The opportunity cost of a new OKC Thunder arena

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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.

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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.

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The Thunder Way sets the NBA gold standard

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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.

A proposal: let’s destroy ‘The Process’ in the NBA

Thunder arena
Plenty of good seats available shortly before tipoff at a Thunder game in February this season.

Editor’s note: Although I attribute the concept described in this post to radio talk show host Dan Patrick, my friend Don alerted me to the fact that it was originally floated by sports guru Bill Simmons.  So, I want to give credit where it’s due, and a salute to Simmons for a worthy idea.

On the list of things in this world that make me crazy, you can put the concept of “tanking” by professional sports teams close to the top.

If you’re not a sports fan, you should know that tanking means a team is trying to maneuver for the best possible draft position. It does that by having as bad a record as possible at the end of the season.

Sometimes it’s called ‘The Process’ (wink, wink).

Teams tank not by asking their players to not play hard, but by manipulating the roster so their least experienced get most of the playing time. I offer the Oklahoma City Thunder’s mostly G-League lineup down the stretch this season as Exhibit A.

Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel put it best last fall when he wrote “losing is the path to winning.” The idea is that if a team is horrible for two, three, four seasons it will eventually be able to draft the next ‘unicorn’ that will turn it all around.

Meanwhile, local fans lose incentive to follow their team and actually show up at games. The thousands of unused seats on a nightly basis at Paycom Center this season is a prime example.

I wrote about my opposition to tanking and the need to take a “win now” philosophy before the season began. You can read it here.

But today, I’m here to offer an alternative to the tanking strategy that will keep fans more engaged as the season concludes. I credit this idea to radio talk show host Dan Patrick,  who proposed something similar on his show earlier in the season.

Here’s how it would work as I envision it:

The NBA would create an in-season, six-week tournament for the bottom teams in the standings. The league would set an in-season cutoff date of February 28 with the six teams with the league’s worst records qualifying for the tournament.

Then for the remaining six weeks of the season, qualifying teams would play to win as many games as possible before the season ends. The team that has the best record in the season-closing “tournament” would be awarded the No. 1 pick in the draft.

Thunder actionTeams would have every incentive to put their best roster on the court. Fans would have a reason to show up and cheer their local team down the stretch.

The league could make a big deal out of the tournament, with separate nightly standings, maybe even a trophy for the winning team. The rest of the draft order for the bottom six would follow according to their finish in the tournament.

However, it needs a name. The Race to Save Face? Bottoms Up? Sprint to the Finish? I’ll let the marketers handle that.

My friend Steve poo-poos this concept because the league’s conferences are not balanced talent-wise. But he’s a tanking enthusiast and wears unicorn-colored glasses.

So, what does happen if the team with the seventh worst record on Feb. 28 loses so many games that it has the league’s worst record by season’s end?

That team is shut out of the tournament, so it only gets the seventh pick in the draft order. But it has no incentive keep losing, and that’s the point.

Thank you, DP, for sharing this idea.

So, what’s keeping the league from adopting The Race to Save Face and creating some excitement for bottom-feeding teams?

Nothing that I can see. Let’s destroy “The Process.”

Fan’s message to Thunder: Let’s play to win

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The Thunder’s season-opening tipoff in 2015.

We’re about to welcome the launch of the OKC Thunder’s ’21-’22 season, and the debate over tanking continues for a second straight year.

Do the Thunder continue to “explore the roster” and chase the league’s worst record in hopes of drafting the next unicorn?

Or do they take this young roster and try to be competitive in a very good Western Conference?

Sam Presti said recently that the team will take no shortcuts. You can read into that whatever meaning you choose.

“What we want to do is be playing meaningful basketball at the end of the year,” Presti said. “We want to try to do everything we can to put ourselves in position to optimize the group that we have, and there’s just no shortcuts to that. It comes back to the commitment to the process that’s in place and being willing to be patient with that as we go through, especially with this much change as we’ve experienced.”

Here’s the takeaway from that: “commitment to the process.”   Translation: “lose for the lottery.”

In today’s column in The Oklahoman,  Berry Tramel laid it out. “Losing is the path to winning.”

Ouch.

But put me down for trying to be competitive.

I know that puts me at odds with my fellow Thunder fans who celebrate tanking and see a championship caliber team in the future as a result.

There seems to be a couple schools of thought within NBA fandom.

One school says that if you don’t win the NBA championship, your entire season is a bust.

So tank until you can build the roster up.

The other school says that competing at a high level against the best players in the world and making a playoff run is great entertainment.  Yes, we may come up short in the end, but we’ve got something to cheer for through the long, cold winter months.

Remember the fun we had in the early 2010s when the Thunder went deep into the playoffs, even if they came up short?

We were living high as Oklahoma City Thunder fans.  Those are cherished memories of mine almost a decade later.

But you know what?  Those Thunder teams didn’t win the championship.

That doesn’t diminish the memory for me in the least.

