As it turned out, yesterday’s early reports were true: The NBA’s seven-owner relocation committee voted unanimously via conference call yesterday to reject the proposed move of the Sacramento Kings to Seattle, where they would have become the new Supersonics. The full NBA owners’ group will now vote on the matter in the next week or two, but unless something changes dramatically between now and then, it’s pretty much inconceivable that the remaining 18 owners will buck the unanimous recommendation of the committee.
This is clearly a big win for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who responded to the announced sale of the Kings back in January by cobbling together a makeshift local ownership group and even more makeshift arena financing plan so he could tell the NBA that they could really truly get a mostly publicly funded new arena if they kept the team in town. (KJ busted open the exclamation point budget when he heard the news.) Whether it’s a win for Sacramentans depends on whether you think it’s worth saddling your city with $258 million in arena debt in order to keep an NBA team in town — plus whether you believe the city will actually raise that $258 million with new parking revenues, or if you expect that Sacramento will have to dip into its general fund to pay the shortfall, as the arena term sheet allows and as some simple math indicates looks pretty likely.
Partly thanks to that arena funding diceyness, not to mention the supposed allure of Seattle as a bigger media market, the media have largely painted the NBA committee vote as a surprise. And it is at least a mild surprise, especially if you consider earlier reports that the only person in the room who preferred the Sacramento bid was commissioner David Stern.
But if you think about it, Stern had a good argument for his side: Just about every owner in the NBA is going to want, at some point or another, to say to his hometown, “Cough up money for a new or renovated arena, or we’re hightailing it out of town.” And just as it doesn’t make very good blackmail if you don’t follow through on your threats (though that still can work sometimes), it also hurts your case if you try to shake down a city for arena money, then when they cough it up, you yank the team away anyway. Keeping the Kings in Sacramento may mean forgoing a big cable windfall in Seattle, but it also means keeping alive an arena-subsidy business model that has helped make many rich NBA owners even richer — and on top of which, it leaves Seattle open as a threat to shake in the faces of other mayors who might be slow to produce subsidies for their cities’ existing NBA franchises.
So what the heck happens now? The spurned Seattle group is, as you might expect, not pleased: Steve Ballmer declared himself “horribly, horribly disappointed” by the news, and Chris Hansen posted a message on his Sonicsarena.com site promising to “unequivocally state our case for both relocation and our plan to move forward with the transaction to the league and owners at the upcoming Board of Governor’s Meeting in Mid-May” (good luck with that) and noting that “we have numerous options at our disposal and have absolutely no plans to give up” — which you could read as a veiled threat of a legal challenge, or you could read as just something that you type when you don’t know what else to say.
The Sacramento arena plan, meanwhile, still needs official approval by the city council, which is going to require an environmental impact statement and all that jazz, as well as clearing the threat of a referendum challenge. (Even KJ warned last night: “There is still work to be done. We do not want to dance in the end zone.”) So it’s still possible that after all this, Sacramento won’t be able to get an arena deal finalized, and we’ll be right back where we started, with the Hansen/Ballmer Seattle group waiting in the wings. For the moment, though, the Kings will stay put, and Seattle fans will have to wait for a replacement for the Sonics. Congratulations, Sacramentans: You just won yourself a very, very expensive prize.