During his annual State of the City address today, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt said there should be an election later this year to approve funding for a new arena for the OKC Thunder, although no final proposal has been agreed upon between the team and the city.
Hosted by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, the address was held at the OKC Convention Center. During his remarks, Holt contrasted the city’s history with, and without, NBA basketball before pivoting to making a case for a new arena to be built downtown before the end of the current decade.
The Paycom Center is the current home of the Thunder. Built for about $90 million, the arena opened in 2002 and is owned by the city. If approved by voters, the proposed new Thunder arena could cost between $500 million and $1 billion.
Holt offered few specifics on the new arena proposal Thursday, such as a financial price tag and how it will be funded. The city and team are still hashing those details out, he said. But Holt made clear Paycom Arena’s best days are in the rearview mirror.
“Our current downtown arena once represented us well in the world of entertainment and sports, but those days fade,” Holt said during his address. “And at this point, we’re mostly succeeding on sheer grit. Our management team at the arena is doing a great job marketing us for concerts and shows, but the building itself is a growing liability.”
Tulsa’s BOK Center also competes with Paycom for concerts and more than holds its own, if recent bookings are any indication.
This year, the BOK Center will host Zach Bryan, the Jonas Brothers, Aerosmith, the Black Crowes and The Chicks. Madonna had been slated to play there this month before postponing her tour.
The PBR, a series of monster truck rallies, and an appearance by comedian Jeff Dunham are some of the featured events at OKC’s Paycom Center for the remainder of the year. Controversial county music artist Jason Aldean is scheduled to appear in October.
In May, the Thunder’s long-term lease with the city — signed in 2008 — expired, but the two parties signed a three-year agreement to keep the team in OKC. That agreement runs through 2026.
During his remarks, Holt said OKC’s basketball arena has fallen behind others in places like Milwaukee, Sacramento and Philadelphia in recent years, while also mentioning cities planning to build arenas that may out-compete OKC if a new arena does not come to fruition.
“We’re not in the junior NBA. We’re in the real deal, and these are our peers,” he said. “And if those comparisons are sobering, I don’t even want to tell you about the billion-dollar arenas that exist or are planned in American cities that don’t have an NBA team.”
Holt also signaled that he believes the new arena needs to be built with a sense of urgency.
“I can report to you today that we are close to a jointly agreeable proposal to construct a new downtown arena that meets the modern standards of the NBA and the concert industry,” Holt said Thursday. “We believe we can and must present this agreement before the end of summer, with an election before the end of 2023.”
On funding, Holt said he believes the new arena could be funded without raising current sales tax rates.
“We believe our new arena could be funded without raising tax rates above their current levels,” Holt said. “We believe we can accomplish this vital project simply by paying the exact same sales tax rate, and no tax increase will be necessary.”
That funding could be accomplished by extending the current one-cent sales tax allocated for MAPS projects, though Holt did not mention an extension in his remarks. In 2019, voters overwhelmingly approved extending that sales tax to pay for MAPS 4 projects. City voters approved the first MAPS-related sales tax in the early 1990s and the one-cent tax has remained in place ever since, paying for a myriad of projects along the way, including the current Thunder arena that cost about $90 million to build.
Holt said the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise itself would also be picking up some of the financial freight for a new arena, but no specific amounts were mentioned pending the finalization of the proposal.
“Public funding for the new arena will be supplemented by remaining MAPS 4 dollars that are already earmarked for the downtown arena,” Holt said Thursday. “As I mentioned last year, for the first time in city history, these public funding commitments will be joined by a significant financial contribution from the ownership of the Oklahoma City Thunder.”
OKC Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, however, tweeted frustrations Thursday that she and other council members have not been provided more information about the developing new Thunder arena proposal.
“Despite multiple requests over the past year to the city manager, myself and other councilmembers have been fully left out of this conversation. If they have a $ amt to propose a vote, they have not taken seriously our desire to discuss community benefit agreements,” Hamon tweeted. “If this is something we truly need & want as a city, it should be open to a public and transparent conversation (at least with more of Council if not also inclusive of public input like we did w/ MAPS 4). The fact they aren’t even doing that in good faith is beyond disappointing.”
The OKC City Council would have to approval a resolution calling for any vote on the matter.
How the Thunder got here
An investor group led by Clay Bennett purchased the Seattle Supersonics from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz before moving the club to OKC in 2008 and renaming it.
It didn’t take long for the Thunder to make its mark in the NBA, advancing to the finals in 2012 where they lost to the Miami Heat in five games. The team’s fortunes have declined steadily since then. The Thunder have missed the playoffs the last three seasons and were eliminated in the first round in 2018 and 2019.
But the Thunder were surprisingly strong last season and finished with a 40-42 record, losing in a play-in game. With 2022 first-round pick Chet Holmgren set to make his NBA debut this fall following an injury last year, the Thunder is a team on the rise and is considered by some NBA pundits as having one of the most talented young rosters in the league.
In an interview with NonDoc last July, shortly after he publicly disclosed the planned push for a new arena, Holt said the team’s future shouldn’t be tied to wins and losses in any particular season or string of seasons.
“If that is really the question, I think my response would be whether or not you believe in professional sports in Oklahoma City,” Holt said in July 2022 when asked about the team’s recent struggles. “Win-loss records are ever-changing, and teams go up and down. When the Sonics relocated, they had a worse record than any Thunder team, yet we were thrilled to have them. It’s not necessarily about wins and losses, it’s about having professional sports teams, especially when you don’t have one. It has defined us and made us different.”
Then-Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President Roy Williams told NonDoc in 2022 that the team leaving OKC would be a possibility if a new arena isn’t in the cards.
“I think there is some risk that we could lose the team if we can’t come to an agreement,” Williams said. “People have to remember, it’s a business, and at some point, decisions get made based on that. This is something that we don’t necessarily need to do tomorrow, but we do need to start the discussion, and the mayor has done that.”
The Paycom Center was built for about $90 million. About $200 million has been spent on the arena during its life, including initial construction and improvements over the last two decades, Holt said in his remarks Thursday.
A look at arenas around the league
The NBA has seen five of its teams build new arenas in the last decade. The biggest “bargain” of the bunch is the Golden 1 Center, now home to the Sacramento Kings. Costing $558 million, that facility opened in 2016 after years of drama that included proposals to move the team to another city.
Home to the Detroit Pistons, Little Caesars Arena opened in 2017 and cost $863 million.
None of the other three arenas have been built for less than $1 billion. Chase Center (home of the Golden State Warriors) was constructed at a cost of $1.8 billion, while the Barclays Center (home to the Brooklyn Nets) opened in 2012 at a cost of $1.18 billion.
Even in middle America, new arena costs can exceed $1 billion. The Fiserv Center is the home of the Milwaukee Bucks. It opened in 2018 at a cost of $524 million. Milwaukee is in a slightly larger media market than Oklahoma City, but it is the 31st largest city in the U.S. by population, while OKC is 20th.
Of the five most recently opened NBA arenas, most are publicly owned facilities.
(Correction: This article was updated at 12:20 p.m. Friday, July 21, to correct reference to the president of the Greater OKC Chamber of Commerce. It was also updated to include reference to a tweet by JoBeth Hamon.)