My friend Steve Buck argues that the Thunder team of that era was a championship caliber team even if it didn’t win it all.

“Here’s the deal…for many of those years we were capable of winning the title,” he says. “That’s the goal here…get a club rebuilt that is capable to contend. Playing for a one and out is not the goal.  You want to position yourself to win it all.”

My point is that we didn’t win it all, but, gee, we had fun.

And now we’re losing for the lottery.  It makes for long, bleak seasons.  And there’s no promise of a unicorn at the end. Or even of a top three pick (see this year’s lottery fiasco).

Here’s to the new season and hoping the Thunder will be over-achievers.

Let’s not chase the luck of the lottery once again.  Let’s play to win now.

BONUS: Here is how Berry Tramel has the bottom of the West ranked going into the season:

Tramel Predict

Guest blog post from Steve Buck: Thunder up!

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Guest blogger Steve Buck, with his wife Lisa, explains why he’s enthusiastic about the Thunder’s tanking strategy and its future.

Editor’s note: My friend Steve Buck and I have gone back and forth for months over the Oklahoma City Thunder. We’ve debated their tanking strategy to maneuver for better draft lottery position, as well as Sam Presti’s flipping of players for future draft choices. Steve is all in on the Thunder’s strategy, while I’ve mourned the loss of so many fan-favorite players. So, I asked Steve to write this guest post to provide perspective on why he’s so enthusiastic about the Thunder’s strategy and their future. Thank you, Steve. Here is his take:

By Steve Buck

For a decade, I enjoyed watching the Thunder find success. It was cool to see national networks regularly featuring our city and state as the team regularly showed up in the post-season. And the players who stepped on the court wearing our Thunder uni’s … Durant, Westbrook, Harden, CP3, George, Melo and so many others … extraordinary talents calling OKC home. It was fun to watch and celebrate victories and lament losses and injuries. But, candidly, as enjoyable as those teams were, I wasn’t really a fan, just a bystander enjoying the ride.

That changed in 20-21 though. I have entered fan mode.

To the reader who has enjoyed the decade of outstanding play from the club, you likely find it odd that I’d buy into the team in a year when, in terms of on the court success, they were simply awful. But in that poor record, I truly gained insight into the massive job in front of Sam Presti to sustain a small market club for the long-haul.

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Thunder at home during 2016 playoffs

As I tried to learn from observing, I caught glimpses in his approach that I have strived for in my own professional path … steadfast pursuit of a long-term outcome, commitment to principles, patience where necessary, preparedness to seize opportunity when presented and commitment to building a culture of respect and camaraderie for club players and employees. I’ve also watched roster development and seen the focus on fit as much as flash. I find that approach appealing.

I know my friends in the Thunder Fan World have struggled saying goodbye to the historic names that have played on our roster. The host of this blog post, for example, laments roster churn every time we discuss Thunder hoops. The churn has been painful. I get it. My daughters, for example, consider wherever Westbrook plays their favorite team.

But I have taken a more pragmatic view of the roster rollover… 1) it is necessary to meet the long-term objective of sustained excellence, and 2) professionally, we accept employer changes as expected so why do we not expect Thunder players to change employers with regularity too.

Why Jim Stafford can’t embrace the Thunder changes.

And now the current players. SGA, Dort, Poku, Kenrich, Baze and the rest of the ’20 – ’21 crew. They may not have won many games, but they sure played hard. Some knew it might be their only shot…and they gave every ounce of energy they had against elite competition.

I get it that there was some roster gamesmanship and the club needed losses, but it was still fun. And encouraging. And tantalizing.

Poku, for example. Geez, there sure were some duds. But there were also moments where you could see a unique talent that might just be a fit that pays huge dividends down the road. Dort. How can you not love a guy’s work ethic who could’ve gone south after being passed over in the draft but instead throws everything at self-improvement. And finally, SGA. I believe he can win a slew of games for us in the future. Yes, I know that each is an asset and might have to be moved, but I also know that Presti wants sustained excellence, so the churn must stop soon.

In financial markets, we are encouraged to buy low and sell high. We’ve run at a peak in the Loud City for many years. Last year was a temporary market set-back in terms of our NBA club. Seems like a great time to buy because I see historic gains for the club in the future. That’s why this bystander became a fan in ’20-21. During the empty arena season that was a debacle in the win-loss column I bought a ticket package for the 21-22 campaign – my first package purchase since the club has been in OKC.

I am very bullish on this club, our players and team leadership.

THUNDER UP!!!

Steve Buck is the President and CEO of a trade association in Oklahoma City and co-owner of Mentalitea and Coffee, a new shop opening soon in Bethany, OK.

A playlist to take you back in time

Album covers

On my way to the dentist one day a few years ago, the song “American Woman” came on the radio. It was followed by Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” and then “A Horse With No Name,” by America.

A wave of nostalgia hit me so hard I almost had to pull over.

I was no longer in my car in the 2010s.  I was a teenager in 1971 sitting in a 1965 Pontiac Catalina (look it up) in Fort Smith, Ark.

