SBD/Issue 63/Sports Media

“Sonicsgate” Filmmakers Explore Reasons For Team’s Relocation

Seattle was not the first city to lose one of its marquee pro sports teams, and it almost certainly will not be the last. But “Sonicsgate -- Requiem For A Team” is a first: a full-length feature film made available free online that chronicles the events surrounding the Sonics’ relocating to Oklahoma City and becoming the Thunder. The movie, made at a cost of about $10,000, launched at on October 12 and has been viewed online more than 60,000 times. A week-long theatrical release starts Friday at the 400-seat SIFF Cinema in Seattle. The film’s main purposes are to unravel why the team left, describe what the Sonics meant to Seattle and assess blame for their departure. Director and producer Jason Reid tells the story largely through interviews, and his subjects include a slew of area sports journalists, former Sonics President Wally Walker, author Sherman Alexie, former Sonics G Gary Payton, Save Our Sonics co-Founder Brian Robinson and lawyers for both Thunder Owner Clay Bennett and the city of Seattle. Reid also uses footage he shot prior to the relocation in the six months leading up to the '08 trial that pitted the city against Bennett. Producer & Media Dir Adam Brown, who previously served as the Media Dir for fan organization Save Our Sonics, said response to the film so far has been “overwhelmingly positive, particularly locally.” Brown also feels the film has influenced local politics, causing recent candidates to make the city’s arena issues a campaign topic.

FELL ON BLACK DAYS: In searching for an explanation as to how a team that had been in Seattle for more than 40 years and won the city's only major professional championship could be shipped away, the filmmakers arrived at several conclusions, some more controversial than others. The film implies that the ownership tenure of Starbucks Chair & CEO Howard Schultz, who sold the team to Bennett in '06, was disastrous. It also suggests that KeyArena could not produce the revenues more modern buildings generate, that Bennett did not act in good faith in trying to get a new arena built, and that efforts by area politicians to keep the team in place were poorly orchestrated. But the film’s most incendiary claim is that the NBA feels the need to move teams periodically in order to frighten other franchises into acting according to league interests. As Washington state Rep. Ross Hunter says in the film, "The NBA has to make an example of a couple of teams every now and then, and I think we were the example. I think they have to move a team so that they have a credible threat against other cities." These viewpoints make it easy to understand why Bennett, Schultz and NBA Commissioner David Stern declined to be interviewed for the film, and also why the Thunder and Schultz’ reps declined to comment for this article. The NBA did not respond to a request for comment.

Reid Says Film Should Serve
As Warning To Other Cities
REAR VIEW MIRROR: What can a film accomplish when it protests a relocation that has already occurred? Brown said he felt the real story of what happened in Seattle was “swept under the rug nationally.” Reid said the film should serve as a “warning for the future to other cities” and a “blueprint for how to fight against” the possibility of losing an NBA franchise. This explains the unconventional strategy of distributing the film online for free. Reid said the filmmakers want to “break down the traditional barriers” that may prevent someone from seeing “Sonicsgate.” Reid: “If we went traditional ways, it would take a lot longer for it to get out.” To that end, they are handing out free copies of the DVD version of the film during Friday night's theatrical premiere. Brown: “It’s not about making money. We‘re not making money on this at all, unless ESPN decides to buy it. … It's just about the cause.” The filmmakers are handling their own distribution, but Reid said they have to work out "some licensing issues with our musicians and some of the footage" before any TV distribution or DVD sales are possible.

I STAY AWAY: Reid hopes the movie will help Seattle land another NBA team -- or “at least be at the top of the list” -- by galvanizing city leaders to take the necessary steps to once again become a viable market for the league. But it is possible to wonder if the claims made in the film may actually hurt Seattle’s chances to host another team. After all, “Sonicsgate” is highly critical of the league’s commissioner and one of its team owners (the narration even includes a jab at Bennett's hairstyle). The title itself suggests conspiracy and scandal, or as Reid put it, “backroom dealings.” It also paints a picture of a city where, though the fans may be dedicated, politicians and the business community have a hard time getting their ducks in a row to support a team. For instance, Brown argues that in accepting a settlement from Bennett, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels folded "what everyone agrees was a pretty strong hand in the court case." Similarly, Reid thinks Schultz could have made more of an effort to find a locally-based ownership group to purchase the franchise. Regardless of who is to blame for the Sonics' exit, the makers of "Sonicsgate" have reminded us that virtually no team, however entrenched in their community, is immune to the economic and political forces that could take them elsewhere at any moment.

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