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An impossible war: The Sacramento Kings relocation and fairness

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Business is not fair, and sports are business, and Sacramento is quickly learning that, no, sports are not fair.

Jed Jacobsohn

At every turn, the NBA and the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, met resistance in the quest for a new arena in the Emerald City. Local politicians were not helpful. Regional and state politicians were downright hostile. The fan support helping push the government that has helped build facilities for the Mariners and Seahawks was small. So, amid the hopeless failure, Schultz did something very stupid and very wrong and sold the Sonics to an Oklahoma energy baron, Clay Bennett. Bennett pretended to give Seattle one more chance; at the end of the charade, he moved the team to Oklahoma City.

At every turn, the City of Sacramento, its politicians and its fans worked to find an arena solution in California's capital. The mayor led a charge to give Sacramento one year to produce a viable arena plan as the owners, the Maloofs, attempted to take the Kings to Anaheim. Kevin Johnson, the mayor, produced that plan after months of intense work with the NBA and a private partner, AEG. Sacramento did what the NBA team owners needed them to do. Only it wasn't lucrative enough for the Maloofs.

And now, the city that lost its team because of its own obstinance is prepared to take a team from the city that did its job. And the reason -- the sole reason for the sale to a group from Seattle instead of a group from Sacramento -- is market size. Chris Hansen, Steve Ballmer and the Seattle gang can justify dropping $500 million on a team and $350 million on an arena because Seattle is a top-10 media market with some major corporate bases. Potential Sacramento owner groups would be contributing roughly $70 million to a downtown arena project, assuming it could be reanimated. But an NBA team in Sacramento is, unfortunately, unlikely to be worth $500 million. The market size, the corporate base -- Sacramento just can't compete with Seattle like that.

So for all of the grousing we do about the unfair advantages of large markets -- I'm as guilty as any -- this is just about the most stark case since the Lakers left Minneapolis or Kareem left Milwaukee. Sacramento did everything right, but Seattle just has more money. What a lesson that is.

Kings' arena issues: a timeline | Full coverage at Sactown Royalty

The thing is that we may never find out if someone is willing to save Sacramento with a big bid ... unless the NBA forces that to happen. Before you scoff, remember what the league did for New Orleans. George Shinn, that contemptible man, was prepared to sell his team to the highest bidder. That would almost assuredly have involved a move away from the Crescent City. But David Stern convinced his owners to buy the Hornets from Shinn for a base price ($300 million) and flip it to local investors. Tom Benson, the owners of the Saints, was the eventual hero.

The Sacramento situation is different: NBA owners are not going to give the Maloofs, a family of broke, embarrassing shucksters, $500 million to waltz out of the league. And the NBA would not find Sacramento investors to pay more than that a year from now. There's one play the NBA can make to smack back the Maloofs and perhaps force a local sale: grant Seattle an expansion team. That'd get Hansen and Ballmer a team much cheaper and without the baggage of debt, relocation logistics and a year or two in a busted-up KeyArena.

It'd also potentially draw up an anti-trust threat from the Maloofs, who hired an anti-trust lawyer last year after lighting the Sacramento deal on fire. I'm not sure exactly what the case would look like, but an expansion promise would certainly look like public castration. The question is whether the Maloofs would really go to war against the NBA. Can the Maloofs even afford such a war? The NBA doesn't just have good lawyers. The NBA basically is good lawyers.

In the grand view, burning Sacramento to benefit Seattle is just stupid. People forget that while it's not glamorous and doesn't have a massive corporate HQ population, Sacramento is a top-20 American market. And perhaps more importantly, the NBA is the only game in town. (If the Kings leave, Sacramento will be the largest media market in the United States without an MLB, NFL or NBA team. The city also obviously does not have an NHL team.) If the NBA does expand in the near future and Seattle is full, Sacramento will be an obvious top candidate. So why bother setting it on fire now? Why kill the momentum of Kevin Johnson, who won't be in the mayor's seat forever? (Bigger things await Kevin Johnson.) Why let these shucksters get the last laugh against some of the world's most passionate fans?

But the mechanics are difficult, if not impossible, and chances are David Stern knows it. He could do the truly bold thing and immediately ask the Board of Governors to vote up or down on Seattle expansion at, say, $400 million ($13 million per owner), which would halt talks between the Maloofs and Hansen and bring Sacramento back into the equation. But that's something very hard. If he does nothing, he gets potentially a record sale, he gets the Maloofs out of his hair and he gets a team back in Seattle. That's much easier, and frankly not a bad outcome at all.

It's an impossible war cities like Sacramento have, made all the more so when the city's team is owned by idiots who couldn't get 50 cents out of a dollar without spraining their cerebral cortex. Nothing's fair in business, and sports are all business and ergo, nothing's fair in sports. Damn it all.


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