Tag: Sonicsgate

Phil, George, Gavin Maloof

George Maloof’s Virginia Beach arena ploy falls apart, Seattle rumors heat up


We never took the Maloofs or Virginia Beach seriously in their talks to move the Sacramento Kings to the eastern seaboard, and predictably the talks officially fell apart when Virginia Beach mayor Will Sessoms declared the deal dead for now on Tuesday.

There were a million reasons that deal was a farce – a sad ploy to manufacture leverage in George Maloof and his family’s ongoing attempt at getting something for nothing in an arena deal.

Still though, this marks the end for yet another painful chapter for Kings fans, who have endured as much uncertainty and shenanigans as any fan base on this side of Seattle.  And as we learned late Tuesday night, the next chapter has already begun.

Super agent David Falk’s daughter Daina tweeted yesterday that Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen has already come to an agreement with the Maloofs to buy the Kings, calling it a “done deal.”  Since those rumors hit the Twittersphere, she backed off a bit on her Facebook page and deleted her tweets at about 9 a.m. ET today (original here).  Seattle writer Chris Daniels wasn’t in a hurry to address the “rumors” last night, adding that “it isn’t over until it’s over” and that’s a point of agreement here.

First off, the idea that a deal is closed is premature since the Board of Governors would have to approve it and that clearly hasn’t happened, let alone with a relocation request attached.  Of course, a deal could be being negotiated in the background between the Maloofs and Hansen with or without the NBA’s participation, and she may be referring to some step in that process, but until she comments further or the next shoe drops this is mere speculation from a potential, albeit unlikely information source.

Either way, we’ll learn a lot in the next 24 hours as the various parties each respond to requests for comment at the start of business today.

As for the Maloofs, Tuesday’s Virginia Beach developments put them back at square one and they are running out of time and money to make their final move. They will either need to come up with a lot more money than they have right now to run a basketball team in the Sacramento market – a market that they torch regularly with their antics – or sell the team and that brings us back to where we were in early September.

For Seattle to ironically take the Kings from Sacramento, Chris Hansen will need to drastically overpay to purchase and move the franchise, and if the notoriously deliberate businessman wants to do that then the NBA will still need to get behind the deal.

Given the fact that Sacramento has come up with a “model offer of public funds” according to one league source, a decision to allow the team to move will not be made lightly, as it will necessarily hurt the league in its negotiations with other cities for future arena subsidies.

In this case, the city of Sacramento has done everything the league could ask for and then some to help build an arena.  The implication is that the league is asking cities for long-term investments of public dollars, but not providing a reasonable expectation of a long-term partnership so long as that city continues to provide reasonable partnership dollars into the future.

The part that is most threatening for the league in this scenario is how publicly embarrassing the Maloof family has become to the NBA, creating a real-life equivalent to the movie Major League, and in this day and age of information those images are exponentially more accessible to the public than they have been in previous arena quagmires.

With the league and its players receiving $3 billion dollars in arena subsidy money since 1990, any shift in public sentiment or political resistance on the issue could cost the league an unfathomable amount.

If Hansen won’t pay drastically more than Sacramento, then the Maloofs will likely need to sell to one of a handful of serious buyers out of California’s capitol city that are ready to buy the team right now.

It’s theoretically possible that another city could come into play, but given the fact that Sacramento is a one-sport town with the No. 20 TV market – chances are moving the franchise won’t make sense for the league or a new owner.

George and his siblings can’t simply do nothing, as the sky is falling at Sleep Train Arena and it’s anybody’s guess when it won’t be suitable for NBA games.  This situation will come to a head and the only question is when the family gives up.

And until the NBA effectively finds a way to nudge George Maloof and his siblings out of their clubhouse, they will continue to panhandle for arena money at the expense of the logo.

We’ll get an update to you guys as soon as we learn whether or not this Seattle rumor has any legs.

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

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.

Will Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen drastically overpay for the Sacramento Kings?

chris hansen seattle

News of billionaire Chris Hansen striking a deal with the Seattle City Council hit the wire late Monday night, as the sides have agreed to a framework on an arena deal that moves them a few smaller hurdles away from becoming an NBA-ready city (courtesy of Chris Daniels of King 5 in Seattle).

