BY Art Thiel 08:45PM 04/29/2013

Thiel: Stern didn’t want Seattle repeat; but . . .

Monday’s vote to deny Kings relocation to Seattle leaves opening if Sactown drops ball; if not, only then does expansion become an option.

If you’re a Sonics fan nursing a boot-print bruise on your butt, keep in mind the one adjective that has always prevailed in this soul-sapping drama regarding the NBA Kings:


From nowhere came Chris Hansen to put $70 million of his own money into SoDo property, plus millions more in private money from Steve Ballmer, the Nordstroms and others to put into an arena project. From a block further than nowhere came Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s whale round-up, as well as an arena plan. From a labor lockout came a collective bargaining agreement that offered the possibility of break-even operations for every NBA team in its market, drying up the pool of available teams.

These unlikely developments arrived simultaneously upon a franchise that had no remaining arena lease, in a city desperate for national validation and in a sport governed by a commissioner in the last of a 30-year tenure.

Delighted by the rising value of his franchises — Job One for any sports commissioner — but looking at another potential ugly relocation, Commissioner David Stern gave every chance for Sacramento to match the record Hansen bid. For one reason: He didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Rather than screw over a second city with relocation, he has screwed over, at least temporarily, the same city twice.

At worst, he figures he can live the rest of his days with never getting a drink brought for him in Seattle.

The 7-0 vote Monday by the relocation committee (not including the five members of the finance committee) to recommend to the Board of Governors that the Kings be kept in Sacramento is a logical outcome, if the premise is accepted that what was done in 2008 in allowing the move of the Sonics to Oklahoma City — no relocated team in NBA history had a longer tenure in its original city than the Sonics’ 41 years in Seattle — was wrong.

Who in Seattle can argue with that?

The fact that the NBA found no significant flaws in the proposal by Hansen, and was the better financial deal, was never going to be enough to trump Sacramento’s incumbency — as long as the counteroffer came close.  Thanks to Stern’s persistent scolding, wheedling and cajoling, the fate of the Kings became a crusade locally and statewide for California politicians and rich guys who indeed made a big effort, because they saw a chance for the capital city to be something other than a backwater.

The only remaining question: Is the effort close enough?

As one member of the Seattle bidding group told me Monday: “It’s not over.”

The source confirmed what Ballmer told KJR radio’s Mitch Levy off-air by phone Monday, that he was “horribly, horribly disappointed” in the NBA. “But he used different words,” said the source, laughing lightly, leaving undescribed the notorious Ballmer temper.

Truth was, Ballmer, Hansen and their crew were blown away, so certain were they that the Seattle bid was superior, while the Sacramento bidders were riven by conflicts, disarray and an arena plan that that wasn’t even dough, much less baked. As late as Friday, according to USA Today, the NBA was talking to the bidders about putting in escrow a substantial deposit by next Friday, May 3 — as much as 20 percent of their valuation, a number that still has not been disclosed.

That would be somewhere close to $50 million in cash, which would seem within reach of the wealthy group. But as far as has been disclosed, Sacramento still hasn’t committed sufficient cash, despite numerous missed deadlines and Stern’s earnest efforts to move the goalposts on their behalf.

That’s probably why the normally exuberant mayor sounded cautious Monday afternoon, where he addressed an impromptu crowd at a press conference in a downtown bar.

“It is not over yet,” Johnson said. “I feel like we have won a round in the playoffs . . .  There is still work to be done. We do not want to dance in the end zone.”

After the emotion of Monday’s decision dissipates, the Hansen group will meet to strategize, the Sacramento group will have to man up at the ATM, and the NBA will have to assess whether it is logical to now consider a response to Seattle, which could include expansion.

Yes, expansion. Despite Ballmer telling Levy that the owners have told him expansion is not on the table, why would it have been if the Kings were still in play for Seattle? Now that relocation is apparently not an option, it serves the NBA’s interests to keep Hansen/Ballmer engaged.

Why? Because Sacramento could still screw it up. If the holes in Sacramento’s ownership and arena plan are as numerous as Seattle bidders claim, and the Friday deadline is actually real, the owners need a fallback position — Seattle. That’s part of why the NBA by-laws mandate a minimum seven-day window of deliberations in these matters, and why Johnson himself said it isn’t over.

Is this sequence of events a little unlikely? Of course. What in this saga hasn’t been unlikely?

The only thing the Monday vote did was recommend denial of relocation if both bids were competitive. If Sacramento fails to perform, the NBA has an alternative in Seattle, and Stern has cover. He can say to the Sactowners: I grew your food, made it into groceries and created the meal, and I’ll be damned if I’ll chew it for you and swallow, too.

If Sacramento does deliver, then there remains time before the vote the week of May 13 to consider Seattle for expansion following next season. Monday’s vote had one agenda item, and it wasn’t expansion. Up until Monday, there has been absolutely no reason for the NBA to have formally considered expansion, and there won’t be until Sacramento has secured its bid.

