The kabuki dance of shifting a North American major league sports franchise from one city to another is in the final few steps. The National Basketball Association's Sacramento Kings ownership has reached a deal with Seattle interests that would transfer 65 percent of the team to a Seattle group and see the team move from Sacramento to Seattle.
That part of the deal seems cut and dried but the final few movements in this fandango are far from certain. The National Basketball Association's Board of Governors has to approve the transaction and ultimate move from Sacramento to Seattle. The NBA Commissioner David Stern has told Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, that he will have one last chance at keeping the team in Sacramento. The Maloof brothers, the present majority owners have to declare their intention to move by March 1 and the Board of Governors will take up the question of whether to move the team or not in April.
The last time the NBA moved a franchise and immediately replaced the team was in 2002 when George Shinn took his Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans. That shift may have some ramifications on this proposed move in that Shinn left Charlotte because he could not secure a new arena to replace the 14-year-old Charlotte Coliseum. That building was declared antiquated by everyone connected to NBA and the Shinn business because the building lacked amenities such as luxury boxes and club seats.
Charlotte votes turned down an arena referendum that was supposed to make Shinn remain in the city. He left but the NBA wanted to stay in Charlotte and somehow convinced Charlotte elected officials that it would be in the city's best interest to build a new arena and give a perspective owner the keys to that arena.
The city agreed and within two years, the NBA was back in Charlotte and each NBA owner got a more than $10 million payday when Bob Johnson bought the expansion franchise in December 2002 for $300 million.
That agreement came about seven years after Art Modell left Cleveland with his National Football League franchise and headed to Baltimore. Not soon after Modell left, the NFL and Cleveland officials agreed on putting a new franchise in the city in 1999 after city elected officials put forth a taxpayers spending plan to build a new football stadium.
The NFL-Cleveland decision came about a year and a half after the NBA refused to allow the Minnesota TimberWolvers franchise to be sold to New Orleans interests. The league blocked the sale and found a local buyer. The New Orleans group which had boxing promoter Bob Arum and others didn't contest the league action.
The league probably isn't too sure about the Maloofs plan of action. In 1984, San Diego Clippers owner Donald Sterling defied the NBA and moved his team to Los Angeles. There was a threat of litigation but a settlement was worked out and Sterling was in LA. The Maloof brothers could sue the NBA if the sale is blocked.
Sacramento and Seattle interests want a NBA franchise and seemingly only one is on the market at the moment--the Maloof's Kings. In the past decade, Sacramento has attempted to satisfy the Maloof family with a series of arena proposals only to see each proposal fail. Mayor Kevin Johnson claims he has the public money to build an arena and allegedly there are local buyers ready to step up. Sports agent Tom Reich though is skeptical about one name being mention, Ron Burkle.
Why would a sports agent comment on the name of a potential purchaser? Reich knows Burkle and recruited Burkle to buy into the bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League in 2006. Reich isn't sure Burkle necessarily wants to buy into a Sacramento NBA franchise as his main goal is to obtain the Anschutz Entertainment Group and build a football stadium in Los Angeles. Burkle would also like to buy an NFL team for the proposed LA stadium.
The business of the Sacramento to Seattle move which would return the NBA to the Washington city after a five year absence. The owners of the Seattle SuperSonics moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008 after they could not convince Seattle and Washington elected officials that it would benefit the Seattle area if taxpayers put up money for a new arena. Now there is a private-public arena plan and local owners are willing to spend more than $500 million to buy a majority share of the Maloof Kings. NBA owners, if the deal is approved, will see their individual franchises jump in value as a mid-market level franchise would be worth more than $700 million.
Seattle is a mid-level market.
Why can't the NBA let the Maloof Kings go to Seattle and just take a Sacramento guarantee to build a new arena and continue business in Seattle? There is nothing to stop the NBA from going to 31 franchises. In fact there is nothing to stop NBA owners from going to 32, 33 or 34 teams.
