Sacramento Kings sale: League needs to take the long view on relocation


Relocation in professional sports should come only in exceptional circumstances. Burning good markets is bad policy.

Right up front: I'm obviously biased in favor of not allowing the Sacramento Kings to be relocated. I've been a Kings fan since 1989. But I also think I can make this case in a dispassionate ... well, a somewhat dispassionate way.

Relocation is one of modern sports leagues' greatest weapons. For cities being asked to produce capital for new or renovated facilities, it's basically a nuclear option. There's been a strong current against public subsidization of privately operated arenas and stadiums recently, and it's partly because team owners across the country have been so bold about wielding that weapon. For all but the most stately franchises in the very biggest markets, the threat of relocation seems to be perpetually looming. It happens across the sports, but particularly in the NBA and NHL. (The NFL has had a recent spell of threats without consummation, too.)

This isn't to say that relocation is never useful. That was the case more three or four decades ago when American cities were changing rapidly, as the West grew in population and any number of Rust Belt cities lost residents and money. But it can still be useful to correct mistakes or avoid tar pits of inaction. And that's solely how relocation should be used: as corrective action or last-ditch spur to action.

Neither applied in Seattle in 2008. Before Clay Bennett and crew asked the NBA to grant its request to move the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, Seattle billionaire Steve Ballmer tried to get the team back for the Emerald City and renovate KeyArena using limited, palatable public funds. The NBA, clinging to owners' rights and a sense that Seattle had already crossed its Rubicon of municipal inaction, ignored the request. Bennett had bought his team fair and square, the league's owners decided, and should do what he pleases with it. Further, the league office was really perturbed at the attitude of Seattle mayor Greg Nickels and the Washington state legislature, all of whom were seriously dismissive and even hostile toward David Stern.

But despite all of that, there was a local solution that resulted in a nice arena (not new, but nice), which would have negated a need for a last-ditch spur to action. Seattle was certainly a good basketball market, so relocation wouldn't be corrective action. Thus, in the bigger picture, there was no real justifiable reason to let the Sonics leave. Why did the owners do it? Because Stern was fine with it, and because they don't typically piss on each other's plans. (Chris Paul to the Lakers notwithstanding.) Why was Stern fine with it? Because dropping Seattle would sure as spit teach other cities a lesson. It was the proverbial new recruit gunning down a kid in rival colors just to prove to himself and everyone else that he would do it, if necessary.

It seems to have worked. Since Seattle, at least three municipal governments -- New Orleans/Louisiana, Indianapolis and Milwaukee -- have made concessions to keep their NBA teams from looking at relocation. In addition, Sacramento's city government has been working overtime to get deals in place to build a new arena and keep the Kings. Stern's Seattle gambit worked ... at the cost of the people of Seattle.

No more threats are needed. Cities get it: build or help build arenas or lose your NBA teams. Period.

Regardless, the two criteria for moving a team -- corrective action or spur to action -- don't apply in Sacramento. Sacramento is a great NBA market. This is the Kings' 28th season in Sacramento. The team sold out every single game in 19 of those seasons. The last six are among those in which games haven't regularly sold out; there was a confluence of factors (heightened ticket prices due to early '00s success, the Great Recession, awful product, constant relocation rumors, bad blood with the owners), but the struggles to put asses in seats doesn't reverse the absolute truth that Sacramento is an NBA city. And spur to action? Yeah, that stick don't stir. Sacramento city officials have been locked in for three years now.

So in the long view, there's just no reason to relocate the Sacramento Kings. It serves the NBA no purpose. (There's an argument that because a Sacramento team is a likely revenue sharing recipient and a Seattle team is a likely payer or at least a non-recipient, moving the Kings to Seattle helps all owners. But that margin is going to be absurdly small when put in the perspective of a $4 billion business.) That's why it's imperative that the NBA league office produce or support viable alternatives to relocation (such as starting up expansion talks), and that owners support one of those alternatives. Market cannibalization to re-affirm owners' rights that no one has ever questioned is short-sighted and harmful to the league.

On Thursday, The Hook will get into why expansion is not really the problem some observers make it out to be.


The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives .

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