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An Argument For Expansion Over Relocation

The smoke seen from miles away, although temporarily delayed by an off-script, hair-scratching flirtation by the Maloofs with Virginia Beach, armageddon has finally arrived between Sacramento and Seattle for the rights to the Kings. Two intensely passionate fan bases wait while a cast of characters with lots of mula duke it out for the NBA team.

This battle, in its current form, will result in a clear winner and loser.

While several teams have moved from one city to another, in this instance having the two cities fight the relocation battle is the wrong approach. Both Seattle and Sacramento have demonstrated with undeniable conviction that they deserve to have NBA franchises. Rather than leaving one of these amazing fan bases in the cold, as was done in heartbreaking fashion to Seattle in 2008, the NBA needs to do the right thing here and ensure that both cities have teams – yes, meaning expansion. The NBA, with David Stern in the driver’s seat, has made many missteps in recent years, and the league has the chance to right a wrong without creating another wrong.

Here’s what we know right now – the Maloofs have entered into a sale and purchase agreement with respect to the Kings with Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer’s Seattle based ownership group. We also know that Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson is working on assembling a local ownership group, and will be given the chance to present his ownership group and arena proposal to the NBA Board of Governors in April.

Johnson feels hopeful in part by the fact that a bid from Seattle will require a higher up-front outlay because the Maloofs owe the City of Sacramento a hefty sum for an existing loan (somewhere in the $70 million range). This loan would need to be paid off if the team were to move to Seattle, while presumably the City of Sacramento would allow a new local owner to keep the loan balance outstanding. In any event, some serious coin will be thrown around, regardless of outcome.

With all this in mind, consider the following points as well.

First, Seattle with Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer, has a strong ownership group in place and an agreement for a sparkling new arena (subject to a positive environmental report, which folks in the know expect).  

Secondly, Sacramento, while not quite there yet, hopes to announce an ownership group of its own in short order – with Ron Burkle rumored to be the “whale”, and also hopes to present its arena proposal as well (either the railyard site from 2012 or the downtown mall site, which as of now would need to be fleshed out in more detail). Yes, Sacramento has serious work to do, and not much time. Presuming that Sacramento does put together its ownership group and a credible arena proposal by the time the board of governors meet in April, we have two markets which can strongly support the NBA economically, and which have enormously passionate fan bases.

With these facts in mind, the NBA needs to EXPAND, rather than RELOCATE, so that both cities have NBA teams. The argument that the NBA can’t expand is bogus. The current NBA owners may not want to expand because of further dilution of the TV revenue distribution among the owners, but this does not mean that the NBA cannot expand. In this case, the benefits of expansion (not screwing over a great NBA city in either case) greatly outweighs the existing owners’ desires to divvy up league revenue to two additional entities. There’s been enough screwing of great fan bases in viable economic markets, and it’s time for that garbage to stop. The NBA needs to go to 32 teams; either Seattle or Sacramento should receive the 31st team, and the city that should receive the 32nd team will be addressed later (hint: the city’s name starts with a “V”).

Sure, there are arguments against expansion, but nothing that outweighs ensuring that both Seattle and Sacramento have teams. Also, to quickly address another argument against expansion – the concern that cities such as Milwaukee and Charlotte have issues, and thus expansion when their futures remain unsecure should not happen – please consider the following: Anaheim, Kansas City, San Jose, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Chicago (second team), etc.  Point being, there are other cities that can support NBA teams, so the NBA will find homes for any teams needing one.

Also remember that teams are not ordinary business entities; a successfully run team is integrated as part of the fabric of the community, and emotional bonds exist between a team and its city’s residents. When the following three items are in place: 1) great fan base with historical evidence of support, 2) viable arena/economic situation and 3) strong ownership group, the league needs to ensure that such city has its own team. Sacramento fans should be assured that Seattle fans by and large would prefer an expansion team as opposed to a relocated Kings team. However, the Seattle fans do not have a say in the matter.

So it would follow that Seattle should receive the expansion team, right? Well, if only it were that easy, as it’s not as simple as forcing the Maloofs to sell to a local Sacramento group. Like any businessmen, the Maloofs will seek to sell to the highest bidder, and while the NBA does require approval of all team sales, if the league steps in to force the Maloofs to sell the Kings to a local ownership group on less favorable terms as that received from the Seattle ownership group, the league likely risks a nasty lawsuit from the Maloofs. With that in mind, the goal should be to work towards having the current Kings team sold to local ownership, and a new team simultaneously granted to Seattle. If circumstances won’t allow that, which is likely, then move the current Kings team to Seattle and rename them the Sonics, then grant Sacramento the replacement Kings (subject to the new arena being built and a strong ownership group stepping up to own the team, as previously stated). Acting in this manner would acknowledge the realities of franchise relocation, but also let loyal cities such as Sacramento and Seattle know that if they hold their end of the bargain, they will retain an NBA team.

Alright, so with Seattle or Sacramento receiving one expansion team, which city should receive the other? While we’re on the subject of righting a past wrong, the team should be awarded to Vancouver. You didn’t think I was going to say Virginia Beach, did you? Vancouver should have never lost its team in the first place, at least not six years into its existence. The poor Vancouver fans were stuck with a horrendous team. How bad were they? The team’s record during its six seasons in Vancouver was as follows:

Vancouver Grizzlies' Wins-Losses by Season

1995-1996: 15 - 67

1996-1997: 14 – 68

1997-1998: 19 – 63

1998-1999: 8-42

1999-2000: 22-60

2000-2001: 23-59

Which fan base would continue to support such an inept team? Vancouver’s attendance during this period was actually not all too much lower than what Memphis, with a strong basketball team, draws now. Also, note that Vancouver of 2013 holds the following advantages compared to ten plus years ago: 1) a much stronger Canadian dollar, and 2) the maturation of Vancouver as a sports city, as evidenced by the continuous sellouts for the Canucks and the performance put on by the city for the 2010 Olympics. Yes, the 32nd team should be the Vancouver Mounties. Let’s get to work on the unis.

One side bar about Virginia Beach and its efforts to get an NBA team – it makes no sense to move a team with a passionate fan base to the southeastern region of the United States, where the teams currently located in the region have weak fan support and are financially struggling. If Virginia Beach remains hell bent on getting a franchise, then poach a team from a market in that region. 

Now circling back to the immediate issue at hand, the league needs to stop drilling a whole through the hearts of its best fan bases. While this has been done in the past, the NBA needs to do the right thing here and ensure that both Seattle and Sacramento have NBA teams. Again, Sacramento’s hold on a team needs to be conditioned upon a viable arena/economic situation and strong ownership group.  Both cities have shown that the fan bases rank among the absolute best in the league.  Expansion will ensure that neither deserving city nor its loyal fans gets left at the alter; relocation will ensure that one great fan base gets screwed once again, and Sonicsgate circa 2008 is the last thing that either fan base deserves.

- Neema Hodjat is the fantasy sports expert for RealGM and a frequent contributor to the site.  Please feel free to email him at nhodjat@gmail.com with any comments or questions.

 

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