When Oklahoma City welcomed an NBA franchise in 2008, the implications for the city, state, and burgeoning fanbase were uncertain. Fifteen years later, the Thunder has become a formidable force, sparking economic growth and community pride. However, the aging Paycom Center presented a challenge, requiring a pivotal vote to secure the franchise’s future in the city.
Paycom Center, currently the smallest NBA arena by square footage and one of the oldest in the league at 21 years, faced challenges securing a lasting lease with the OKC Thunder. To address this, a newly proposed arena received widespread support, with key figures emphasizing its role in propelling Oklahoma City into the next generation.
“Paycom Center / ASM Global is excited about the possibility of being involved in the designing, building and operating a new facility in downtown OKC,” said the General Manager of ASM Global OKC Paycom Center / Prairie Surf Studios, Chris Semrau. “We are confident that the community will once again make a major investment in the quality of life in OKC and unlock a new level of serving as a sports and entertainment destination.”
OKC Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett expressed the broader significance of the project, stating, “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. This new home for the Thunder will serve as an iconic centerpiece of our vibrant and modern downtown and continue to represent the values of our city and its people.” The commitment from the Thunder to play in the new arena for at least 25 years solidifies the franchise’s dedication to the city until at least 2050.
“I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of building and opening two new arenas in previous jobs, and it is transformational on communities,” Semrau said. “The [upcoming] vote is a decision on who we want to be as a community. If we want to retain an NBA team, have the biggest tours and artists in the world come to OKC, and host elite national sporting events, we can secure that reality by supporting a ‘yes’ vote on 12/12.”
One of the main points of contention has been funding for the new arena, particularly with the extension of a penny sales tax. While the project won’t increase current tax rates, it extends the existing sales tax initially set to conclude with the completion of MAPS 4. Additionally, $70 million from the original MAPS 4 project will contribute to the arena, aligning to enhance Oklahoma City’s downtown. The commitment from Thunder ownership to contribute $50 million is also unprecedented, breaking from the tradition of taxpayer-funded arenas in the city.
“The impact of a new event center will be felt far beyond its four walls,” said Semaru. “It will accelerate growth throughout downtown, spur additional residential and commercial investment, and be a major beacon of pride for the entire city.”
OKC Advances into the Future
On December 12, 2023, with approximately 71% of ballots in favor, the approval marked a decisive victory for the Thunder, the city, and its passionate fanbase. The proposed new arena, expected to cost a minimum of $900 million, represents a crucial step in ensuring the franchise’s long-term presence in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt emphasized the significance of the deal, “As this very public discussion played out over the last year, the people of Oklahoma City have overwhelmingly expressed to me two desires – 1) keep the Thunder for as long as possible, and 2) don’t raise taxes if it can be avoided. We have accomplished those two priorities with this plan, and it is truly a win-win for all of us.”
The economic impact of the Thunder on Oklahoma City has been substantial, with an estimated annual impact of $600 million and the creation of 3,000 jobs. The new arena is expected to continue driving economic growth, attracting major concerts, and hosting various events beyond NBA games.
The timeline for the arena’s completion aligns with the 2029-2030 NBA season, showcasing a strategic and forward-thinking approach. As Mayor Holt pointed out, the length of the commitment is twice that of the original agreement in 2008, ensuring the city’s economic impact and quality of life benefits for another generation.
This victory for Oklahoma City also signifies the culmination of a thorough, public-oriented planning process initiated by Mayor Holt in July 2022. Incorporating public input and feedback throughout the 14- month discussion underscores the community’s desire to retain the Thunder for the long haul.
In the end, as Mayor Holt aptly summarized, “Today was OKC versus the world. And we won.” With the new arena on the horizon, Oklahoma City can look forward to continued economic growth, enhanced civic pride, and a thriving partnership with the Thunder for years to come.