Winner in Seattle-Sacramento tug of war? Stern’s NBA

dave.boling@thenewstribune.comMarch 28, 2013 

As the Sacramento City Council ups the ante in its high-stakes game of Franchise Hold-’em with Seattle, it’s increasingly obvious that NBA commissioner David Stern’s manipulations may be the most masterful of his career.

In these parts, this comment may sound like those who footnote the oppressive history of political despots with a brief and grudging recognition for having made the trains run on schedule.

Stern shared culpability with a number of others for the Seattle SuperSonics’ defection in 2008, when he displayed little more than the back of his hand to the Puget Sound-area fans who supported the NBA for 41 years.

In that process as well as the current tug of war, Stern is carrying the shield for his masters – the owners of NBA franchises.

The message to Seattle in 2008 was that cities unwilling to contribute public subsidies for arena replacement or upgrades are vulnerable to the pain of team extraction.

When the public balked at a bidding war in that case, it suited Stern to cold-shoulder Seattle and do everything short of loading the moving vans for Oklahoma City, where an arena with tax-supported improvements awaited.

Stern’s handling of the current Sacramento-Seattle situation has helped foment a bidding war between cities that, curiously, doesn’t really involve the owners of the Kings.

The Maloof family already has a sales agreement with the Seattle group headed by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer. And let’s not forget the Hansen group has already kicked in a $30 million

non-refundable deposit on the deal.

But it’s up to the NBA’s Board of Governors – not the owners of the Kings – to decide where the team should reside.

A year ago, the Sacramento Kings were valued at $300 million, 24th in the NBA. The Maloofs had tried relocating and had whiffed on a deal. They owed money and were alienating the fan base.

Hansen began buying up property in Seattle, put together a group of financial heavyweights, and shaped an arena/franchise proposal that won over the traditionally fiscally reserved city council.

One problem. Sacramento wouldn’t let go. Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA All-Star, vowed to find ways to anchor the franchise. It created a market demand that Stern could manipulate.

During All-Star weekend, Stern warned that both cities would not come out of this happy. It meant that expansion would not be a solution for Seattle, and the only practical hope to fill that proposed arena was to uproot the Kings.

In response, Johnson wooed investors. But Stern responded: “(There are) very strong financial people behind it, but it is not quite there in terms of a comparison to the Seattle bid. … Unless it increases, it doesn’t get to the state of consideration.”

And with that, the puppet-master made Johnson dance, seeking out more heavy hitters to come up with the council-approved plan for a $448 million entertainment and sports center in Sacramento. The deal includes a reported 58 percent in public funds from the proposed sale of bonds against future parking revenues.

Stern and owners love the notion of a larger percentage of public involvement in the Sacramento offer. Hansen’s heavily privatized offer makes it more difficult for the NBA to go to other city councils in the future with their hands out.

On Wednesday, Hansen reportedly forked over another $15 million for a 7 percent share of the Kings that had been in bankruptcy court.

As the plot continues to twist, the pile of money grows.

Remember that $300 million value Forbes Magazine affixed to the Kings a year ago?

The new value, according to Forbes, is $525 million. That’s an increase of 75 percent in one year.

A committee of owners will consider the matter next week, and the Board of Governors will vote at their meeting April 18-19.

Either way it goes, the value of the franchises will be enhanced by the bidding war.

And David Stern will be smiling.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling

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