In a bit of twisted irony, the city that had its team stolen away will now set its sights on any available team, and there is no team that is more available than the Sacramento Kings, who nowadays have a different rumored destination every week.

This most recent news solidifies Seattle’s place on the top of that list, though they still need the Maloofs to sell, and they still have to outdo Sacramento. Neither task should be considered a slam dunk, or even likely at this point.

The idea that Sacramento could lose its team, of course, is a black eye for the league as the city has supported its team in every conceivable way, including where it counts financially and at the ticket gate. The only reason we’re having this discussion is because the Maloof family, internal squabbles aside, doesn’t want to be there.

Their roots are in New Mexico, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and being broke in relative NBA owner terms they’re looking for a short-term infusion of cash, which they hope to find by moving the team to another city that will both build them an arena and also let them keep the profits from it.

Cities such as Virginia Beach, Louisville, Vancouver, Kansas City, and the like are potential candidates if anything because they’re willing to pay to be on the NBA map. But the math starts to get fuzzy because the markets are smaller than Sacramento, and the Maloofs end up no better off than they were in Sacramento over the long haul.

That, and the NBA doesn’t really want those markets, at least not at the expense of Sacramento, where the league enjoys the No. 20 sized TV market without interference from other sports leagues. When you factor in the public relations hit of moving the team – it’s hard to see the league supporting a move and to date we have not.

Even when considering a larger market like Anaheim, the league isn’t falling all over itself to allow a move. The NBA blocked the Maloofs’ relocation attempt last year after Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson raised over $10 million in untapped sponsorships at the drop of a hat and promised a viable arena deal. Things seemed to be moving along reasonably well and a deal for a new arena was agreed to in principle during All Star weekend in Orlando.

But that was before George Maloof created a how-to-guide for burning bridges in Sacramento. He torched the deal live on public television in a tirade for the ages, and any goodwill that was leftover at the league offices was probably lost. Commissioner David Stern has used measured words in describing the arena situation since then, and none of them have painted the Maloofs in a flattering light.

In fact, the commissioner would probably like to see the family sell the team, but as usual the issue comes down to money, antitrust law, and the other 29 owners that one day will be negotiating with both the league office and their home city about something.

Aside from not wanting anybody to tell them what to do, owners want the right to move their teams to the cities they feel they can make the most money in. Leagues don’t like to allow this as it creates a number of problems, and the courts have found that the intersection of those opposing ideals lies in the concept of a relocation fee. Relocation fees are the amount that a league can charge to indemnify parties that are damaged by an owner’s decision to move.

The law is much more detailed than this, and the case law that has been favorable to relocating owners isn’t an exact match to the situation in Sac, but one thing is clear – neither party wants to land in court over this.

And that’s why the Kings arena situation has been allowed to play out, to the detriment of the league’s image, and as an affront to the other 29 owners that one day will have to negotiate with their municipalities.

While it’s unclear right now what impact the Maloofs’ apparent bad faith dealings in Sacramento will have on other team owners seeking public subsidies, a small shift in public sentiment could cost the league and its players tens of millions of dollars and a large scale shift could put the billion dollars the league has received in subsidy back on its balance sheet.

But even with the Maloofs’ name now toxic inside the league and out, to the point it’s being pulled off the signage at the Palms, the league cannot afford a bad ruling in an antitrust case. Aside from treble damages the Maloofs would seek, which are significant, a bad ruling would be held over all sports leagues’ heads by owners wanting to play franchise free agency.

The best hope for the league has always been to see the issue play out on its own, with the Maloofs realizing that they have no options besides going back to the city with its hat in its hand, or selling the team outright.

And with Seattle standing in the on-deck circle and doing what they need to do to land itself an NBA franchise, the question on everybody’s mind is whether or not Hansen will be able to drastically overpay for the Kings.

The Maloofs owe about $70 million to the city of Sacramento and well over $100 million to the NBA, and a sales price in excess of $400 million is needed to give the 43 percent stakeholders an easy way out of Dodge. Considering the franchise is valued at $300 million by Forbes, which is a generous valuation, Hansen would need to hope that the bump of moving to a larger market in Seattle and owning land near the arena would justify the Maloofs’ likely asking price.

