Orange County Is Perfect for NBA : Mavericks' GM Says Expansion Franchise Would Succeed

Times Orange County Sports Editor

Granted, a memorandum of understanding between the developers and the city of Santa Ana doesn't ensure a proposed 18,500-seat sports arena being built, but take it from Norm Sonju, vice president and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks, there isn't a better virgin territory for a National Basketball Assn. expansion franchise than Orange County.

"It has everything--an upward mobile populace and a great television and radio market--to make an NBA franchise a smashing success," Sonju said.

Sonju ranks as one of the leading authorities on NBA expansion franchises. He also is knowledgeable about Orange County's demographics.

"I guess you can say I'm awfully excited about what's been happening in the NBA and thus excited about the prospect of expansion. And, I don't think anyone in the NBA can talk about expansion--and we did just that a couple of weeks ago in our annual meetings in San Francisco--without Orange County being in the forefront of the discussion.

"I know of what I speak in that I spent a few days in Anaheim last year meeting city officials, including Tom Liegler (then general manager of the Anaheim Convention Center and Anaheim Stadium) in conjunction with their plans to build an arena on the (Anaheim) stadium parking lot with the hope of attracting an NBA team," Sonju said. "I came away with the feeling, and it's as strong now as it was then, that Orange County represented the finest opportunity the NBA had for expansion."

Sonju is not a member of the ruling Board of Governors which holds the key to league expansion, but he said, "the Board members are fully aware of the potential Orange County holds for the NBA."

Sonju knows firsthand what it takes not only to bid for and get an NBA franchise, but also make that expansion team a success on the court and at the box office. From humble beginnings, Sonju has seen, in five years, the Mavericks make the playoffs and fill 98.2% of their Reunion Arena seats, averaging 16,694 this past season.

And, Sonju did it the hard way, starting in February, 1979, by appointing himself as the man to bring the NBA to Dallas.

"People, I'm sure, thought I was out of my mind. I hired Rick Sund as my director of player personnel in November of that same year. At the same time, I was convincing 24 people that they, indeed, wanted to become limited partners in an enterprise that we had no assurance was going to fly."

Sonju made even the most doubting Thomas a believer by raising $14 million, $12 million of which he needed for acquiring an NBA franchise and the other $2 million for operating funds. Sund spent the entire 1979-80 season not only scouting the top senior college talent, but NBA personnel as well.

Sonju's faith and hard work were rewarded in May, 1980, when the Board of Governors awarded Dallas an expansion franchise and the Mavericks were born, complete with nickname and logo.

The key to the Mavericks success, in Sonju's opinion, was getting an early start.

"Some people in Orange County are probably shaking their heads, saying '1987-88, that's a long way off.' It isn't really. Not if it's going to be done right. And, if it isn't, everyone might as well as forget it."

If it's going to be done right, and Orange County is to be the success that Sonju predicts is possible, the Mavericks' GM thinks three ingredients are necessary:

--"The acid test for the early success of an NBA expansion franchise is to sell 5,000 season tickets well in advance of the first game."

--"There has to be a good political climate--one in which the politicians aren't vying for the headlines with the team."

--"The city or arena authority should work out an aggressive lease with the team, one which gives the team the ability to keep its head above water in the formulative years."

Although it wasn't one of his prerequisites, Sonju mentioned that it would be ideal if the city could come up a majority owner, one with the financial means to own at least 40% of the club.

"That would go far in answering any concern the Board of Governors might have on financial stability."

Asked, from his experience whether attracting such a person would be difficult, Sonju said, "Not in a situation such as Orange County. The NBA is on a much firmer footing than even five years ago when we got in. We've got the salary cap, the TV contract, and our stance on the usage of drugs, which I believe is as forward as any in professional sports. In addition, 16 of our 23 teams made money last season in contrast to 1978-79, when only a few teams made a profit.

"Those factors, I believe, send out a message to a prospective owner that, unlike a few years ago, we have a semblance of order."

But $20 million worth?

"When you look back over the history of our expansion--Phoenix admitted in 1968 for $2 million, Buffalo (now the LA Clippers), Cleveland and Portland in '70 for $3.1 million, New Orleans (now Utah) in '74 for $6 million and us in '80 for $12 million--I don't think $20 million is out of line.

"I'll tell you this much. If Santa Ana gets its arena built, gets its NBA franchise, and gets the right people in the key spots, they are in for the most exciting experience in their lifetimes. For me, it has been a thrill beyond thrills."

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