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Design & Development

Thunder arena project set for crucial December vote

Featured image credit: Mayor David Holt

Oklahoma City’s bid to keep NBA basketball franchise the Thunder long-term is facing a critical vote later in the year after the Council approved a letter of intent with the team that is designed to deliver a new arena.

Earlier this month, an initial deal was struck for a new downtown arena between the Thunder and  the City Council. The announcement was made by the local authority, which said that a deal had been struck “after 14 months of public discussion and collaborative dialogue between Oklahoma City leaders and the leadership of the Oklahoma City Thunder”.

City Council yesterday (Tuesday) approved the letter of intent with the Thunder which potentially retains the team in OKC beyond 2050 and called a citywide election for December 12 on the subject of building a new, publicly owned downtown arena. The new arena is the primary condition for securing the long-term commitment from the team.

The proposed new $900m (£740.7m/€852.5m) arena is proposed to be funded in part by a 72-month, one-cent sales tax that will start when the current MAPS 4 tax ends, with city officials claiming this will not increase the sales tax rate.

In the letter of intent, the Thunder’s ownership group agrees to keep the franchise in Oklahoma City beyond 2050, while contributing $50m toward the cost of the new arena. If passed, the new arena will be built downtown, but the exact location has not been determined, while design plans have not been outlined.

In addition to the 72-month one-cent temporary sales tax and team contribution, the arena will be paid for with $70m in MAPS 4 funding. The Thunder will play all home games at its current Paycom Center home until the new arena is ready to move in, no later than the start of the 2029-30 NBA season. The Thunder’s 25-year commitment to remain in Oklahoma City begins when they move into the new arena.

Paycom Center is the smallest in the NBA by square footage, has the second-smallest capital investment of all NBA arenas, and at 21 years old, it is increasingly within range of the oldest arenas in the entire NBA.

The City argues that Paycom Center is not capable of securing a long-term lease with an NBA team. Meanwhile, it has pointed to the fact there are US markets larger than Oklahoma City that don’t have an NBA team, some of which already have or are planning an NBA-ready arena.

The Thunder has called Oklahoma City home since relocating from Seattle in 2008. The City signed a 15-year lease agreement with the Thunder, and last year the team activated a further three-year option, ensuring its future at Paycom Center until at least 2026 and granting the City further time to develop a new arena plan.

In July, Oklahoma City Mayor, David Holt, said a deal was close to being reached on a “jointly agreeable proposal” for a new downtown arena. The future of Paycom Center made up a significant proportion of the State of the City speech Holt delivered, arguing the case for a new facility. Holt’s comments came a year on from when he called for discussions on a potential new arena.

Holt said yesterday: “I commend the Council for authorising me to sign this historic letter of intent, I thank the Thunder for their partnership, and I congratulate all of OKC for getting to this point. One step does remain, and that is the vote of our residents on December 12. We encourage everyone to come out and set the course for our city’s future.”

The City Council’s approval for the letter of intent came with a 7-2 vote. Council members Nikki Nice and JoBeth Hamon opposed both the proposed sales tax and the letter of intent with the Thunder owners.

“This deal was negotiated from a position of fear and scarcity, which benefits those who are wealthy, while the benefits never trickle down to regular folks,” Hamon wrote on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

The Oklahoma Progress Now group is also opposing the project, with a campaign entitled buyyourownarena.com calling on the owners of the Thunder to pay for the new arena. They claim the level of public funding being required, which they say amounts to at least $1,200 from every OKC resident, is at odds with the collective wealth of the team’s ownership group – $25bn.

“We need to demand a better deal,” said communications director Nick Singer, according to broadcaster KGOU. “We need to ask the owners of the Thunder, who are fantastically wealthy, deep ties to Oklahoma, generational businesses here, to pay their fair share and buy their own arena.”