But more importantly, when you factor in a relocation fee, which sources tell me will be assessed to give Sacramento buyers a fair shot at buying the team, Hansen could be looking at $500 million or more to buy the Kings. After paying $300 million and counting to build an arena, that’s approaching a billion dollars to get in the game.

It’s possible that the man known for his patience will wait for a less toxic situation to pop up, and it’s fair to wonder now if the league would reconsider expansion now that multiple cities have expressed interest in NBA clubs.

As for Hansen’s involvement with the Kings, he said weeks ago that he had not made an offer to purchase the Kings after a local report emerged saying otherwise. If he decides to make a play for the team, and assuming the Maloofs are ready to cry uncle, it probably puts Sacramento on notice that it’s time to formalize an offer to buy the team.

Sources on the city’s side have indicated that they have more than one buyer lined up, and ultimately Seattle’s progress could force some sort of endgame here. If the goal is to sell for the Maloofs, then they will likely have squeezed the best sales price out of Sacramento that is possible, and anything close to a Seattle offer (after the relocation fee) will likely be supported by the league.

If the Maloofs still don’t want to sell, they’ll continue to play the dating game with other cities and the league will continue to deal with a public relations nuisance. The family will not get a different arena deal in Sacramento, and any talk of renovating the unrenovatable Arco Arena with public funds has been met with collective laughter both inside and outside of the city.

Even if the Maloofs can find a sweetheart deal somewhere else, it’s unlikely that they’ll have the clout to force a move the league doesn’t want. Sure, they may have some antitrust law on their side, but they probably can’t afford the lawsuit and even if they win, they’re left in a place where they’re not wanted. They don’t have the fortitude of antitrust victor and deceased Raiders owner Al Davis. And other than George, they want to be wanted.

In Sacramento, the framework for a deal exists not just for the Maloofs but for any owner that wants to pick up the ball and run with it.

The deal that was struck between the city, arena giant AEG, and the NBA is still considered a good deal by each of those parties, and the only thing that would theoretically change are the owner contributions. In a concept the Maloofs cannot come to grips with, if a new owner wants to pay more for arena construction they can enjoy more of the profits.

Unlike anywhere else in the country, including Seattle, an agreement can be reached in Sacramento under the current terms and design could start within about a month according to sources.

As usual, though, the story goes right back to the Maloofs and whether or not they’re ready to face the music. They can’t do nothing, as Arco Arena is dilapidated and barely up to NBA code. They’ll eventually need to do more than polish the concourse floors.  Eventually, they’ll either need to take the Sacramento offer, try to make something out of nothing in an unlikely move out of town, or sell the team.

And when the music stops and the only thing left to do is sell, will Hansen or any other buyer want to drastically overpay for this particular franchise to the extent that Sacramento can’t match the offer?

Until these questions are answered or the Maloofs are nudged out the door with greater efficiency, Sacramento Kings fans have to endure the same fears that plagued Sonics fans before their team was ultimately ripped away.  And that’s just not right.

In depth: Stern fires shot across the bow at the Maloofs, who continue to threaten the NBA’s billion dollar arena subsidy

team maloof with stern

A meticulous planner, everything David Stern says is run through a filter of lawyerly instinct and an ever-present awareness of his surroundings.

So when David Aldridge asked him if the NBA would support the Maloofs in their desire to move the Sacramento Kings to Anaheim on Tuesday – don’t think for a second that he hadn’t weighed the legal gravity of the situation or the wishes of his 29 other bosses.

“If there was a vote now, there would be no support for a move,” Stern said.

Stern then went on to poke at the Maloofs for their current plan, which includes staying in the nearly dilapidated Power Balance Pavilion for at least one more season, despite the family threatening to leave town for years because the building is dilapidated.

“That’s their prerogative. As long as it (Power Balance) stands and passes the fire code, I think it’s been a terrific place for the fans of Sacramento,” said Stern in his typical dry wit.

This is the most recent play on the NBA’s relocation chess board, and with the Maloofs overtly implying an antitrust lawsuit against the league for well over a year now, it’s a telling one.

Antitrust suits have been the weapon of choice for owners looking to find greener pastures, and though case law provides limited guidance for courts, it has generally been a favorable area of law for relocation efforts.

