When NBA Commissioner David Stern opened his mouth to reporters March 9, Sacramento received a huge boost in retaining the Kings franchise.
I began to have a suspicion that the vote by the NBA’s relocation committee taken Monday would not go Seattle’s way as far back as March 9 when David Stern tilted the board in Sacramento’s favor by the remarks he made following a Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets game.
Sacramento just made a counteroffer to Chris Hansen’s bid to purchase the Kings and move them to Seattle, and Stern, astonishingly, revealed Sacramento’s pitch to retain the Kings wasn’t nearly good enough. It would have to be increased substantially before team owners would consider it.
“The Sacramento group’s offer has some very strong financial people behind it, but it is not there in terms of a comparison with Seattle’s bid,” Stern told reporters, adding, “unless it increases, it doesn’t get to the state of consideration. I think right now it’s fair to say that the offers are not comparable.”
Somewhat later in talks with reporters covering the game, Stern also said, “There’s a substantial variance in the bids. I have an expectation – a hope – that the variance will be eliminated by the time the owners give it consideration.”
Stern should have never opened his mouth. He should have remained above the fray, allowing the bidding to play out on its own terms without his interference. Instead, Stern unethically – in our opinion — inserted himself into the process and all but told Sacramento what it needed to do to get back in the game and win.
If a judge instructed an attorney on what he needed to do to salvage a losing case, he would be — or should be — thrown off the bench.
In the time it had, Sacramento’s bidders could not present a counteroffer comparable to Seattle’s without Stern sneaking in plays from the sideline and delaying the vote by the relocation committee until Sacramento better prepared itself.
Sacramento’s purchase offer still isn’t as good as Seattle’s (and will wind up far worse in the end), nor is its arena plan. But for Stern, it’s close enough, thanks to the initial intervention he made publicly March 9, the day, in our view, the tide changed against Seattle.
Had Stern not horned in, particularly after initially saying the respective offers would speak for themselves, Hansen would not have had to purchase an additional small percentage of Kings, or bump up an already record offer for the Kings by another $25 million. When Hansen boosted his bid by $25 million, it was obvious he knew that the other team was playing with too many men on the field and getting away with it.
Stern had learned something else by March 9. He’d had ample time to digest one of the greatest offers for a franchise he and other NBA owners had seen, from men of vast wealth, potential owners any league would covet. But so phenomenal was their offer that they had unwittingly made Seattle more valuable to the NBA as a non-league city than as a league city.
Stern surely looked at Seattle and saw individuals so desperate for a team that they would go to historic financial lengths to get one. Stern, we figure, saw he could exploit such epic ankle grabbing. Turns out, Seattle could not have handed Stern a lovelier parting gift to his 30-year tenure as commissioner.
So if nothing changes in the next two weeks to bring a commitment of a team, Seattle will serve as the NBA’s default go-to city, a place other owners can use to their advantage when they bargain over leases in their own cities. Every league needs these hammers.
Tampa-St. Petersburg used to be such a city in baseball. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Minnesota Twins, San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners all threatened to move to Florida’s Gulf Coast in order to extort what they wanted where they were.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf made the boldest evacuation threat to wrangle improvements at old Comiskey Park. It worked. Reinsdorf finally got a new Comiskey Park. The Rangers, Mariners and Giants followed with new parks of their own, to a large degree because Tampa-St. Pete sat there, its municipal skirt hiked up past mid-thigh.
Seattle played the Tampa-St. Pete role long before that city erected the Florida Suncoast Dome – and let it stand empty — in an attempt to lure a major league team. Former Cleveland owner William Daley (1956-62) made numerous threats to relocate the Indians to Seattle in the mid-1960s unless Ohio made it worth his while not to leave. It did. Charles O. Finley did the same thing with the Athletics shortly after Daley got what he wanted in Cleveland.
Seattle is a glittering landing spot for an NBA franchise now precisely because its fans want one too much. Stern did not know exactly how much until Hansen emerged, the SoDo arena ball started rolling, the city and county councils eagerly signed on, and more than 44,000 fans expressed interested in purchasing season tickets. No dummy he, Stern saw no reason not to exploit that.
Demand won’t go away, although Chris Hansen conceivably could. Stern is clearly willing to bet he won’t.
We know people who know, and have worked, directly under Stern. They tell us that after the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, Stern developed a genuine regret that Seattle fans lost their team after 41 years — among relocated teams, the Sonics franchise had the longest tenure in its original city — and that he became determined it wouldn’t happen again on his watch. All very laudable.
But in a burst of perversity, Stern used Seattle’s pain at losing the Sonics to justify squashing Hansen’s bid to bring them back. No more smoked salmon for him.
For Sonics fans, there is currently not another Sacramento out there, not even bratwurst-clogged Milwaukee, ruled out by its longtime local owner, former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. Expansion, Stern insists, is not an option — at least not until Stern leaves office in February.
Hansen said after Monday’s vote that he wouldn’t give up his pursuit of a franchise. If that’s the case, his best option still might be Sacramento, whose plan to build a downtown arena, according to Hansen, is seriously flawed and will crumble under further examination.
If that arena plan is as much of a non-starter as Hansen has suggested it is, we may yet get to witness Stern explain how he backed a losing horse. Or not. If it comes to that, Stern will probably make himself unavailable for comment.