The Kings are on the verge of being shipped to Seattle. (Photo Credit: HeelSports)
The sad, strange saga of the Sacramento Kings is enough to bring a tear to any sports fan’s eye, but lost in the drama of the team’s will-they-or-won’t-they relocation to Seattle is whether the team’s economic impact outscores the cost of keeping them in town.
“I hope Seattle gets a team someday,” said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said at his State of the City event last week. “Let me be perfectly crystal clear, it is not going to be this team. Not our team. No way.”
The irony of Seattle doing exactly what was done to them is not lost on NBA followers, least of all Johnson, who himself was an All Star player for three of his 12 productive years as a point guard in the league.
Sacramento Kings fans have been stuck in something of a two-year anxiety attack as their team – the only major sports team in Sacramento – has been on a never-ending roller coaster ride of rumors of relocation. The team was on the verge of relocating to Anaheim in 2011 before an 11th hour push by Johnson to find another buyer to keep the Kings in the state capital.
Having swatted away one relocation bid, Sacramento now faces a far more daunting adversary, a Seattle-based group powered by the deep pockets of the CEO of Microsoft. If the group successfully buys the team from the majority owning Maloof family, the Kings would be moved to Seattle and rebranded as the SuperSonics, the same name as the team Seattle lost in 2008 and which currently plays in Oklahoma City as the Thunder.
Losing the team wouldn’t just be traumatizing to Kings fans on an emotional level; it could also make a very real impact on Sacramento’s economy at large. It’s not a matter of if, but how much.
“People go out to dinner before or after a game and spend money they wouldn’t otherwise,” Department Chair and professor of economics at Cal State Sacramento Suzanne O’Keefe said. “As far as having a huge impact on overall employment, I’m not sure having the Kings is essential for Sacramento. I think there’s so much more that defines Sacramento.”
But what’s essential to an economist can be far different from what’s essential to an NBA fan living in Sacramento. “If the Kings move it would have a huge impact on me personally as well as the city and the economy,” Sacramento resident and Kings fan Nick Stanton said. “Sacramento is a one market town: the Kings are all we have. The Kings are our team. They’re a part of the community. For them to go would be devastating from an emotional standpoint.”
As with virtually all franchise relocations, the issue is the venue in which the team plays. Team owners typically insist that they’re losing money owning the team, and the only way they’ll be able to make ownership financially viable is for the city to finance a new stadium or arena. Ownership then holds the franchise hostage, threatening to relocate the team to a city that will pony up the funds if the current city refuses.
“Owners use what is essentially blackmail,” Eric Lindgren, professor of political science and urban politics at Whittier College, told California Forward in regard to the new 49er stadium being built in Santa Clara.
“‘If you don’t give me a new stadium, even if it’s a bad deal for you, I can take away these jobs and revenues by moving the team.’ It’s worth it for a city to have a pro team, but not if they have to give up a bunch of money up front [for a stadium],” Lindgren said.
The fears of relocation aren’t off-base either: just ask any Cleveland Browns or Seattle SuperSonics fan, each of whom had their team relocated over stadium financing. Complicating matters for Kings fans, who see the Maloofs as stealing their team, is the fact that ownership isn’t exactly wrong in its complaints about Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena.
“It’s not a very nice arena, we’ll say,” Stanton said. “It’s adequate. It’s not a very attractive location. I can’t imagine them being able to make up for the Kings being gone.”
However, for a city to chip in hundreds of millions of dollars in an economic time that speaks for itself is a tough pill to swallow, and it’s one that California residents have refused in cities throughout the state by rejecting ballot measures for stadium financing.
“If the alternative is having tax payers pay a whole lot of money to build an arena for a sports team, that’s a hard trade off. It’s very costly,” O’Keefe said.
“I would be willing to, as a taxpayer, chip in a certain amount for a new arena,” Stanton said. “But there has to be some type of private investment for it to work.”
“It’s almost never a good deal despite what they say,” Lindgren said. “No city has made money off of publicly subsidizing these things. It’s almost universally a bad deal.”
Unfortunately for Sacramento, it’s also universally the only way they’re going to be able to keep the Kings: agreeing to finance a new arena in the downtown area. Johnson was able to cajole a last-minute ownership bid from 24-Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov with an arena to be built by Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle.
But their bid is slightly less than the Seattle bid, and Seattle comes with the advantage of having already committed $200 million toward a new arena, while Sacramento’s city council is still squabbling over the idea. Impossible to ignore is the fact that in October Sacramento was put under review for a downgrade by Moody’s Investors Services, adding yet another monkey wrench into Sacramento’s efforts to keep their team.
Further exacerbating matters is Sacramento’s dismal attendance. But it hasn’t always been this way. For decades Kings supporters sold out the arena regularly. “I never owned season tickets, but I tried to get to three games a year, sometimes more sometimes less,” Stanton said. “A lot of people in Sacramento hate the Maloofs, and a lot of people don’t want to give money to the Maloofs. I do buy merchandise, but very rarely. The Maloofs have been screwing us since day one.”
In the event that Sacramento does lose its team, one economic theory is that fans will just redirect their funds to other parts of the city’s economy. But O’Keefe isn’t entirely convinced. “It’s true to some extent, but it’s probably not a 1:1 thing,” she said. “If they’re going to a sports game on a Wednesday night, they might not be going out that night except to see that sports team.”
Until the situation reaches what could be a tear-jerking conclusion, Sacramento residents will go to sleep at night with hopes that their Kings are there in the morning.