On the other side of the coin lies the ‘best interest of the league’ clause found in most sports associations’ bylaws, including the NBA’s. The bylaws allow for the commissioner to take any action they deem necessary to protect the league, and the league’s preferred association status is tied to the commissioner’s ability to show that ‘due process’ has been provided during disputes amongst owners.

The best way to understand this is to know that the courts generally aren’t going to restrain the trade of an NBA owner. They’re also not going to allow an owner unilateral ability to destroy the league that it operates within as a single entity, and the tipping point is somewhere in the middle. The leagues and courts have already found mechanisms (relocation fees) that allow the individual entities impacted by a move to be indemnified to a certain degree.

In the case of the Maloofs’ attempted move to Anaheim, sources with knowledge of the situation have reported that a relocation fee would be upwards of $300 million.

In this case, there are two injured parties in L.A. that would disapprove of the Maloofs’ desire to move into their market, but the more pressing issue for all of the NBA’s owners is what the Maloofs are doing to impact the integrity of the league’s billion dollar arena subsidy.

Since 1990, the NBA and its players have enjoyed a $3 billion public subsidy toward arena costs.

In April, the family backed out of a deal that as anchor tenants required them to pay $73 million toward a $391 million facility – $67 million of which would be provided by the NBA in the form of a loan. George Maloof called it a “good deal,” Gavin Maloof cried tears of joy after the parties emerged from an Orlando hotel room heralding the deal during All Star Weekend, and both Gavin and brother Joe held Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson’s hands in triumph at the Kings’ next home game.

All of it was a ruse, though. It became clear that the Maloofs had no intention of striking a long-term deal with Sacramento when political crisis consultant Eric Rose was brought on by the family to handle its media strategy, and their antitrust attorneys began sending threat letters to the city that were designed to disrupt its ability to deliver on a tight timeline. Then came the ridiculous requests and demands, and the confidential communications between the family and the NBA eventually were leaked to a Sacramento website that opposed the arena deal.

Eventually, the Maloofs would burn most of their bridges in Sacramento in what Stern would describe later that day as “not the weirdest press conference we’ve ever had.” They hired an economist that twisted enough facts for Stern to say he acted in “ill grace,” and their antitrust attorneys pitched against Sacramento over PowerPoint. With only the Sacramento media allowed in their New York hotel conference room, George Maloof went on a wild tirade that made their economist Chris Thornberg look like a beacon of truth.

The NBA, who was authorized by the Maloofs to represent them in negotiations, thought the deal was fair, but the Maloofs expected to pay nothing and control all of the revenue streams in Sacramento. They expected this because of Anaheim’s long-standing offer to bring the Kings down south. Billionaire Henry Samueli and Anaheim’s city council’s offer to provide cash relief to the family would theoretically allow them to continue operating the team while making big market TV money, with the fallback position of selling the team for more than they could in Sacramento due to the larger market.

But that didn’t account for the minimum $300 relocation fee that the Maloofs or any subsequent owners would have to pay to infringe upon the Lakers and Clippers’ markets, making the deal untenable for the Maloofs if they wanted to keep the team. If their plan was to sell to Samueli or another Anaheim group, the relocation fee would certainly be a big nut for the new owners to take on in addition to the price of the franchise, not to mention a huge deterrent if the new owner senses they’re not wanted by the league.

It has been theorized that this relocation fee was communicated at some point to the Maloofs, who expected to leverage (or take) Anaheim’s offer despite being near the finish line with Sacramento. In that theory, once the Maloofs realized a move to Anaheim was not in the cards they decided to officially muck up a Sacramento deal that reflected their meager contributions, while testing their leverage with antitrust threats.

Regardless of the Maloofs’ intentions, cities that negotiate with the NBA and team owners over arena subsidies will now point to the family’s apparent bad faith dealings. Now, the league will have to explain to its civic partners how and why they should expend political capital and public funds if owners are going to use the scorched earth strategy when they don’t get what they want.

Sacramento spent significant sums of money and staff time in the arena negotiations process during a budgetary crisis only to find they were spinning their wheels – all while offering to pay for 65 percent of the arena’s costs – and the NBA is going to have to wear that issue unless they make it right by keeping a team there under a workable plan.

