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NBA owners forced to choose between Maloofs and Sacramento in remake of Major League

Dec 5, 2012, 7:55 AM EDT

George Maloof

Every good story needs a villain, but the NBA probably doesn’t want to remake the movie Major League in order to sell its product.

Indeed, George Maloof and his brothers have done their best Rachel Phelps impression, complete with bottom-four payrolls over the past four seasons and little-to-no improvement to the franchise whatsoever.

In the movie, Phelps is a Las Vegas showgirl that inherits the Cleveland Indians. She purposely set out against her own team to make sure attendance falls low enough to break her lease and move them to sunny Miami.

In this D-list relocation reality show, George is a failed Las Vegas developer that inherited a fortune. He has set out against the city that has done everything possible to keep its beloved Sacramento Kings, all so he can be handed a shiny new arena and keep all of the profits from it, too.

Brothers Joe and Gavin, the ones that cried after an arena deal was reached in Orlando during last year’s NBA All Star game, the same guys that raised mayor Kevin Johnson’s arms at the next home game and told an adoring crowd that it was “all about” Sacramento – they can’t stop brother George now.

He holds all the cards, not by some virtue of leadership or respect from his siblings, but because the family is hemorrhaging money and they can’t afford to be NBA owners without making a last second full-court shot.

They need Sacramento or another city to give them a lopsided deal or they’re out, sooner rather than later. If they do nothing, they will run out of money in a Sacramento market they torched themselves, and if that doesn’t happen first then Sleep Train Arena eventually won’t meet NBA code and the game will be over.

Meanwhile, they’re stuck in a classic Catch-22. The family can’t afford to make the improvements to basketball operations that would in turn bring increased revenues from TV and at the gate.

Fire GM Geoff Petrie or head coach Keith Smart? One needs money to do that and Kings fans probably shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for that to happen anytime soon.

A move to fire one or both of them would be elementary for most franchises given the disastrous state of affairs on the court, where a team of mismatched parts is mismanaged on a nightly basis and looks like the basketball equivalent of the Bad News Bears.  But the Maloofs can’t even afford to remove the signage of sponsors that have long since fled, let alone find replacement leadership, as tarps duct taped over the old signs are allowed to fall onto the basketball court during games.

Of course, nothing says the sky is falling better than when the sky actually falls.

At this rate the Maloofs might appreciate holes in the ceiling of the soon to be dilapidated relic, as it would allow the family to thank their lucky stars that the NBA still deems them fit for the revenue sharing checks that are keeping the operation afloat.

As unsettling as all this sounds, this is all just another year in the life of long-suffering Kings fans, who are forced to swallow story after story about their owners visiting with other cities in hopes of landing a sweetheart deal — a deal that lets them have their red velvet cake and eat it too.

That story chugged along yesterday when the Virginia Beach City Council got an update from arena operator Comcast Spectacor, who has reportedly pledged $35 million toward the cost of a $300 arena that would theoretically draw the Kings out of Sacramento.

George Maloof hasn’t even attempted to hide his interest in the matter, meeting with the governor of Virginia this month to request $150 million in emergency state funds to help move the team east.

Never mind that it was just April when Joe Maloof told Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee point blank that “We’re not selling, and we’re not leaving. Our identity is the Sacramento Kings.”

At this point, we should all know better than to believe a word that comes out of the Maloofs’ mouth, but anybody trying to figure out what is going through their minds is asking the wrong questions.

The only question that should matter to the league, its players, and the fans that make it all possible is how long the NBA and its other 29 owners are going to let the family threaten its billion dollar subsidy industry.

The NBA has received $3 billion in public subsidies for arenas since 1990. In a spectacularly timed story released yesterday, Deadspin provides a visual analysis of the $32.2 BILLION that has been given to pro sports franchises by the public from 1909-2012.

The NBA and other major sports are able to secure this unfathomable amount of money by threatening to leave cities that don’t pay up, and one doesn’t have to look far in this saga to see what happened when Seattle decided to build facilities for the Mariners and Seahawks and not the David Sterns.

In fairness, even the most ardently opposed economist will readily admit that there is a public benefit to having a big league sports franchise around, but the conversation surrounding the use of public funds to fund sports facilities is getting more strained by the day.

Part of it is the lack of data showing that sports subsidies generate jobs and income, but mostly it is good old fashion resentment toward rich folks that drives the opposition. The conversation is much more complex than that, but voters don’t have time to read economic white papers nor do they want to. They’re making less and less money every day, and many of them don’t see the tangible or intangible benefits of having pro sports in town. As a result sports subsidies are being fought with fervor across the United States.

So if you’re an owner of a team in any professional sport, having George Maloof go on television to pitch against a city that is taking money away from cops and firefighters to offer you over $250 million isn’t a good look.

