Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sacramento Kings to move?

Over the past two decades, the big 4 sports leagues have seen 11 franchise relocations. Four of these 11 have been from Canada to the US, with the moves of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Montreal Expos being the most painful for me. I always feel empathy for the fans who have invested their time and money in following their hometown franchise, only to have it ripped out from under their feet by an owner who has found a better deal elsewhere. The most recent example took place in 2008, when the Seattle SuperSonics move to Oklahoma City, where they have become one of the league's most exciting teams.

Now comes word that the fans in Sacramento are going to lose their beloved Kings. There have been rumours of a move for several months and things are now reaching a head. The owners are the Maloof brothers, who have been great for the city and the team, but the recession and an obsolete arena have made it difficult for them to compete. Without a deal to replace Power Balance Pavilion (formerly Arco Arena), the Kings cannot generate the additional revenue streams required to keep pace with other teams in the league. In 2006, there were talks to use a sales tax increase to fund a new arena, but the voters of Sacramento rightly voted that down, and last year a plan to swap land with the Cal Expo was rejected. With no local options remaining and suffering in other business ventures, the Maloofs are considering moving the team to Anaheim, which has the Honda Center and a local government that is willing to help.

Who Pays and Who Benefits?

The Anaheim city council says that taxpayers will not be affected by this deal, which is good news if it turns out to be true. I mentioned above that Sacramento taxpayers vetoed a quarter-percent sales tax increase which would have funded a new arena. Sacramento is the capital of the state and a very political city from what I've read, so many of the voters are naturally wary of being forced to pay for something which brings them little personal benefit. It didn't help that the Maloofs withdrew their support because they weren't happy with certain provisions limiting the amount the government could spend.

In general, sports franchises help only a few people. When cities use scarce public funds to build state-of-the-art stadiums, the big winners are the owners (already very rich), the players (mostly rich), and businesses who can use luxury suites as tax writeoffs. There are some ancillary jobs as well, but many of those are just part-time and pay barely above minimum wage. Meanwhile, fans suffer in the form of higher ticket prices while the general public, who are often not even serious fans of the team, see their tax dollars go toward subsidizing those who are already very wealthy.

So although I do feel for fans who see their team relocate, I can't defend an ownership that holds the local community hostage. Unfortunately, cities with new arenas are desperate to find tenants to take up 41 or more dates, and there are far more new arenas than pro sports teams to fill them. So when an owner runs into a local community who would prefer to allocate their cash to initiatives that help the entire population, he can just phone up a more agreeable city and then play them against each other. The claims that sports franchises add untold millions in value to a city are false. Only those who are roadtrippers (like me!) are bringing money that might be spent elsewhere; most fans are local and would simply spend their cash on theaters, restaurants or other local businesses. That's the key phrase: local business. Pro sports teams are ultimately a local business, and not one that should be subsidized by the government.

Naming Conventions

With the move to Anaheim, the Kings will have to change their nickname to avoid confusion with the NHL team in Los Angeles. The Maloofs have already trademarked a number of possible names, all with the moniker Royals, which is what the franchise was known as when they played in Rochester from 1945-57 and Cincinnati from 1957-72. Ironically it was moving to Kansas City, home of MLB's Royals, that forced the initial name change. The franchise moved to Sacramento in 1985, so if they pull up stakes again, it will be their fifth city.

Future Expansion?

Sacramento is the 25th largest metro area in North America, and will have no teams in the Big 4, which is rather surprising. Los Angeles already has 6. So the rich get richer yet again.

In the past, some cities that have lost teams have been granted expansion franchises (Houston and Cleveland in the NFL, Charlotte in the NBA) but that is unlikely to happen in Sacramento. The populace has spoken and will be punished for standing up for their beliefs. There are other towns who want pro sports and already have new arenas, so if there are new expansion teams to be granted, those places will be at the front of the line.

That's not to say that all hope is long in California's capital city. The NBA has to approve the move and it is not clear that it been properly considered. Is having 3 LA-area teams in the league's best interests? Can another arena proposal be found? Is the Honda Center, which is only 5-years newer than the Power Balance Pavilion, really that much of an improvement? According to this article, there are 19 reasons to keep the Kings in Sacramento for another season. Let's hope that the Maloofs decide to agree.

There are a number of good articles being written on the situation; this post barely touches on the complexities of the tax proposal, land swap, or the potential deal between the Maloofs and Anaheim Ducks' owner Henry Samueli. I encourage you to do some reading of your own over the next 3 weeks as the situation reaches a climax with the NBA owners voting on April 18th. It really provides a fascinating look at the way pro sports works these days, with the league, the owners, and the government all playing their part. The big losers, as usual, will be the fans.

For Me

I'd like to see the Kings remain in Sacramento, as it adds one more sports road trip destination to the winter schedule. It is the one city in the top 50 metro areas where I've yet to see a sporting event; both the Kings and the AAA River Cats always seemed to be on the road when I was in Northern California. I'm going to rectify this oversight next month, checking out two games at Raley Field (with Toronto's AAA team visiting no less) and one at the PBP. I actually began planning this trip back in January, before I got wind of the move. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Kings' game might be their last one ever and tickets are going to be tough to get, particularly with the Lakers in town. But I hope to get inside, as it might be my last chance to finally see a pro basketball game in Sacramento.



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