This was almost a song-for-song playlist of the music I was listening to in the early ’70s just as I was completing high school. If there were such things as playlists back in 1971.

We had a new FM radio station in Fort Smith with the call letters KISR, which played Top 40 hits and was immensely popular among high school students. Its play list rotation was really small, so you heard the popular songs again and again.

Pontiac CatalinaI wouldn’t have had FM radio in my Pontiac — a hand-me-down from my dad — but that’s the memory that washed over me when I heard the music from a distant time.

Isn’t it amazing that hearing the opening riff to a single song — Neil Young’s “Ohio,” for instance — can instantly transport you back in time to exactly where you were at when you first heard the music?

Sitting in a car. Dragging Main Street. At the lake. Hanging out at someone’s house.

It puts you right there again. It’s almost like Deja Vu (all over again!).

Turns out, that there are studies on the subject of how music can take you back and rekindle vivid memories from decades ago. And how music creates waves of nostalgia that make you emotional for a time long gone.

It even occurs with more recent music and memories. Whenever I hear Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” I’m right back in Chesapeake Energy Arena waiting for KD, Russ, Serge and the rest of the Thunder to hit the court.

“Home’ was the pregame warmup music for an entire season back in the good ol’ days of the Thunder. How I miss it.

The music carries me back.

Unwelcome Ch-ch-changes

The Thunder tipoff in an early November 2015 game at Chesapeake Arena.

The 2020-21 Oklahoma City roster proves a point that I’ve heard many times over the years.

We’re only cheering for laundry.

Like many Oklahomans, I’ve been a Thunder fan since the team relocated here in 2008. I’ve been to many games over the years.

Along the way, I adopted many Thunder players as my own. Russell Westbrook. Nick Collison. Serge Ibaka. Steven Adams. Andre Roberson. Jerami Grant. Enes Kanter. James Harden. Even Kevin Durant. Especially KD.

The list goes on.

For several years, we had a core of players that we knew and could count on leading the Thunder lineup every season. We got to the NBA Finals with that lineup one year and should have made it to another if Patrick Beverly had not assaulted Westbrook.

But that’s another story. My point is that I became comfortable with our players and our team, although the roster was slowly turning over as we lost Harden, Ibaka, Kanter, et al over time.

Then KD left abruptly. But Russell stayed, and while we added and subtracted new players, our core stayed relatively stable.

Then 2019-2020 happened and the Thunder as I’ve known them disappeared. Westbrook long gone. Grant gone. Adams gone. Dennis Schroder gone. Chris Paul came and went from OKC a second time.

By the time the 2020-21 season started, we had four — four! — players from our previous roster, none of them long-time beloved stars.

So, I’m still watching the Thunder nightly, but with much less passion. I know Sam Presti’s plan is to lose now to chase potential later. But I don’t have to like it.

A friend I’ll call “Steve” accused me of being a fan of mediocrity.

“Winning by losing,” he said. “What a great concept.”

But we weren’t mediocre. The Thunder that I knew were great and went where small market teams almost never go, to the NBA Finals. And with players we knew and loved.

Now, we’ve turned the roster over and acquired dozens of first round draft choices, because the grass is always greener in the future.

I’m not sure if mass roster changes will ever end as Presti chases the elusive future player who will bring us championship glory.

It’s a bittersweet relationship, but now I know. We’re only cheering for laundry.

Paul McCartney knows just how OKC feels

When Kevin Durant told OKC two weeks ago “It’s not you, it’s me” and moved in with the Golden State Warriors, there was something familiar about the scenario. It was the type of relationship-gone-bad about which movies are made and songs are written. One person left stunned and hurt as their lover announces out of the blue that he or she is moving on to a new partner.

kd pixThen I was driving down the road Saturday when the Beatles’ “I’m Looking Through You” came on the radio. It hit me. Paul McCartney’s bitter lyrics about the partner who jilted him was a perfect description of how thousands of OKC fans felt watching @KDTrey35 being introduced as a Warrior. Well, it hit me that way, anyway.

Here is a sampling of the lyrics written 50 years ago. They perfectly describe the KD-OKC breakup:

I’m looking through you,
Where did you go?
I thought I knew you,
What did I know?
You don’t look different, but you have changed.
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same.

Your lips are moving,
I cannot hear.
Your voice is soothing,
But the words aren’t clear.
You don’t sound different,
I’ve learned the game.
I’m looking through you,
You’re not the same.

Why, tell me why, did you not treat me right?
Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.

You’re thinking of me,
The same old way.
You were above me,
But not today.
The only difference is you’re down there.
I’m looking through you,
And you’re nowhere.

Why, tell me why did you not treat me right?
Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight.

I’m looking through you, 
Where did you go?
I thought I knew you,
What did I know?
You don’t look different,
But you have changed.
I’m looking through you,
You’re not the same!

Yep, KD. You don’t look different. But you have changed.