The timing couldn’t be worse for the league, either, with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals just four years after Stern, former Sonics owner Howard Schultz, and now Thunder owner Clay Bennett stole 41 years of Sonics history from Seattle because the local government wouldn’t pony up. The government there certainly shoulders some of the blame for how that went down, but as the documentary Sonicsgate so handily points out – the principals on the NBA’s side had agendas that aren’t exactly ringing endorsements for the league.

Even if the league somehow makes things right in Sacramento and Seattle, this pulling back of the curtain could shave millions, if not billions of dollars off the NBA’s bottom line if not handled correctly by the owners. Municipalities are going to have a harder time convincing voters to part with tax money as the subsidy shakedown gets exposed, and arena funding campaigns will be forced to seek lower funding amounts as local voters lose their appetite for unsavory business tactics.

Whether it’s in the best interest of the league’s balance sheet, or the best interest of the league’s PR efforts, the Maloofs are killing the association on both fronts.

With Sonicsgate discussion now creeping into the national discourse during the Finals, we saw the first signs on Tuesday that the owners aren’t going to let the Maloofs throw the baby out with the bathwater. By stating publicly that the Maloofs have “no support” for a move to Anaheim, the league has all-but invited the Maloofs to pursue their antitrust suit.

Namely, a decision to not once, but twice inform the family that they cannot move could spawn any number of antitrust damages. If monies or opportunities are lost as the result of the league’s decision to block relocation last year, or if Stern’s public statement this year causes any damages – it adds a yet another critical piece of evidence the family could use when piled on top of the rest of the evidence they’ve been compiling.

This is a decision that does not come lightly, because neither the league nor its owners truly want to face the time and expense of a massive lawsuit like that, nor do they attack their own knowing they will one day be on the other end of the subsidy discussion themselves. At a higher level, the league does not want to see any more case law put onto record that would either weaken its ability to police itself or the various antitrust protections it enjoys. At the top of that list is the ability for the NBA and other sports associations to leverage its limited, monopolistic demand (teams) against cities in the gathering of public subsidy dollars.

Perhaps the league is aware of a solid offer from Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen that nobody out of Sacramento is willing to match, and that is the source of their confidence in saying the Maloofs would have “no support” in moving to Anaheim. Seattle mayor Mike McGinn met with Stern in New York on Monday and Hansen is ready to take on most of the cost of building an NBA-ready arena, assuming of course he can buy a team. That Stern didn’t mention the city in his response to Aldridge is a huge footnote.

Hansen could conceivably justify a higher purchase price than a Sacramento buyer given his land holdings around the proposed Sodo arena site, and the fact Seattle is about 30 percent larger than Sacramento in terms of its TV market. But those advantages are somewhat mitigated by the fact that a Seattle team would have to compete with both the Seahawks and Mariners for local revenues, whereas the Kings are the only show in town in Sacramento.

That said, saying the league decided to open itself up to antitrust exposure because of a bona fide offer it knows about from Seattle assumes a lot – including Seattle’s ability to deliver on an arena while they face local opposition of their own. It’s way more likely that the league has weighed the Maloofs’ ability to impact the league now and into the future, and it has decided that it’s in their best interests to call the family’s bluff.

If the family still cannot afford to spend money on free agents, and they will be losing significant revenue after spending the last few years biting the hands that feed them in Sacramento – Tuesday’s comments suggest the league has determined that the Maloofs cannot afford to play the antitrust card.

As is the case in most legal disputes, the winner isn’t determined by a judge or jury verdict, but which side has the largest stones and deepest pockets. The Maloofs have a large holding in Wells Fargo which many sources say is untouchable, and outside of that they have a fledgling entertainment business and a partnership to sell (OMG!) cell phone cases.

If we’re buying what the NBA sold us last summer, owning a team isn’t a huge money making endeavor. In reality, it’s a complex issue magnified by being in a small market. And unless you have a way to maximize what a basketball franchise can do, there are plenty of ways to make more from the investment it takes to play in the billionaires’ playpen.

