan area that they’re more comfortable with.

But just because the team will be marketed throughout Oklahoma does not mean that Oklahoma City officials aren’t somewhat territorial, at least when it comes to how the team will be identified. Stern said Friday the team might consider using “Oklahoma” as its name, noting that “you really see a much larger market than just the Oklahoma City market.”

Cornett quickly squashed such a notion, pointing out that Oklahoma City’s signed lease with the Sonics stipulates that the team name be Oklahoma City.” Cornett called that matter nonnegotiable.

http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/080423/bkn_supersonics_oklahoma.html?.v=1

This means that Tulsa’s citizens (and the entire state) are subsidizing the team and Tulsa’s metro played an enormous, make-or-break role in obtaining it, but Oklahoma City (whose citizens comically call it, “The City” as though it were New York City) wanted the team and the team’s name for itself. This also means that in the State of Oklahoma, people pay unfair taxes on the most basic of needs, groceries, while tickets to the NBA game are essentially tax-free.

This brings us to another editorial by the Daily Oklahoman on May 27, 2008, this time in video form and from the Editor, Ed Kelly:

If perception is indeed reality, downtown Oklahoma City has taken another leap forward. What would have been unthinkable a few years ago is now happening: the city is being mentioned as a peer of some of the nation’s great communities.

Such validation comes from the Kansas City Star, one of the best regional papers in this part of the country. The Star published a series this week, comparing its downtown to similar-sized communities with reputations of vibrant downtowns. Look at the list of 13 cities the star chose for its comparison and you’ll find cities bigger than Oklahoma City with, in some cases, international reputations, like Denver, Indianapolis and Nashville. Each of those three have iconic institutions, from the Rocky Mountains to the world’s most famous speed race, to the home of country music.

Of these 13 cities being compared to Kansas City, 11 of them have at least one major sports franchise. Add Oklahoma City to the list when the NBA comes to town. And how do we fare on the Kansas City paper’s comparison? Pretty good, actually. As my colleague Steve Wrightmeyer noted in his column this week, Oklahoma City and Kansas City were the only cities on the list not to experience a loss in businesses downtown, and Oklahoma City had one of the largest increases in the number of hotel room bookings downtown.

This, folks, is big news. For years, Oklahoma City was a so-called Tier III, even Tier IV city, with comparisons to the likes of Wichita, Amarillo, Little Rock and Tulsa. Now, thanks to the Kansas City survey, Oklahoma City has made the leap to the tier II market. Nothing but good will come from this, from increased tourism, business relocation prospects and more positive publicity.

There’s still plenty to do if the city is to continue to run with the bigger dogs: we need more convention space, more medium-priced housing, a downtown school or two, and less vacant office space. But the momentum is significant and others are taking notice. Quite simply, downtown Oklahoma City’s image hasn’t been this good in a very long time.

http://www.newsok.tv/?titleID=1569139354

How dare other people compare Oklahoma City to Tulsa! Truth is, Tulsa and Oklahoma City were both already Tier II cities, according to the industry that actually uses and makes those rankings, the convention industry. In the following Business Facilities article, generally-accepted definitions of Second Tier (Tier II) Cities are as follows (by the way, both Oklahoma City and Tulsa are mentioned in the article):

Second-Tier Cities: TheRight Size at the Right Cost
By Mark M. Sweeney, Senior Principal
McCallum Sweeney Consulting, Greenville, SC

http://www.businessfacilities.com/bf_04_02_cover.asp

…Meeting Planners International offers a more practical definition, in which a second tier city is a city with a population of more than 300,000 and less than one million. This statement highlights that STCs are not just defined as “smaller” but also as “larger.” STCs have a significant presence of their own that distinguishes them from small cities, micropolitan areas, and rural towns. So, STCs have a ceiling (“no bigger than”) and a floor (“no less than”).

… An alternative working definition for STCs may be those locations with populations less than two million and greater than 350,000…STCs will have the characteristics that meet the needs of such projects while offering a mix of advantages that make them highly competitive with the largest locations. The STC will have what the large cities have, and have more of it (responsive government, labor growth), enough of it (transportation infrastructure, financial services), and less of it (congestion, housing costs) in a mix that makes them especially attractive. The fundamental value proposition of STCs for locating companies is the right size at the right cost.

Population—STCs have a substantial enough population to meet the expectationsof location decision makers. There is such a range of potential STCs that even those firms seeking cities with a minimum of one million population have 30 STCs from which to choose, ranging from Sacramento-Yolo CA CMSA (25th, 1.8million) to Oklahoma City OK MSA (49th, 1.08 million).

…Road Transportation (Congestion and Commuting)—A key driver in projects seeking out STCs is to find a location where workers do not face long commutes. Such commutes may arise from long distance (evidence of a housing cost and availability problem-see below) or inadequate infrastructure. Corpus Christi TXMSA (109th, 381,000) consistently ranks at the top of the list as Most Drivable (Sperling’s Best Places) and Least Congested (Texas Transportation Institute). Tulsa OK MSA (59th, 803,000) also scores well on this factor and offers relocating companies a low congestion location.

But I digress. Oklahoma City leaders have long treated the rest of the state as a collection of acquaintances it uses to its advantage and to get ahead. Once they get what they want, they break their empty promises to the rest of the state. It’s overwhelmingly insulting.

Oklahoma City’s shady businessmen (heard any good news from Chesapeake lately?) had the opportunity to reverse action and do the right thing with regards to the Seattle Supersonics, and they didn’t. They lied about their intent from the moment they bought the team. After they stole the team, they had the opportunity to do the right thing and not ask the citizens of Oklahoma to subsidize their team via tax rebates. And they didn’t. They had the opportunity to do the right thing and acknowledge that the Tulsa metro and the rest of the state were huge reasons why the relocation was even approved. And they didn’t. At every opportunity to do the right thing, they did the opposite. State leaders had the opportunity to stand up against Bennett’s and McClendon’s pet project and deny the expansion of the Quality Jobs Act. And they didn’t.

Am I angry? Yes I am. If I lived in Seattle, I’d be angry, too. And all of Oklahoma should be angry that this team was acquired and pushed through in such a reckless, shady way, being subsidized with our tax dollars while hundreds of thousands of our children live in poverty; while education funding has fallen 15% in the past three years though enrollment continues to rise; while our worst-in-the-nation roads and bridges are crumbling; while we have the third highest incarceration rate for women and no support in place to prevent recidivism; while we lose our best teachers to Texas due to low wages; while our cities and towns struggle to reduce our bulging waist lines and high mortality rates due to preventable diseases.

Oklahoma City is like that “friend” that’s always looking over your shoulder for someone better to talk to. The one that always asks for favors but can’t help you in return. And after they get what they want from you, you’re worthless to them. Unless you give them lots of compliments. Then you become their pet.

So, no, this Okie does not like the Thunder. This Okie doesn’t care how many points Kevin Durant scores, or when Charles Barkley says something negative about Oklahoma City. And this Okie will root for whatever team plays against the Thunder.

To everyone in Seattle, I’m sorry. We’re not all bad; come visit Tulsa during the springtime stormy season for some real thunder action. To my fellow Oklahomans, I hope you know how and why this team was relocated to Oklahoma City, and what underhanded tactics were used. And think about how many Oklahoma teachers are losing their jobs this year while the Thunder enjoy their $60 million tax break the next time you want to post “Thunder Up” on your Facebook wall or buy a Kevin Durant bobble-head doll.