The most riveting and intense battle in the NBA this month doesn’t involve Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony competing for the scoring title, Oklahoma City and San Antonio jostling for the top seed in the Western Conference or the Los Angeles Lakers trying to fend off the Utah Jazz for the eighth playoff spot. Once the regular season concludes, the conquering parties in those competitions will move on and the races will mostly be forgotten.
But the tug-of-war between billionaires and politicians from Sacramento and Seattle over one of the league’s lousiest franchises will have long-lasting reverberations – and there currently is no simple solution.
A group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer reached an agreement on the Kings with the Maloof family in January to purchase 65 percent of the team – inflating its value to $525 million – and filed to relocate the team to Seattle, which lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008. But Sacramento mayor and former NBA all-star Kevin Johnson has been steadfast in fighting for the Kings, in contrast with Seattle and Washington state government officials who were complicit in allowing Clay Bennett – who ironically heads the NBA’s relocation committee – and his group of Oklahoma businessmen to fleece the Sonics.
On April 18 or 19 – or possibly later – the NBA Board of Governors will have to decide whether it should respect the rights of one of its fellow members to sell to whomever they want, and for the most money they can get, or remain loyal to an underdog fan base and determined mayor whose only crime has been not reaching a satisfiable agreement on a new arena deal with the financially-strapped Maloof family.
Representatives from both cities made compelling presentations last week to the NBA’s combined relocation and finance committees, leaving commissioner David Stern and his eventual successor Adam Silver uncertain about where the Kings will play next season.
The league has had four franchises relocate since Stern became commissioner, including the Kings franchise, which called four different cities home – Rochester, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha – before moving to Sacramento in 1985. For the first time, however, the city on the verge of losing the team has put up a fight with the support of government, taxpayers and potential owners with deep pockets.
“We’ve never had a situation like this,” Stern said. “There’s a lot at stake here for two communities and the NBA.”
The case for Seattle: Teams that have won NBA championships since the merger should probably be obligated to stay in that city, especially since Seattle has no other major sports championships of which to speak. The SuperSonics have a rich, 41-year history that included three NBA Finals appearances, the 1979 championship, and the city was the home of Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Dennis Johnson. Gary Payton and former SuperSonics Coach George Karl will likely soon join them in Springfield, Mass.
The Key Arena, where the team would play for at least two seasons, is not up to current league standards but Hansen and Ballmer have reached an agreement with local officials to build a $490 million arena in the trendy section south of downtown Seattle, adjacent to Safeco Field, where MLB’s Mariners play. George Maloof was part of the Seattle contingent this week and is pushing for the deal with the Seattle group.
Seattle is a much larger media market and appears hungry for basketball to return. Hansen stated that 44,000 people have already pledged to buy season tickets. Hansen and Ballmer have made an offer that could raise the value of franchise across the league and line the pockets of owners in the immediate future with relocation fees.
The case for Sacramento: Ten years ago, the thought that the Kings would be on the verge of leaving Sacramento would’ve seemed laughable. The Maloofs were visible, lovable and a constant sideline presence for a Chris Webber-led team that came within one game in 2002 of disrupting the Lakers’ three-year championship reign.
But the Maloofs suffered greatly from the economic downturn and have become pariahs in a place where they were once beloved. They threatened to move the team to Anaheim two years ago, backed out of an arena deal last year with the NBA and entertainment giant AEG and have consistently griped about the archaic and appropriately titled Sleep Train (formerly Arco) Arena for years.
The Kings have made the playoffs in only 10 of its 28 seasons in Sacramento, but the fans have continued to support the product. Johnson, a native of California’s state capital, has delivered a respectable counter offer and fielded a potential ownership group fronted by 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and billionaire Vivek Ranadive, who is also a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors. Last month, the Sacramento City Council voted 7-2 to approve $255 million in city funds to construct a new $448 million sports and entertainment complex in downtown.
The NBA just had a lockout that was meant to keep small market teams competitive. But if Sacramento does everything that it can to keep its franchise and still loses, it would be difficult for owners in other small markets to make similar threats to get new, favorable arena deals. The Seattle group has made a legitimate offer, and a $30 million non-refundable down payment, and the league may not have a more powerful group supporting efforts to make amends for one of the most controversial departures in recent memory.
Approval of the sale requires at least 23 of the 30 owners, while approval of the move only needs a simple majority. The NBA hasn’t blocked a sale since a group attempted to move the Minnesota Timberwolves to New Orleans in 1994. Stern has already stated that expansion is not an option, adding even more intrigue to the debate.