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Sacramento gets to keep Kings for now, but new building key

May 2, 2011, 12:52 PM EDT

Clippers Kings Basketball AP

Champaign corks should be popping. Horns should be honking in downtown as people in cars shout “here we stay.” There should be spontaneous parties in the street. Bloggers should hug mainstream newspaper writers.

The Kings are staying in Sacramento. That is fantastic news — this is a market that has proven it will wholeheartedly supported that team, making it one of the most feared home courts a decade ago. They didn’t deserve to lose their team.

But if they want to keep them the real work starts once the parties end.

If plans for a new arena are not an unstoppable force of momentum a year from now, today’s decision is simply a stay of execution.

David Stern himself has made this plainly clear — the future of the Kings in Sacramento is all about a new building. In the end, it is all that matters. Here is what George Maloof told the Associated Press, emphasizing this is a one-year deal right now.

“I think it’s the fair thing to do,” Maloof said. “We’ve always said we think Sacramento has the best NBA fans in the world. Their overwhelming show of support was incredible. But now they realize that we’re giving them another opportunity and we’re anxious to play basketball.”

Former Arco, now Power Balance Arena is one of the last of the old generation of arenas. Those were great for the average paying fan because those old arenas were intimate, with fans seeming right on top of the court. They were loud. But modern sports economics demand luxury boxes and high-end VIP seats near the court. Those boxes and seats generate more income (far more) than the “real fans” that fill the upper parts of an arena in the less expensive seats. And the Kings arena lacks the needed high-end seats and boxes to make it work.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson wowed the NBA owners when he met with them in New York with talk of a new arena in downtown, and showing off the experienced team putting it all together. The NBA Board of Governors was swayed, it started the momentum that led to the Kings staying put.

But if this arena does not have financing in place, if the plans and approvals are not well down the road by next spring, the Maloof brothers will again talk of moving the team — and this time other owners will support them.

While the building is key, there are a lot of factors in play here.

One is the Maloof family finances. The brothers have reiterated — and did so again today to Sports Illustrated’s Sam Amick — they are not selling the team. But the Maloofs are hurting financially — they own a casino and a hotel, two industries hit very hard by the recession. Next to their beloved Palms in Las Vegas they built a massive new condominium building that sits more than half empty, also due to the economy. They have racked up a lot of debt (which seemed to be part of the rational for the move, it came with another loan from Henry Samueli, which might have helped keep them a float for a while). But they insist they have money and will spend some during free agency.

Then there is Ron Burkle, a billionaire in the grocery store industry and buddy of Bill Clinton, who Johnson said wants to buy the Kings and keep them in Sacramento. He has deep, deep pockets. The Maloof brothers want him out of the picture, but he is sitting there on the sidelines.

Well, not totally on the sidelines. His associate and Sacramento lobbyist was one of the key people helping mayor Johnson round up $10 million in new sponsorship money. Helping keep the Kings in Sacramento, putting more pressure on the Maloofs, who could have to sell and… just a thought.

The real pressure now is not on the Maloofs but on Sacramento to keep the Kings. They have to pony up the sponsorship money and fill the building next season. They need to prove again they care about the Kings.

But more importantly, the fans and voters need to apply pressure to make sure this building becomes a reality. Because in the end it’s all about the building. That is the real work to do in Sacramento.

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