This will be compounded as sports economists, businesspeople and politicians start to do their due diligence on the Sacramento situation. They will all quickly find that Sacramento did everything they could possibly do to fulfill their end of the bargain, and with the NBA readily admitting that, there will only be one story to tell.

That story will be a heartbreaking tale of a city’s long-term partnership with the NBA being discontinued for no other reason besides the fact that the owners were broke.

For Sacramento, if the Kings are allowed to leave 30 years of public investments into the team will have all been for naught. Sure, there were great times and intangible benefits galore. The Kings will have spurred economic activity during that time, and contributions by the Maloofs and prior owners to local charities should not go unnoticed.

But the significant public investment in both dollars and man hours, let alone the emotional investment the citizens have made in the team over time were all predicated on the understanding that as long as the city did what it was supposed to do — the relationship being proposed by the league was to be a marriage and not just a fling.

How will David Stern and Adam Silver reconcile that drama the next time they pitch for public dollars?

‘Give us $300 million, but don’t mind us if one of our owners has two slices of bad pizza and decides to stick a Las Vegas casino one mile off the strip.’

It’s not going to work. If the NBA allows the Kings to be stolen from Sacramento, they’re going to make Sonicsgate look like an NBA Cares spot.

I was present for the Kings’ last game as the Maloofs had two feet out the door on their way to Anaheim, having given their seats to Lakers fans as they left Fan Appreciation Night a few quarters early to beat the traffic. Thousands of fans refused to leave the arena in an organized sit-in after a riveting game, leaving an indelible mark on everybody that witnessed an historic event.

Even after that gut-wrenching sendoff, though, it was more likely that Sacramento and people in general would have been willing to let the issue go. Bad owners force a move – it’s a movie that many of us had seen before and up to that time there was enough ambiguity on all sides of the issue to keep it from escalating in the public consciousness.

But after everything that has gone down in the last year and a half, if this story doesn’t end well it’s going to leave a mark.

There have been multiple team-sponsored celebrations to celebrate keeping the team in Sacramento, which are akin to giving a seven-year old a massive, gift-wrapped empty box for Christmas. There are the mountains that Sacramento moved to get their arena deal done. There are the fans that refuse to give up, that continue to give their hard earned money after all that they have been through simply to show the other 29 owners that the Sacramento market will never go away.

They make documentaries about the ordeal, they go to city council meetings weekly, and they’ve done this under threat of imminent relocation for nearly two years now. They continue to unite their many different groups and they fight for their city. They have nervous breakdowns on Twitter, they get fed up, and then they do it all over again because that’s all they know.

Stealing from the wounded so blatantly on a national stage wouldn’t just be cruel, it would be stupid. The NBA may as well run ads of William Wallace screaming the word ‘freedom’ to sell Kings season tickets.

A slow and eventual execution would be a moment that transcends sports.

Not only will opponents of public sports subsidies cite the curious cases of Sacramento and Seattle in every single negotiation the NBA has going forward, but the NFL and Major League Baseball will quickly move to distance themselves from the business practices of ‘those third-rate NBA owners.’

So while this has become a blood issue for George Maloof, who hates Sacramento, the real blood issue for the other 29 NBA owners is what half or even a quarter of $3 billion looks like tattooed on the wrong side of their balance sheet.

The players, if their leadership even cares to understand the issue, will eventually learn that any percent of $3 billion coming out of the BRI calculation will hit them, too.

If the NBA and its players don’t recognize the risk and they allow the issue of sports subsidies to become more toxic than it already is, politicians are going to have their hands tied by a voting populace that simply won’t budge. Elected leaders will be forced by necessity to ask for less and less until the voters have seen enough documentaries about the NBA fleecing the local underdogs that they simply won’t approve squat.

It’s a compelling reason for David Stern to use the best interests of the league clause to get what he wants in this dilemma. Commissioners in other sports have pulled the trigger, and if explained correctly to the Maloofs’ fellow owners they’ll realize that indeed, it’s in their best interests.

Beyond the best interest clause, the league can also start to stand up to the Maloofs’ implied threats of antitrust litigation.

Antitrust law requires the NBA to provide a very straight-forward relocation request process, and that is why the league appears to be a passive aggressive participant in the drama thus far.

The prevailing legal analysis and prior court decisions have given team owners a strong case to be able to move as they see fit, and courts have found leagues liable for unilaterally blocking relocation without providing some form of due process.

Where the recent court cases haven’t provided guidance, however, is in how leagues can recoup the value of territory that the league itself owns, which is ultimately ‘taken’ by the relocating owner. The same holds true for how other owners within a league are indemnified for a team owner moving into their backyard.

