The opportunity cost of a new OKC Thunder arena

Paycom wide
A wide shot of Paycom Center during a Thunder game early this past season.

I admit that I was caught off guard when Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt alerted us to impending negotiations with the NBA Thunder about a new arena.

I shouldn’t have been.

The NBA and its franchises can be incredibly demanding of hosts cities as far as facilities they use. Here’s a list of every NBA arena and the years they were built. 

In Holt’s book, “Big League City,” written in the afterglow of the Thunder franchise relocating to OKC, he talks about how critical a $120 million arena improvement special tax package was to that decision.

But that was 14 years ago, and there’s been a lot of Thunder games under the bridge, so to speak. I never gave the length of their lease agreement a second thought.

So, last week’s announcement came as both a surprise and a disappointment. Seems like Paycom Center was built only yesterday, but turns out it is already 20 years old.  Arenas must age in dog years.

After my initial anger subsided, I’ve come to accept the reality that OKC — and Thunder fans like me — find themselves in.

For all sorts of reasons — amenities, size, not built specifically for the NBA, perceived second-rateness — the city must build the Thunder a new arena within the next decade.

A new showcase arena will set us back at least a half billion dollars, if not much more.

Consider that American Airlines Arena in Dallas was built in 2001 at a cost of $420 million (and the Mavericks already are pushing for a new arena). How high will inflation drive the cost past that?

Holt’s job now becomes that of selling OKC residents on another special financing package, whether it’s part of a new MAPS deal or a special sales tax like that passed in 2008. I hope the city can negotiate a deal that requires the Thunder to share some of that cost.

But I’m not holding my breath.

paycom1
Paycom Center exterior (Oklahoman photo)

It’s not a scenario I’m rushing out to embrace, but I do see the reality of the OKC’s situation. Remember what happened to Seattle when that city refused to build a new arena to the Sonics’ specifications?

Thank you very much, Seattle.

And you know there are cities all over the nation that would jump at the chance to claim our franchise as their own and build it a billion dollar Taj Mahal.

Find out more about the perceived need for a new arena from this column by Berry Tramel published in Sunday’s Oklahoman.  Berry, like some other folks I know, speaks of Paycom Center as if it’s a tarpaper shack.

Anyway, I got a glimpse this morning of what Holt is up against in convincing voters to accept a new arena. I was at church chopping up the arena prospects with a friend when someone overheard us and wanted to know the topic.

We told him we were discussing the prospects of a new arena for the OKC Thunder.

“What?” he asked. “No way. Paycom is how many years old? No way will that happen.”

And this guy is the former CEO of an OKC-based company with two college-age kids. He’s not even in the demographic that I see as most opposed to a new arena.

So that brings me to the real purpose of this blog post. Who will be most opposed and who will support the new arena? I’m weighing in with my totally non-scientific observations.

I’ll start with those I see as most likely to oppose a new arena built by OKC for the Thunder:

First, it’s people in my demographic who are over the age of 65. Or what I call the get-off-my-lawn crowd. That includes many people who live in suburban areas of the city and have never attended a Thunder game. These folks poo-poo’d the whole MAPS initiative beginning back in the early ’90s and continue to disparage it today. Apparently, they were fine with our downtown the way it was in 1989 because they never went down there. And remember, statistics show that older citizens are far more likely to show up at the voting booth whenever a new arena hits the ballot.

Second, up-and-coming young people from the urban core who are focused on social issues. They are asking ‘why would we spend half a billion dollars or more on an arena for a professional sports team while we ignore the plight of hundreds of our citizens who are without shelter, food, sanitation and health care?’ That’s a legitimate and tough question to answer .

Third, people who recognize the opportunity costs of building a new arena. If we pour half a billion dollars (or more) into a new arena, we’re limiting the potential of other legitimate economic development drivers in our community. On Facebook, one pundit cited articles that show publicly built sports arenas don’t return the promised economic impact. Another example I saw: If we tear down the old Cox Center to build a new arena, our best facility as a set location for the film industry disappears. And that’s an industry just now gaining some real momentum in Oklahoma.

