As Sacramento celebrated Friday, Seattle’s relations with the NBA — mostly David Stern — need to get better before anything good happens.
In a celebratory press conference Friday morning at City Hall, Mayor Kevin Johnson summed up the the practical and emotional drivers that preserved the Kings for Sacramento: “It’s about jobs and it’s about revitalizing downtown. It’s about civic pride. It’s about not letting somebody take something that isn’t theirs.”
Taking something that isn’t theirs. That about sums what was always going to be the dirtiest part of returning the NBA to Seattle. And it provides desperate inspiration, as NBA Commissioner David Stern knows well.
The second-worst part for either city was the price: More than $1 billion — $535 million for the franchise paid to the Maloof family, a suggested retail price of $448 million to build a new arena, plus uncounted treasure in cost overruns and defending against legal challenges. The total cost would have been at least that in Seattle, plus a $115 million relocation fee.
But at the conclusion of five months of emotional whipsaws for Seattle hoops fans, 27 months of arena-plan wrangling in Sacramento and 14 years of tumultuous ownership of the Kings by the Maloofs, one simple sentence explains why the price was little matter and the outcome foreseeable in a saga unique in the history of modern American pro team sports:
The Kings were Sacramento’s to lose, not Seattle’s to win.
Why was Sacramento able to complete an astonishing rally to convince Stern to convince 22 owners that the hasty, unbaked proposal was worth the risk of denying a much more sound plan of Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer? That too, has a simple answer.
Sacramento’s leaders and many citizens believed that keeping the only major sports franchise the market likely will ever have was a community need. In Seattle, the return of the Sonics was a community want.
And that leads to a third simple answer, this one to the question of why the NBA would turn away from the financial upside of the Seattle market. The answer was clear well before the 2008 move of the Sonics to Oklahoma City, and buttressed by five years of positive evidence from the cleaned-up Dust Bowl: The NBA will have a better chance to succeed in one-horse markets like San Antonio, Salt Lake, Portland, Oklahoma City and Sacramento.
Not a guarantee, of course. What is? The NBA knows, and will never admit, in most markets it shares with the NFL and MLB, it will be the third ticket. And in often-anomalous Seattle, there are the Sounders.
But with the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement favoring owners with lower labor costs and better revenue sharing, the chance for succeeding in markets that define pro sports as a need, rather than an option, is greater.
@CarmichaelDave is the ultimate Kings fan and media personality. He was called by Johnson to the podium Friday to represent the fans. He made an honest, civic-deprecating point when he said no TV or radio game-show contest ever makes a trip to Sacramento the first prize.
Sacramento does not have Felix Hernandez, Russell Wilson, a Division I college football program in a nearly new stadium ready to open in the fall, or the most successful pro soccer team in U.S. history. It does not have a race track, a large waterfront, multiple urban lakes, benign summer weather and three national parks not far away.
Sacramento has state government, the Kings, a nice AAA baseball team and tule fog. It also has ambitions.
As the capital of the world’s eighth-largest economy, Sacramento is a place where many big businesses send people to make deals with the state. After 6 p.m., folks coming out of the state capitol building walk into decaying downtown will not be mistaken for South Beach — except perhaps for those nights when LeBron is in town.
As to whether the value of the arena project is inflated, or its real costs deflated, no outsider can really say with authority, although Hansen/Ballmer certainly believed it. But the view of outsiders doesn’t matter. What matters is that mega-wealthy Californians such as Vivek Ranadive and the Jacobs family of San Diego teamed up to put down money for the purpose of revitalizing the capital for the sake of the city and state. And get a big round of applause they would never get in their own businesses.
Through no fault of Hansen/Ballmer, no such stakes were visible in Seattle. The return of the NBA was desirable, not mandatory, and the arena’s preferred location in SoDo was defined by its noisy critics as an over-development for a neighborhood already too busy.
Then there was the history with the NBA. Not only did the state Legislature refuse in 2008 to re-purpose a tax revenue stream that would have combined with private money for a $300 million upgrade to KeyArena, the city of Seattle had on its books, mandated by a 74 percent yes vote in 2006, a law unique in American municipal history: Any lease of a city facility to a pro sports team must return a small profit (I-91).
To many fans, these facts may have been little noticed and long forgotten, but they combined to create one image, right or wrong, for Seattle with Stern: Hostile business environment.
To his credit, Hansen knew the scene well enough to devise an arena plan with work-arounds for both issues. The plan included much more financial responsibility for the private sector, and enough return to the city to more than satisfy I-91. But apparently it was not persuasive to Stern.
NBA owners may never say whether Hansen’s plan mitigated the hostile business environment; they don’t have to, because as Stern said, in another clever diversion, “This vote was not about Seattle. It was about Sacramento.”
I believe it was about Seattle nearly as much as it was about Sacramento. The weight Stern gave incumbency as the deal-maker merely made the explanation easier to consume.
On Jan. 28, shortly after Hansen’s purchase-and-sale agreement with the Maloofs was announced, I wrote a column that concluded, “All is possible; Hansen has shown extraordinary patience and skill in maneuvering a difficult project to get this far, this fast. But now, there are people beyond the Mariners and the Port of Seattle who don’t want him to succeed; rich people who may like basketball in their town as much he likes his in Seattle.
“Getting back together with the ex is never easy. Much must be forgiven and forgotten. And the way forward may be harder still.”
Beyond getting one right (to balance my others), the point is that if there is a next time with NBA, the city and Hansen need to understand the historic friction with the league, which was further rubbed raw by Stern’s sly mendacity and manipulations over the past five months.
It is entirely possible that bygones will be gone with Stern’s Feb. 1 retirement. In the press conference that followed the owners’ 22-8 vote that denied relocation, the next commissioner, Adam Silver, made the primary remarks about a potential future relationship with Seattle.
But it was Stern who said, as he sat down, “This is going to be short for me. I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City.”
The information was needless, but entirely purposeful. It demonstrated that a hostile business environment can be created by both parties.
Seattle had the better plan. Sacramento had the better reason. And as difficult as were the Maloofs and the Sacramento arena situation, the term for it was exasperating, as opposed to adversarial. And now the Maloofs are gone. So, soon, will Stern.
Hansen and Silver need to have a beer. Alone. Off the record. On point. To turn the corner.