Politicians and pro team executives in many U.S. cities now actively look to avoid stadium and arena votes, given the rising unpopularity of using taxpayer funds to benefit privately-held sports teams. But no such worries exist in Oklahoma City.
Voters there approved at least $850 million in public money to be used for a new downtown arena for the Thunder on Tuesday, supporting the measure by a 71% to 29% margin, with strong backing coming from each ward in the city. The funds will comprise the vast majority of a planned $900 million venue and mixed-use complex that will succeed the 21-year-old Paycom Center. Thunder owner Clay Bennett and other team investors will contribute the last $50 million toward the plan.
“With this project we will be doing more than just building a world-class sports and entertainment complex, we will be propelling Oklahoma City toward the next generation,” Bennett said. “This new home for the Thunder will serve as an iconic centerpiece of our vibrant and modern downtown.”
The team’s current Paycom Center lease expires in 2026, and the new deal keeps the Thunder in Oklahoma City until at least ’50.
Some of the strong voter sentiment behind the arena-funding proposal likely stems from the rather unique nature of the Oklahoma City pro sports market: It is one of only a handful in the U.S. to host only one major pro team. (Locally, the Thunder are joined by just the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers in baseball, the USL Championship’s OKC Energy FC, and the NBA G League’s Oklahoma City Blue.)
“Tonight … we told the world that Oklahoma City is and shall remain a big-league city,” mayor David Holt said after the vote.
For context: Oklahoma City landed the Thunder largely because the franchise previously could not strike an arena-funding deal in Seattle. To that end, Oklahoma City council member JoBeth Hamon, a vocal opponent of the funding, argued that the 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.”