Battle Over Kings Not Settled Quite Yet

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After the Apr. 29 vote of the NBA Relocation Committee, it seemed like the ongoing saga over whether the Sacramento Kings would be sold to a group looking to move the team to Seattle was over, the incumbent city having convinced NBA Commissioner David Stern that its last ditch efforts to assemble an arena deal and ownership group was sufficient to keep the team in California’s capital.

Stern has used his influence to convince owners to deny the relocation and will probably prove to have done so again this week when the Board of Governors goes through with the expected denial of the deal between Kings owners and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. While Sacramento will cheer the decision and Seattle fans lament it, each with their hearts being on the line, I can help but feel a bit of disgust from a less biased point of view, but not for the holier than thou reasons aimed at Hansen and Ballmer you might expect.

To me, the upcoming end result of this debacle shows a few things. Number one, the NBA is under the thumb of David Stern to such an extent that owners will fall into line with his wishes despite knowing that this decision is not in the best interest of the league from a demographics, marketing or financial perspective. Problems with Sacramento’s bid have been widely reported and their proposal of opening a new stadium in three years has been said to be somewhat far fetched with a figure more like six years considered a much better possibility. 

The Kings remaining in Sacramento seemed impossible six months ago, but the city quickly rushed a deal together that has Stern asking the investors to put all of the money needed into escrow, something they have only half completed. The Kings sweetened the deal last week by bringing a strange bargaining chip to the table when they promised not to receive any revenue sharing dollars once their new arena is built and they have been able to avoid getting sucked into a bidding war with Hansen, who has raised the price around $75 million from his initial offer, thanks to their relationship with the league.

The revenue sharing concession seems a little ridiculous considering that the new revenue sharing plan that came out of last year’s lockout was designed to help small market teams, like Sacramento, compete with bigger market teams whose pockets are lined with money. This defeats the purpose of that agreement, giving money back to the league essentially instead of it being used to cover the operating costs of a small market franchise. In the spirit of being competitive, Hansen not only ensured that Seattle would not receive any revenue sharing dollars, but actually pay into the system.

On top of that, Hansen has offered to pay an incredibly over the top relocation fee of $115 million that would result in each NBA team receiving $4 million as well as an inflated price for the franchise that drastically drives up the value of every NBA team and would hand the Maloof’s a big wad of cash. The NBA’s response has been to insist that it isn’t about money and that this is about keeping the Kings in Sacramento.

This is where my disgust comes in. Why isn’t it about money? This is America right? We live in a capitalist society right? So why for the first time in American history that I can remember is a bidding war over a business being a considered a bad thing and the money men behind that bidding war being demonized?

This Seattle based group of businessmen is doing everything in their power to get a team back in their town by doing what business men do, throw money around. Do you honestly believe that the Sacramento based group would behave that differently if they didn’t have the league in their pocket? They are a group of business people too, looking to purchase a business.

This is a big part of the problem. Too much of the media attention on Sacramento and what is coming out of the NBA and Sacramento people’s mouth is about sentimentality. At the end of the day, while the Kings are a part of the community they are also a business. Just as the Sonics were and 29 other NBA teams are and their value should be determined by the price a buyer is willing to pay for them. What that buyer wants to do with the team is essentially up to the buyer.

The one thing all sides can agree on is that the Maloof brothers being out of basketball makes the league better. In recent years, they have alienated the team’s fan base much the way Clay Bennett did in Seattle in order to drive down attendance and justify what they want for a team, a move to a different city. Over the years they’ve wanted Anaheim, Virginia Beach and Las Vegas, but now someone has offered to come in and do what they want without them having to do any of the hard work.

While this may seem wrong, you’ll have to excuse Seattle supporters if they don’t cry for Sacramento fans after what happened to them five years ago. Bennett did everything in his power to sabotage the Sonics staying in Seattle in favor of moving them to Oklahoma City. The fact that the Maloofs have done the same in Sacramento (walking away from an arena deal last year and putting out one of the crappiest teams in basketball each of the last six years) just screams for the precedent that Bennett set to be followed and the team now move.

But Stern is standing by the city of Sacramento and fighting for the Kings in a way he refused to do for Seattle. When things got tough and it didn’t look like the Sonics could get state funding for a new arena, he let Bennett do as he wanted. But here, when the city and the Maloofs couldn’t reach a deal, Stern has now blocked their attempt to sell to the Seattle group, is attempting to force the sale of a team at a cheaper price and doesn’t want to let them move.

I’m not defending the Maloof’s actions, we all know they’ve run that team poorly and have made things harder than they should have been for the city of Sacramento. But, this is America, and when you own something that is wanted, you’re entitled to sell that for the biggest profit possible. Imagine you own a piece of property and someone offers you a million dollars for it, but the city you live in comes in and says you have to sell it to someone else for $600,000. Needless to say, it wouldn’t matter how little you cared for that piece of property previously, you’d be pretty upset and rightfully so.

Essentially, that is what the NBA is doing, stepping in like a dictatorship and deciding what happens instead of letting business run its course, opens the league up to some dangerous precedents (i.e. owners being denied to sell to whomever they wish, the league setting the price of a franchise and the renegotiating of revenue sharing plans with the new Sacramento group which could force other franchises threatened by the same situation as the Kings to give up their much needed revenue sharing money in order to keep a team).

The efforts by league mouthpieces and Sacramento bloggers to make Hansen and the city of Seattle seem like Wal-Mart coming to crush the mom and pop shop are both uncalled for and inaccurate. The whole idea that the Sacramento group is made up of angels with the league and city’s best interest at heart is laughable at best. It’s made up of business men in suits looking to make money and they think they can do it in Sacramento where others have failed. There egos are no less large or despicable than Hansen and Ballmer’s.

Now there is a plan B, where the Maloof brothers sell 20% of the team to Hansen and Ballmer and operate in Sacramento another year while they try to reapply for relocation. If the initial sale to Hansen and Ballmer is denied, it’s doubtful that they’d approve a 20% sale. This would essentially force the Maloofs to sell to the Sacramento based group the league wants installed and end the saga.

There is talk of anti-trust lawsuit scenarios, most of which would yield nothing for Seattle or the prospective owners. There is talk that Seattle could be promised an expansion franchise, a far fetched idea considering that Stern has said time and time again the league isn’t looking to expand and Adam Silver, Stern’s deputy and successor next February, seems to agree with that sentiment.

This debacle has certainly proved one thing: once you lose a team, it’s nearly impossible to get one back. Sacramento appears to have averted a disaster, although whether or not their new stadium actually comes to fruition and the team has the future fans have been promised will prove for an interesting road ahead.   

In the end, the Seattle group did everything right, they are just on the wrong side of the commissioner and his buddies. They were essentially used as a threat to the city of Sacramento to get their act together or the team would go to Seattle. It worked. Now Hansen and Ballmer will have to turn their attention elsewhere (probably Milwaukee) to acquire a team and rest assured, we haven’t heard the last of them.