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OKC Thunder: Why a new arena is vital for the Thunder and downtown

Oklahoma City is in desperate need for a new arena


It’s been 20 years since Oklahoma City’s Paycom Center opened in the summer of 2002, just six years before the Seattle Supersonics relocated to OKC and became the Thunder in 2008.

At the dawn of its opening, the arena was called the Ford Center and hosted the former Central Hockey League’s Oklahoma City Blazers. It’s been around since the stilted Stanley Draper Expressway split downtown in half, sitting just south of the arena before it was eventually destroyed and replaced with a new, five-lane expressway.

Scissortail Park didn’t exist, and the BancFirst Tower, formerly known as the Chase Tower, was the tallest building in the metro before the Devon Tower. To add even more perspective, former Lakers’ guard Kobe Bryant and center Shaquille O’Neal hoisted their third consecutive NBA title, sweeping the New Jersey Nets 4-0 during the summer the arena opened.

While Paycom Center has been serviceable in its 14 years hosting the Thunder, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt sparked conversation about building a new arena during his annual State of the City address on July 14. Holt noted that the time is ticking for a second-generation arena and aggregate cost to break ground, let alone make plans for a new Thunder home will be expensive.

“Look, here’s the bottom line,” Holt said in the speech. “The NBA has changed our city forever. The vast majority of our residents (know that) and want a relationship to continue. The facts speak plainly that we can never rest on our laurels. We must always be proactive.”

Paycom cost $89.2 million to build, which was a bargain during the 2000s. Now, modern NBA arenas cost upwards of $500 million. The Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center was built in 2016 and was $558 million, while the Detroit Pistons’ Little Caesars arena was built in 2017 and cost $863 million.

Since then, the three newest NBA arenas have cost upwards of $1 billion. Oklahoma City’s lease with the Thunder expires after the 2025-26 season, and Holt halted $70 million of funding in MAPS renovations to start a conversation to build a new home for OKC’s lone NBA team.

With the pressure for a new arena in the limelight, here’s two reasons the city should push for a new arena:

New arena matches with the new core

NBA: Summer League-Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti selected rookie forward Chet Holmgren, rookie guard Jalen Williams, rookie forward Ousmane Dieng and rookie forward Jaylin Williams in the 2022 NBA Draft.

The four rookies, alongside guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, are the core for Oklahoma City’s future and a fresh venue would match the direction of the young roster. With added capacity, a competitive team and superstar talent, Oklahoma City fans will have much more to rally around when Presti decides to end the rebuild.

When the Big 3 of former point guard Russell Westbrook, shooting guard James Harden and small forward Kevin Durant were at the helm of the Thunder’s success, Loud City was a major part of OKC’s crowd noise.

Last season, the Thunder ranked 28th in the league in overall attendance with an average of 14,877 fans attending each game. That total is down from 2020 – before the start of the COVID-19 lockdown – when they were 14th in the NBA.

Oklahoma City’s economy

Syndication: The Oklahoman Nathan J Fish/The Oklahoman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Holt was standing on the stage inside of Oklahoma City’s new $288 million convention center wearing a navy blue suit, a light purple striped tie and a bright smile before he addressed the crowd of 1,500 onlookers.

While the city’s plans of new urban development were anticipated talking points that afternoon, many people did not expect a speech about a new Thunder arena. It was necessary for Holt, however, to create a conversation for OKC’s future.

“The arrival of the Thunder and the NBA changed everything in Oklahoma City,” Holt said in his address. “Our economy and our population have exploded in the same time frame that we have been a major league sports city.”

According to 2021 U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma City now stands as the 20th largest city in the United States with 687,725 residents. It’s a major jump from 2010, when they were the 28th largest city in the United States.