Sure there will be the moans from sportswriters complaining there just not enough good players and the teams are watered down. But the reality is that owners have for usually money reasons have put an artificial cap on the number of teams in their league.
The NFL owners seem to not want to "dilute" the national television revenues by adding a 33rd and a 34th franchise even though there are many football players available to fill up rosters. The NFL's 32 team set up today is a partially a result of co-opting franchises from other leagues-the St. Louis Rams started out in Cleveland in the second American Football League. Baltimore, Indianapolis and San Francisco have roots in the All American Football Conference. The NFL took in all 10 AFL teams in 1970, four years after the two leagues merged. The NFL added Tampa and Seattle in 1974 in an attempt to take those cities out of the running for World Football League franchises. The league worked out a deal with Cleveland to avoid a lawsuit in 1996.
Major League Baseball was a 16 team entity from 1903-1960. The National League added New York and Houston in 1960 in an attempt to make sure the proposed Continental League didn't drop anchor in those towns. The American League quickly expanded after the National League announced the Houston and New York expansion by creating two teams in the fall of 1960, Los Angeles and Washington with the Washington franchise filling in a gap created by Calvin Griffith's move of his Washington Senators to Bloomington, Minnesota after the 1960 season.
Charles Finley's move of his Kansas City A's to Oakland after the 1967 season caught the attention of Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. Senator Symington was miffed with the move and threatened to strip the American League (and National League) of antitrust protection. By 1969, the American League was back in Kansas City and opened up shop in Seattle. The National League put teams in Montreal and San Diego.
Seattle ownership could not support the franchise and went bankrupt in March 1970. Local Milwaukee car dealer Allen (Bud) Selig plucked the team out of bankruptcy. Subsequently King County threatened to sue Major League Baseball on antitrust violations, baseball and King County settled when baseball agreed to put an expansion franchise in Seattle which occurred in 1977. Toronto and Seattle joined the American League. Major League Baseball expanded to Denver and Miami in 1991 because the industry once again was threatened by the Senate for not adding teams with the antitrust exempt at stake and Major League Baseball added Tampa and Phoenix in 1995 under some political pressure as money to build a taxpayers financed stadium in Phoenix would disappear after April 1, 1995 with no team.
The National Hockey League celebrates "The Original Six" teams in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto. But there was a business reason there were just six teams. The league was down to seven teams at the beginning of World War II in 1941. The Manhattan-Madison Square Garden-based Brooklyn Americans suspended operations at the outset of the war and Red Dutton's team could not get back in the league after the war. The NHL rejected overtures from various cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Cleveland in the 1940s and 1950s.
The NHL expanded by six teams in 1967 for two reasons. The owners wanted to make sure they got into Los Angeles and San Francisco after there was word that the Western Hockey League which included those two cities along with Vancouver was going to declare major league status. The NHL also needed major markets for a TV deal which is why six teams came in. Los Angeles, San Francisco (Oakland), Bloomington, Minnesota, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The 1972 NHL expansion to Long Island, New York and Atlanta was in part to keep the newly formed World Hockey Association out of those markets. The NHL took four World Hockey Association franchises in 1979 and expanded by nine teams in the 1990s after cities began bidding for franchises by giving out sweetheart leases.
The NHL owners split about $450 million in the 1990s.
The NBA has also poached other leagues for teams, the National Basketball League and the American Basketball Association. The owners do what is best for business not for fans.
Seattle and Sacramento are battling for one NBA franchise. The NBA like the other leagues has created a scarcity. There are just 30 teams around and other cities like Louisville want a crack at a team. But at the end of the day, it is a group of owners who own the teams and set the rules and change the rules and it comes down to cash. Throw enough cash on the barrelhead and you get the owners' collective attention and in the battle for the Maloof Kings, money not fans, wins out.
Evan Weiner can be reached at email@example.com His e-book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com and another e-book, America's Passion: How a Coal Miner's Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century is available at www.smashwords.com