Stern has given clues all along, repeatedly saying, in answer to the same question, expansion is not under consideration “right now.” He has also said nothing but positive things about the Seattle bidders and the arena project. But he has had to keep feet on the throats of both bidders in order to get the highest return.

Yes, Seattle is being used, just as the NFL has used for 18 years a vacant Los Angeles market to blackmail other balky municipalities with NFL teams. It is not yet being thrown away.

If the scenario seems far-fetched, remember the word that describes the entire affair: Unprecedented.


  • Jason Long

    I thought NBA owners were shrewd business men, not spineless wimps who allow a retiring tyrant to call the shots.

  • Is there a better reason not to watch the NBA?

    • art thiel

      Can’t blame anyone for tossing up hands.

  • Hansen/Balmer/Nordstrom going to war with Stern….Stern will regret screwing Seattle this time.

    • no fool

      need a hug????? sounds like you guys need a life

  • Evergreen

    Ballmer neither walks into nor walks away from big deals he cares about lightly. He may not eventually win and get the Kings, but he’s also not the type to accept a ‘no’ and go away meekly into the night. This story is far from being done.

  • PokeyPuffy

    Interesting analysis Art, however how does this reading of the tea leaves account for the famous Stern statement “one of these cities will be disappointed”? One can imagine Stern thinking of Seattle (specifically Frank Chopp ?) when he says that with his mock earnesty..

  • Michael Kaiser

    I really do not know how to say this. I am not a genius. In fact far from it. So are many others like me who saw this outcome coming a long time ago. How Balmer and others in his group can feel screwed shows the–I really am sorry to raise this point tonight–the blinders of so many in this area. Seattle–for all its greatness these days (in its mind)–and Washington over all, was not, and will not, ever, at least in the foreseeable future, beat California in a contest of strength over something that matters to California. If Seattle was more right-sized it would not have wasted the resources it did. Maybe this will at least lead to expansion, but that is years away.

    • Todd

      What an idiotic comment. The Seattle area is the highest educated area in the USA. California has the highest state debt in the USA. Fortune 500 companies are born here. You know not what you speak of. No need to post further here.

      • Michael Kaiser

        I guess the only thing I knew, and I posted it repeatedly on this forum, was that Hooterville did not have a chance. Now go play homer somewhere else. “HIghest educated area in the USA?” And not an ounce of common sense. Fortune 500 companies are born everywhere. That still does not mean that Seattle is ready to do anything more than carry California’s jock strap.

        • Todd

          Please. You’re a complete tool. Lol

    • Hammtime

      “I really do not know how to say this. I am not a genius. In fact far from it.”
      I think you said it quite well and I would agree.

  • Sean23

    The only thing I’m rooting for now is for Ballmer to go ballistic and spend his money on lawyers and become a major pain to the NBA. That would be good spectator sport.

    • art thiel

      Fun, put would it be productive? As I’ve said, litigation is the nuclear option. I know it worked in 1972 with the Pilots, but this is different.

      • art thiel

        Should read: “Fun, but . . .”

      • Adam Smith

        Spectator sports are an entirely consumptive phenomenon. Not one thing about any of this latest insult to the collective intelligence of both cities could be remotely described as “productive”. The money spent on tickets is almost entirely local and by definition disposable, so the economic benefit to a community is limited to a mythological demographic of people who would choose to move to or from a city based on whether pr not they had an NBA team (as opposed to good jobs, schools, roads, etc.). In a climate of public austerity, these billionaire boondoggles are as economically counter-productive as they are morally corrupt.

        • Adam Smith

          Put another way, how many people moved from Los Angeles to Cleveland because the latter has an NFL team? The only people who have suffered from a lack of an NFL team n LA are 1) whichever group of local oligarchs who would have used it to extort public money, and 2) whichever city is currently hosting whichever team would have gone to LA if it weren’t for the local leadership’s willingness to spend public funds to keep them.

  • Tom

    As much as it seems expansion would be the perfect solution here, I’m concerned it won’t happen for a couple of reasons. First, like Balmer said, the owners don’t want to split their revenue with another team. And secondly, this Seattle ownership group is of WAY more value to the rest of the league to be used to hold other cities feet to the fire to build new stadiums and to force local ownership groups to drastically overpay to save their teams thus increasing the values of the rest of the teams. Why would the league ever willingly give that up? I think the only way expansion comes to Seattle is if Balmer/Hansen/etc say they are done and out of the NBA business forever if this doesnt happen now. It is absolutely disgusting that the NBA’s plan to use Seattle worked perfectly against Sacramento. If I’m Balmer, NO WAY I let it happen again.