The scope of this relatively untouched area of law has been encompassed by a ‘relocation fee,’ but the courts have provided no guidance on how much a league can charge. Clay Bennett was charged $30 million to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City, and surely the league doesn’t want to go overboard charging an owner a lot of money in any deal that the league itself likes.

But with some legal scholars at Loyola Marymount University believing that relocations fees could range from a small amount like the aforementioned – to the full market value of an NBA franchise or more – the NBA has a leg to stand on in court if they want to price the Maloofs out of the relocation marketplace.

These same scholars have unearthed other strategies that can be used against owners that damage a league because of their relocation aspirations, including the recovery of punitive damages, and with the various missteps the Maloofs have taken it could be a target rich environment.

There are plenty of ways the league can tell ‘the boys’ to shape up or ship out, provided that the league understands and cares that their subsidy dollars are at risk. With this leverage in tow, they can nudge the family to take the original deal that Sacramento offered, or sell the team to one of the local buyers that the city has lined up. From there, if the Maloofs don’t like it they’ll need the money and fortitude to go heads up against the association Al Davis style.

From a league perspective, if the family can’t find duct tape strong enough to keep tarps from falling onto the home floor during basketball games, no owner should be scared of mere millionaires that are threatening to cook the golden subsidy goose live on a social network of your choice.

On Tuesday, as George Maloof preheats the oven, Kings fans tuned into a live video feed of a city council meeting thousands of miles away. Their anxieties and anger played out in the social media world, as Virginia officials scurry to meet the demands of making a full court shot with one second left on the clock.

Virginia Beach mayor Will Sessoms and his arena team have told the Commonwealth of Virginia that they need $150 million in emergency state funds by February or March or “this project cannot move forward.” Sessoms and Maloof are pitching a $300 million arena, which is an incredibly low number that barely passes the sniff test. They are also asking for $42 million to go toward the Maloofs’ claims of lost business revenue in the event of a move, a magically estimated $30 million relocation fee, and $8 million in moving expenses for the team itself.

During the meeting, city council members lobbed criticisms of how the numbers were put together, the lack of public involvement, and the lack of time they had to evaluate the plan.

In just the most recent sign that this plan has been thrown together at the last second, Sessoms backtracked 24 hours earlier when he said that he forgot to include $45.8 million in financing costs in his public pitch a few weeks back.  He also claimed that only the people using the arena would be paying for it through user fees and the like, but his group had to go to the local hotels and get them to agree to a one percent increase in occupancy tax.  As councilman Bill DeSteph expressed, people that stay in hotels aren’t necessarily using the arena so the city’s promises regarding taxation are already being broken.

Clearly there is opposition to the project and there’s nothing like a $45.8 million typo to quell the anxieties of the voting populace, who are led by city and state politicians that appear to have no real interest in the plan. In fact, there aren’t many people in the know that believe that the Virginia Beach plan has teeth, but both the city and the Maloofs benefit from the appearance that a deal could be done.

The family gets imaginary leverage if they can somehow get another city interested in the Maloof experience, and Virginia Beach gets its name on the relocation radar for the next major league sports franchise opportunity. And if these friends with benefits get lucky, and everything breaks their way, they’ll be in bed with one another every night for the next 25 years.

Be careful what you wish for Virginia Beach.  Sincerely, everybody.

Meanwhile, all Sacramento can do is wait. The NBA knows that their No. 20 TV market with no other sports competition is prime real estate for them, and they know that Sacramento has done everything in its power to fulfill their end of the bargain.

A threat for Sacramento ironically looms in Seattle, a threat that is cruel to both sides really, but the Maloofs have shown no willingness to sell and the Emerald City isn’t in the market for tenants – they’re in the market for teams. As I detailed in the past, prospective owner Chris Hansen is going to have to drastically outbid Sacramento owners if the Maloofs finally cry uncle and decide to sell.

These other markets – the Virginia Beaches and the laundry list of fringe cities the Maloofs have approached that are competing with Sacramento – they don’t have the eyeballs, disposable income, or the built-in maniacal fan base that Sacramento or Seattle has.

IF, and this is a pretty big if, the Maloofs can somehow convince one of these cities to part with a revenue split greater than they could get in Sacramento, all while the family contributes nothing toward a new arena – then the NBA still has to decide if it wants to torch a great market for one they can have at any time.

And that’s what this is really about. Is the NBA willing to make a really bad business decision for a family that will be on CBA welfare for the foreseeable future? Will they risk their own good standing with cities across North America just to avoid getting their hands dirty in court, or going against one of their own?

Regardless of the end game here, the NBA will eventually be forced to make a decision about who they value more – Sacramento or the Maloofs.

One of them has a $250 million arena subsidy with well-funded owners ready to pick up the ball and run, and the other is running around North America panhandling with the NBA logo.

It’s your move, NBA. Everybody is watching.

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