By Michael Valle
Spirits were high March 6 after the Sacramento City Council voted 7-2 to move forward with preliminary design and environmental planning for a new downtown sports and entertainment facility. The following day, the Sacramento Kings began ticket sales for this fall season.
With the city council throwing support behind a handshake-deal struck by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and Kings majority owners, the Maloof Brothers, it seemed that energy could focus on the requisite political jockeying to get done a public-private partnership of tremendous controversy.
Grant Napear, veteran Sacramento sports personality, is positioned in the thick of all public discourse on the Kings’ arena.
After the March 6 vote, Napear proclaimed on his radio show, “Miracles do happen … Last night was something that, quite frankly, I didn’t know we would ever see.”
Less than one month later, the Maloofs walked away from a deal that would have cost them almost zero in upfront money.
What no one knew at the time, but NBA Commissioner David Stern conspicuously revealed at an April 13 press conference, was that the league stood prepared to lend the Maloofs $65 million of the team’s $72 million share for the arena, with the NBA itself coughing up the remaining $7 million.
The City of Sacramento was on the hook for $250-million-plus, which was to be raised primarily through leasing public parking assets to a private operator — the source of great criticism from opponents.
Often in contrast to the game being played on the court, the public relations spectacle has been well worth the price of admission.
The day the deal was agreed to in a Florida hotel, narrowly meeting a league-imposed March 1 deadline, Gavin Maloof wept. At the following game against the Utah Jazz, Gavin and Joe Maloof ceremoniously joined hands with Johnson at center court during an extended timeout.
Since that short-lived honeymoon period, rhetoric between the two camps has degenerated to subterranean levels.
“It’s round three of a scheduled 12-round bout that figures to go the distance,” Napear said on his April 3 radio show. This after the Maloof family expressed concerns with the handshake deal, refusing to pay $200,000 in preliminary planning costs. The mayor responded by calling the Maloofs “disingenuous.”
Ten days later at a bizarre April 13 press conference, the Maloofs paraded out a group of hired guns — including an economics expert and an antitrust-trained attorney — in an attempt to publicly discredit the deal that George Maloof described in February as “fair.” Chris Lehane, political heavyweight and then-leader of Johnson’s Think Big campaign — the at-issue advocacy group that led the arena charge for the city — subsequently compared the Maloof brothers to North Korean dictator Kim Jong iL in negotiation. The Maloofs have since branded Johnson a liar, refusing to play ball with him.
Napear, for his part, is without room to pivot his opinion on the Kings: He spends days as radio talk-show host employed by KHTK 1140, Sacramento AM sports broadcast station, while game nights he’s television play-by-play man for Maloof Sports and Entertainment.
Like the Maloofs, Napear has been adamant for years that the Kings absolutely need a new arena — a remodel of the 24-year-old barn wouldn’t do. Without imminent replacement of the recently-renamed Sleep Train (neé Arco) Arena, the future of serious, money-making basketball in Sacramento was in considerable doubt: Anaheim, Seattle, and even Virginia Beach, Virginia all have surfaced as potential destinations.
After the deal lay dead, Napear walked back his support for the plan, parroting the Maloof line that it is in fact feasible to renovate the current facility.
With the proposed plan, the Maloofs would have been mere tenants in a city-owned building and stood to lose out on complete control of nightly advertising, parking and concession revenues that they now enjoy for all arena events, non-basketball included.
The deal wasn’t without its thorny points for the city of Sacramento, either. The city still faced significant hurdles before shovel could meet ground for a new arena, including the challenge of squeezing the edifice onto a parcel reserved for a highly-anticipated transit complex serving the entire region — not to mention the potentially risky plan to privatize public parking, which has had mixed success in other cities around the country.
Sacramento is projected to face a double-digit deficit over the next several years, prompting a bond measure for a half-cent sales tax hike. Its neglected sewage infrastructure requires costly repairs, and utility rate increases are scheduled to hit residents hard by 2014. For the arena planning, the city of Sacramento spent $686,000 on consultants and lawyers to conduct studies, negotiations and preliminary bidding activities — a sum that could have covered the summer operating costs for struggling public pools.
The Maloofs’ own debt, which if the team optioned to tap the NBA’s offered multi-billion-dollar credit line, might weigh in at an amount far north of the $67 million the team assumed from the past ownership group. It’s a tough position for any investor to maneuver in, much less an ostentatious group that has already embarrassingly withdrawn from Las Vegas, losing all but two percent of a once-fashionable casino and selling their 70-year-old family cash-cow liquor business in the process.
There’s seemingly a lot at stake were pro basketball to leave Sacramento — and the Kings franchise has been especially nomadic over the course of its 67-year NBA history. It’s hard to argue that the presence of pro sports hasn’t brought civic cachet to the oft-ignored government town, plus the Kings (and their owners, the Maloof brothers) are active in local charities and the community.
Sacramento’s clamoring for cultural relevance two decades ago is what overcame significant challenge from environmental groups to develop North Natomas and the current arena site in the first place — a necessary concession for a group of local developers to build the existing facility and relocate the Kings from Kansas City.
Two years before, that same group from Sacramento had assured Kansas City fans that they were committed to staying put.
Months removed from the major theatrics, and with the Sacramento home opening of the 2012-13 NBA season set for Monday, the town has sunk into a serious sports malaise. Many on both sides, the supporters and the detractors, are left without faith in city government, the forces that would benefit from a publically-subsidized arena, or any urban identity Sacramento had to start with.
Mayor Johnson, who won overwhelming re-election in June, seems to have generated whatever goodwill he may have gotten by championing the arena proposal. He and Think Big have since moved onto other downtown revitalization efforts, such as attracting a major-league baseball team, though Johnson still hasn’t gained the support needed to put his “strong mayor” proposal to a vote.
As for the Maloofs, a tenuous relationship with Sacramento remains. With few other local entertainment draws, a recently established league-wide revenue sharing program and an improving team, it’s possible that the Kings can remain viable for some time in their current facility. But significant damage with the community has been left unrepaired.
Whether or not the teams flees for another, more-eager destination, it’s clear that Sacramento faces a crisis of character. There’s uncomfortable resemblance to other beleaguered central valley towns — and little wonder why people look to national sports as a conduit to urban amenities and civic vitality.
Enthusiasm in Sacramento to support a lavish professional league in harrowing economic times, however, may be waning, just as competition from other cities around the country for that very privilege, is heating up.
— Michael Valle is a third generation Sacramentan, low-post presence, and former Kings season ticket holder.