  • Michael Kaiser

    One more thing, then I will shut up, as I know this is a hard night for a lot of people who really wanted to see NBA basketball back in Seattle. But if I was the NBA right now, I also would not grant Seattle an expansion team. It is too soon after Seattle–ultimately, and I am not going to get into some inane parsing of whose fault it was–let a team walk away because of what the NBA reads as a lack of community support. And just because some new magician has come flying in on a magic carpet saying, “this time it is, or will be, different,” would not be enough for me. More time would have to pass to see if they continue to come back and the interest is still there five years from now.

    • Robespierre

      How’s this for lack of public kickbacks …err, “community support”…? [EXPLETIVE VERB] THE NBA and ANY amalgamation of billionaires who would set communities against each other in a fool’s tournament to extort ever more public money for their private enterprises!

  • mh

    The issue you haven’t raised is the public financing portion. From an owner’s perspective, Sacramento’s offer to essentially throw in 250+ million plus of free money is obviously preferable and doesn’t upset the NBA’s current business model (i.e. get free things). Seattle’s model of basically self funding the arena, albeit with tax arrangements, would set a bad precedent for the next time any current owner wants to sell. It’s not surprising that they voted for the option that extends their own financial self interests…. that’s what business owners are supposed to do…

    • inplaylose

      that argument would make sense were it not for the fact that, 80 miles away from Sacramento, the Warriors are ponying up their own money to build an arena on the waterfront in San Francisco – the result of which will send the franchise value skyrocketing.

      • mh

        Yeah, but’s that’s not an ownership sale….. and the value of the Warriors will increase, but not skyrocket – the elevated value you get from personal seat licenses and luxury boxes for an arena you have to pay for yourself isn’t even close to the value of getting someone else to actually build the stadium for you – and get the PSLs and boxes in the deal too….

        • inplaylose

          the long term franchise value from owning your own building, and controlling all the revenue streams yourself, far exceed short term benefits of having others build it for you and having to negotiate from then on. in any case, this particular plan in Sacramento still seems shaky, at best.

  • inplaylose

    seems like the NBA just turned down the best deal it will ever get for a really dreadful franchise – you have the Seattle people willing to ultimately invest about $1 billion in a team which has had 5 homes and hasn’t won a title since they were in Rochester. in doing so, they’ve lowered the franchise’s value (since it sounds like the Maloofs will have to take less money from the Sac folk) which affects the value of the other franchises as well, lessened the league’s account balances (since the Kings will never be a payee into the revenue sharing), and, if Hansen/Ballmer abandon ship and tell the NBA to get lose, the league will close off their best available market to use as leverage. from a long-term business standpoint, this seems like a terrible idea for the league.

    the only way this makes sense for the league is if it thinks it can somehow keep the Seattle group “whole” as Stern mentioned somewhere before (whereas moving the franchise would’ve meant discarding Sacramento for good). if that doesn’t happen, this goes down as a complete fiasco – one more dead franchise in a league full of them.

  • fairmontdave

    Do I smell a 2nd professional team coming to Seattle as a result of a lawsuit against a sports league? Subtract Pilots after 1 year, add Mariners. Subtract Sonics after 41 years, add Sonics? I’d sue until David Stern and the NBA for breach and don’t we love binding? I was even thinking today about Ken Bering and his attempted move of the Seahawks to LA. Chris Hanson seems up to it!

  • GoodApples

    The anger is understandable, but this is over. It might be unfair, but it is what it is. Time to move on.

    • seattlenative57

      Move on? You are totally out of touch. This not a group that “moves on” because the NBA says so. This is a long way from finished. Buckle up!

  • Alien Observer

    When did it become an acceptable expression of “civic pride” to subsidize billionaires’ hobbies with public money?

  • Boone Doggerel

    Submitted for debate: Every “fan” of every professional sports franchise (with the possible exception of fans of the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers) is essentially a chump.

  • I have said all along, if both citys put enough pressure on the NBA they will be forced to not pass up Seattle when the next team goes on the market.
    Your problem was dealing with the Magoofs, they never said to Sac town that they would sell. In fact they have always said they would never sell. They are so sad they screw each other over for a buck.
    Sac town could have gone the legal route saying other owners have first right to buy.
    The best plan was always to put for a good face for both citys so they both get a team.
    Their is no way the NBA could not let Seattle have the next team.
    Sac town had an Arena plan in place that the Magoofs said we agree to only to back out.
    You know why the Magoofs lost the Rockets When George SR died the sister had their name on the Rockets! Instead of being bought out, the said anything with are name on it!
    Liquidate it and give us are cash.
    They have been screwing each other over ever since.
    In Vegas no does business with them in less they have too.
    If they give you their word in writing it still doesn’t mean anything, cause the never keep it.
    I am sure the NBA will get the next team to your city, if another citys fails.
    Sac town did not fail, only there owners did.