To truly justify owning an NBA basketball team, one has to maximize their various holdings through cross promotion, invest in the areas around the arena, and maximize tax breaks before selling at an appreciated gain one day. To do this it takes a minimum level of free agent spending to field a team that will generate revenues to make that work.

The Maloofs don’t have the money to be that type of owner, at least anymore.

The Maloofs once had designs on maximizing the values of their holdings in the Palms and their entertainment empire, but the entertainment empire never panned out and the Palms is no longer theirs. Sacramento gave the family some proximity to help with the promotion of both entities, but now that bridges have been burned there, the only other destination that would supplement what is left of their non-NBA holdings was just rejected during Stern’s press conference.

Elsewhere, Seattle billionaire Chris Hansen isn’t going to build an arena so ‘the boys’ can play around in it, and even if the other cities that have expressed interest in the NBA can offer a sweetheart deal to them, they can’t significantly change the Maloofs’ cash-strapped outlook.

The only plan that makes any financial sense is for them to sell the team to the highest bidder, and with billionaire Robert Pera reportedly paying approximately $350 million for the Grizzlies to keep the team in Memphis and Tom Benson paying $338 million for the Hornets, it’s possible the Maloofs can top the $400 million mark on their way out the door.

Sacramento’s TV market is double the size of both Memphis and New Orleans, and it’s certainly plausible that Pera made an offer to the Maloofs given his Northern California roots. That Pera wasn’t able to buy the team from the Maloofs (or didn’t try) could speak to any number of issues, but finding a price point that would entice the Maloofs to sell is the NBA’s best bet at ridding themselves of their billion dollar subsidy problem.

A $400 million sale would provide $172 million for the Maloofs’ 43 percent stake, and with at least $150 million owed to the city of Sacramento and the NBA, every dollar is going to count if the family is seeking a debt-free break.

By chopping off the Anaheim leg of the Maloofs’ leverage play, the NBA is one Space Needle market away from stealing away all of the family’s leverage in a potential sale. Franchise prices in Vancouver, Columbus, Louisville, or Kansas City aren’t going to top what multiple Sacramento buyers are willing to pay, and with Seattle closing in on a viable offer it will soon be time for those buyers to put their last, best offers in, as well.

Stern loves the Sacramento market, the 20th largest market in the country and one that is devoid of competition from other sports leagues. He goes out of his way to praise the city at every opportunity for the job they did getting an arena deal done. But he’ll have a hard time forcing the Maloofs to take a substantially smaller offer to stay in California’s capitol.

It’s a nasty game of relocation chess right now. Milwaukee is next up on the clock with a year-to-year lease, an aging arena, and an aging owner. The NBA will be right back at it demanding a public subsidy, assuming of course they don’t let the Maloofs cook the goose that lays the billion dollar eggs.

As for the Maloofs, they have yet to respond to Stern’s ‘call,’ and it remains to be seen if they continue their bluff all the way down the river.

Have the Maloofs threatened the NBA’s billion dollar arena subsidy industry?

team maloof with stern

What do Faye Vincent, George Steinbrenner, and David Stern have in common?

They’re each relevant characters in the relocation saga of the Maloof family, owners of the Sacramento Kings, who are increasingly becoming a liability for the NBA.

That’s because Chris Lehane, executive director of arena group Think Big Sacramento and big-time political consultant to be played by Rob Lowe in the upcoming film Knife Fight – mashed those characters together when he sent a scathing letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday. In that letter, he described the Maloofs’ harassment of at least one Sacramento business owner using an ex-FBI agent and asks for a federal investigation into the matter.

On Friday night, CBS13, the local CBS News affiliate, reported that the Maloof Family is employing a former FBI Agent whose purported activities appear designed to intimidate citizens of the Sacramento region who in recent weeks have expressed their concerns about the Maloof Family’s ownership of the Sacramento Kings.

If accurate, the report that the Maloof Family is potentially party to such unscrupulous conduct shocks the conscience at any number of levels.

First, in an era where professional sports organizations have been heavily punished for engaging in “spying” on opposing teams and putting “bounties” on opposing players – the idea that a professional sports team’s ownership group would target its own fans, including prominent and respected local business leaders who are financial supporters of the team, is simply unconscionable.