So, who supports a new arena?

The first group is pretty easy. They’re the 30-year-old Thunder fans who obsess over the team’s tanking philosophy, where the Thunder will end up in the draft lottery each year and over-analyze who will be the team’s next pick. Naturally, they will support a new arena because they are offended that our players have to play home games in an obvious shanty like Paycom Center. HAVE YOU NOT SEEN CHASE CENTER IN SAN FRANCISCO? But this is a pretty small voting block, all in all.

I see the second group as led by Oklahoma City business and community leaders who endured the OKC of the 1980s and enjoy what the city has become in 2022. They can point to both the MAPS projects and the arrival of the Thunder as critical elements to turning our city from eyesore into a showcase. If we refuse to build a new arena, there’s a risk that the team could be sold and relocated to one of dozens of cities salivating for the opportunity to become their own Big League City. And we turn back the clock on two decades of economic development. I believe this is a sizable, influential voting block.

Finally, I see the third group of supporters as being that large block of Thunder fans and season ticket holders. The NBA season has become as much a part of their lives as going to church on a Sunday or taking the kids to school. It’s what they do. They schedule their lives around the Thunder season, whether it’s watching the games on TV or driving down to Paycom Center 41 times a season. There’s a legion of loyal Thunder fans whom I believe will be a major source of support for a new arena.

Mayor David Holt and OKC civic leaders have a big job ahead to gain majority support of a new arena. I don’t envy you.

But as I told my friend Steve Buck last week, I’ll grit my teeth and support a new arena, because that’s our only real option.

Let’s not risk taking OKC back to the 1980s.

paycom2

The Thunder Way sets the NBA gold standard

Thunder presser
Thunder GM Sam Presti introduces the team’s 2022 draft class to the OKC community as the players listen.

I‘m not sure how other NBA teams welcome new talent to their community, but the OKC Thunder way may be the gold standard.

On Saturday, the Thunder welcomed their four 2022 draftees to Oklahoma City with a special press conference at the Clara Luper Center just west of downtown.

The event was streamed on the Thunder app, so we all had a chance to watch it. And it was an intriguing hour that provided some insight into the team’s new players — Chet Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng, Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams.

Paula Daigneault
Thunder coach Mark Daigneault and Paula Stafford at introductory press conference

But for me, it afforded an opportunity to see and hear Sam Presti describe what he saw in each player well before the draft that ultimately brought them to the team.

It’s obvious that Presti pours a huge amount energy in learning all he can about the players, their personalities and their families, in addition to assessing their level of talent.

I loved the way he described watching the players in various settings months or years before the moment their names were announced. 

And how he uses locations of historical significance to introduce new players to the community.

All of that’s probably the reason broadcaster Dan Patrick described Presti last year as “the best GM the NBA has seen in a long, long time.”

I agree with that assessment, even if I’ve complained about every inch of the Thunder’s tanking strategy over the past couple of years. I don’t think that playing to lose is fair to their fans, players or corporate sponsors.

But that’s just me.

Thunder capFolks like my friend Steve Buck are all in on losing on purpose because they say the end justifies the means. I’m just hoping the NBA will come up with a way to nullify tanking as a strategy.

Anyway, I thought the press conference was a huge success, and the players said all the right things, as did Presti.

I also had a secondary reason for watching the Thunder introductory press conference. My wife, Paula, was invited to attend as a “community draftee” by the Thunder through her role as an employee of NAMI Oklahoma.

She sat on the front row during the press conference, and had the opportunity to meet Thunder coach Mark Daigneault and the new players. And Steve Buck’s middle school-age boys went with her, so it was a win-win-win for everybody.

“It was an awesome experience,” she said. “I gained a whole new respect for Coach Daigneault and for the way the Thunder introduce their players to the community. It was a great event.”

Paula group
The NAMI Oklahoma “community draft picks” that attended the Thunder news conference on Saturday.