Thunder looking to build new $900 million arena, need voter approval

Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder
Los Angeles Clippers v Oklahoma City Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the smallest arena by square footage in the NBA, it is definitely dated, and it was time for a new home.

Plans have been finalized for a new $900 million arena in downtown Oklahoma City that would keep the Thunder locked into the city through 2050, Mayor David Holt announced.

"For fifteen years the Thunder has been honored to help lead the transformation of Oklahoma City and enhance the tremendous pride our citizens have in their community," Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett said in a statement. "We now have an opportunity to build on that progress, advance our status as a true big-league City, continue to grow our economy and secure the long-term future of the Thunder. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Mayor Holt, members of the City Council, and the forward-thinking business and civic leaders in our community. Together we can develop an arena to serve as a crowning achievement in the ongoing renaissance of Oklahoma City.”

Thunder ownership is kicking in $50 million. However, most of the arena would be financed by the continuation of an existing one-cent sales tax — for six more years — which would need to be approved by voters. There will be a special election in the city on Dec. 12 about the tax, which requires a simple majority approval to go into place.

Supporters say there is no new tax to finance this arena because this is the extension of an existing tax. There has been some backlash to the plan, and opponents of the tax will have a clear argument to make, "Why should taxpayers help finance an arena for the billionaires who own a team?" This group bought the Thunder — then Seattle Super Sonics — for $350 million and moved them to OKC. Forbes currently values the franchise at $1.9 billion.

While Holt praised Thunder ownership's contribution — "It is also worth noting that the team ownership's $50 million contribution is a first in City history, and that commitment to this community is deeply appreciated" — the Oklahoman noted that ownership is putting up 5.5% of the cost, while other recent new NBA arenas saw much higher ownership contributions. In Milwaukee, ownership put up 33% of the cost of the Fiserv Forum, Pistons ownership put up 67% of the funding for the Little Ceasers Arena, and Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive put up 51% of the cost of the Golden 1 Center that is now home to the Kings. (Steve Ballmer is footing the entire $2 billion bill for the new Intuit Dome that will house the Clippers, but comparing other owners to Ballmer in wealth or willingness to spend it feels unfair.)

The Thunder are not looking to pull up stakes and get out of one of the smallest markets in the NBA, they are investing in it — that matters. As does the fact the Thunder are incredibly popular in the city. Add in the economic boost the Thunder provide to downtown, and the fact this is not a new tax per se but a continuation of an existing one, and that may sway a majority of voters to back the plan. The politicians in OKC are smart enough not to put this massive measure on the ballot without polling that shows them it is very likely to pass.

But it will be in the hands of Oklahoma City voters in December.