Lehane then goes in on what happened when Steinbrenner got caught paying Howie Spira, a man with an extremely questionable background, $40,000 to dig up dirt on then Yankee Dave Winfield.

Second, given the history of professional sports owners being severely sanctioned for the use of private detectives involved in comparable activities, it would appear that the Maloofs are possibly exposing themselves to sanctions. Former New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was permanently suspended by Major League Baseball for hiring a private detective to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield.

And for the cherry on top, Lehane asks for the federal investigation:

And, third, in deploying a former FBI Agent to engage in what was reported to be acts of intimidation and harassment, various federal criminal statutes are potentially implicated.

The complete text of the letter can be found here. It goes on to identify federal harassment statutes that could apply to the use of a private investigator, it poses the question of whether or not a federal law enforcement official was impersonated, and to tie a bow on things Lehane points out that the act occurred in Sacramento and the Maloofs reside in Las Vegas – creating a jurisdictional argument to be made in favor of federal prosecution.

Even though this seems jarring when taken at face value, unless there is a real smoking gun that could translate into serious charges against the Maloofs this is just a way to shine a light on their behavior. It’s more likely the audience here was really Stern and the other 29 NBA owners.

Furthermore, the real reason why Lehane brought the Steinbrenner incident into focus is the “best interest of the league” clause found in each of the major sports’ constitutions and by-laws. Vincent used the clause to give Steinbrenner a lifetime ban for the Spira incident (among other factors), though Steinbrenner later exerted enough pressure to be reinstated after two years of riding the pine.

There has already been some talk, some published and most of it unpublished, that Stern could or should use the NBA’s version of the best interest clause to force the sale of the team or nicely encourage ‘the boys’ to negotiate in good faith with Sacramento. The motivation is simple. The Maloofs don’t appear to have the money to run an NBA team, the NBA doesn’t need another Sonicsgate, and the NBA itself has gone to great lengths to preserve the Sacramento market.

The questions (in order) are, however, can he do it, will he do it, and at some point does he have to do it?

According to the Marquette Sports Law Review, the commissioner’s office is installed within the framework of a “monopolistic business association,” shielding the NBA from being bogged down by litigation so long as the commissioner’s office provides “due process” for disputes between players, owners, and the league itself. The office is supposed to act as a disinterested reviewing body with the power and independence to sanction players and owners alike. This body gives the owners the ability to ‘obviate judicial interference,’ which is a fancy way of saying the courts stay out of their business on a multitude of legal issues. From the league and owners’ perspectives, a commissioner can resolve certain conflicts faster and more effectively (read: cheaper) than the courts can.

This “due process” is also an important mechanism required for the league to avoid antitrust suits in relocation disputes. If you recall during Stern’s press conference just hours after George Maloof and his antitrust attorneys torched the Sacramento deal, he said “I am very sensitive of the rights of the Maloofs to do what they did.” That’s because in past relocation disputes, leagues have lost cases because they did not give owners, such as Al Davis and Donald Sterling, an appropriate forum and process to apply for their relocation requests. As distasteful as the Maloof’s actions were, honoring the application and due process of a relocation request is paramount and the likely motivation behind Stern’s comments.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the Maloofs get to unilaterally hurt other NBA owners or the league as it considers their relocation request. Moreover, the ‘best interest’ clause sits side by side with antitrust law to determine how much, if at all, the Maloofs can hurt the NBA and its other owners with their relocation activities. While all of this gets fleshed out inside of Stern’s due process, not to mention outside of the due process with all of the various arm-twisting that goes on behind the scenes, it’s the due process itself that upholds the commissioner’s office as a viable mechanism to obviate judicial interference.

And none of that interference may be as important to obviate as the monopolistic protection the NBA receives as it leverages limited supply (teams) against tremendous demand when it threatens to leave cities if public subsidies are not provided for owners.

These subsidies are a billion dollar item on the balance sheet over multiple years, and it is in the best interest of the league to ensure that it places its best foot forward in how it markets its product to municipalities and their taxpayers.

Should any NBA owners be found to be negotiating in bad faith during arena discussions, as it appears the Maloofs may have, the association could be found liable for losses derived from a failed negotiation – in this case over $500,000 for Sacramento and thousands of hours of time by its city staff and representatives. And because of the tax dollars at play nationwide, both lawmakers and the courts will look to the commissioner’s office to see that due process is being carried out on behalf of all parties, from owner to taxpayer.

As if the overall issue of the Maloof’s relocation wasn’t enough, it was learned earlier this week that the proprietor of a Sacramento website called Ransacked Media both personally met with the Maloof’s private detective and later released confidential emails between NBA attorney Harvey Benjamin and George Maloof. While all leaks are not created equally, if it is found that the Maloofs materially harmed the league’s ability to negotiate with future municipalities because they leaked this information it is just more trouble for Stern and the 29 other owners to consider right now. And it can’t reflect well that discussion of the team’s television deal with Comcast was made available for the masses, as Benjamin put it “We agree regarding Comcast, but no one thought it would be wise as a public matter to put this in a public document.”

Well, it’s public now.

Clearly, there are questions surrounding the Maloofs’ end-game strategy and why they would want to own a basketball team amidst serious concerns about their finances. The NBA’s owners told us repeatedly over the summer that very few teams are making money. As the Kings have been among the league’s lowest spending teams for years, they’ve shown that they can’t or won’t spend the money needed to be a title contender. By some reports the Kings are enjoying an approximate $10 million revenue sharing stream and while ticket sales and sponsorships may hold steady for now, the chance for another PR blunder to destroy whatever goodwill is left in Sacramento remains high. As for that revenue sharing, Stern alluded to the fact that the owners could always vote to change their mind about the Maloofs’ continued receipt of their share.

Politically, the Maloofs have all-but destroyed any chance of getting a publicly-funded arena in Sacramento that would meet the needs of the NBA and the city. Their solution to renovate the current arena is an obvious attempt to produce evidence in an antitrust lawsuit, as they will likely seek public funds that will be denied because the current arena is nearing the end of its useful life. Putting any money into it, let alone public money, has been decried as ludicrous by every third-party that’s not a puppet for the Kings. But the family will say they did all they could to make a deal work in Sacramento and that everybody else let them down.

So after burning every bridge in California’s capitol, the only option on the table for the Maloofs that doesn’t include them financing their own facility is to move and/or sell the team. And none of the options to keep the team present the Maloofs with a tremendous financial advantage over this last deal that the NBA negotiated alongside them.

Moving a team to Anaheim, for example, will return at least a $300 million relocation fee as the result of infringing upon the Lakers and Clippers’ markets and render the family upside-down in their investment without some serious help. Seattle just reached a Memorandum of Understanding agreement on Wednesday with investor Chris Hansen that is pending, and the city’s investment of up to $120 million for an NBA-only arena will need to clear all the red tape that Sacramento’s did. Regardless, Hansen isn’t spending over $500 million to roll out the red carpet for the Maloofs. Otherwise, you can add Vancouver, Louisville, Columbus, and Kansas City to the list of cities whose names have landed on the radar, and none of them provide the Maloofs a path to improve their financial standing or support their entertainment holdings. All they provide is a lukewarm bidding war to raise the sales price of the team.

Talking with sources close to the negotiations, it’s clear that many of them are done trying to understand what the Maloofs are doing right now. Exasperated would be the appropriate word. Did the Maloofs threaten an antitrust suit and did the NBA respond by threatening a relocation fee in Orlando? Did the Maloofs leave Orlando with an agreement in principal only to decide days later to leverage their antitrust rights? Are they buying time in hopes that a game-changer comes through the pipeline? Has all of this simply been an exercise in selling the team? Does it even matter at this point? The damage is done. Sacramento has spun its wheels for a family with all questions and no answers, and could very well be left without a team if nothing is done about it.

Now, in their apparent pursuit of evidence for an antitrust case, it appears they may have crossed more lines and bitten off more than they can chew. Whatever their motives may be – they continue to encumber the league’s standing with customers, cities, its own owners, and eventually with lawmakers and the courts.

The appropriate question for the league and its owners is – at what point does the behavior become a recognized liability and at what point do they figure out that holding the line isn’t the smartest play.

Ultimately, it’s in the best interest of the league that they figure this out quickly. Billion dollar subsidies don’t grow on trees.