Precedent, what precedent? The Kings are staying

As the Bee recently covered, the NBA very rarely blocks teams looking to move cities. There is only one example in modern history, when the NBA blocked the Timberwolves proposed move to New Orleans in 1994. What’s more, the decision appears to be based more on financial problems with the new ownership group, rather than the two cities.

But today, the NBA appears set to declare that a personal grudge and a bit of money does not speak louder than a loyal fan base and motivated host city. The relocation committee recommended the NBA deny the Hansen group’s bid to move the Kings to Seattle to replace their recently departed Supersonics.

While the NBA rejecting a move initiated by a quality ownership group is unprecedented, it is perhaps more significant that no city as large as Seattle has ever lost a team and not seen it replaced.

All told, eleven reasonably large American cities have lost teams over the history of the NBA. With Seattle still without a team, seven of the eleven have now replaced. Precedent suggests that there is a very good chance they would get a new team in the future, perhaps quite quickly.

The circumstances of the NBA’s cities that lost teams vary dramatically. Some were relics of a different era, when the economics of the league allowed for much smaller cities to compete with larger ones. Others were opportunistic owners, eager to profit from a new market.

The Atlanta Hawks originally flew their flag in Milwaukee, but hit the road following four losing seasons in 1955. The Bucks filled the hole in their sausage-slowed hearts in 1969.

Chicago was the original home to the Wizards franchise, first named the Packers. Shocking but true, Bears fans once rooted for the Packers – and then the Zephyrs. They moved to Baltimore as the Bullets in 1964, before settling nearby in Washington DC in 1974. The Bulls were formed in Chicago in 1967.

The Golden State Warriors, before settling in the Bay Area, made their home in Philadelphia, where they proudly sported one of the more racist logos I’ve seen. They were replaced by the 76ers in 1964. Philadelphia even got back their star center Wilt Chamberlain later that season and won the championship the next year.

New Orleans lost the Jazz in 1979 after failing to make it work in the Superdome. Surprising many, the team kept their New Orleans inspired name, purely out of spite, thus inspiring countless jokes about jazz in Salt Lake City. The Hornets moved from Charlotte in in 2003.

On that note, Charlotte lost the Hornets in 2002 but was only without a team briefly after being awarded the expansion Bobcats in 2005.

The Rockets took off from San Diego in 1971. Their ship came in later that decade when the Clippers moved from Buffalo in 1979. The Clippers then moved up the coast to Los Angeles in 1985. They managed to lose a lot of games in all three cities.

The Lakers left “The Land of a Thousand Lakes”, despite winning five championships and only failing to make the playoffs once in twelve years. They headed west to the dust bowl that is Los Angeles in 1960. The Timberwolves were the slowest replacement to come to town to date, when they were founded through expansion in 1990.

At the same time, several cities have lost their team and never had it replaced. Many of these are smaller cities in the rust belt. Upstate New York (Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo) lost three teams, none of which were ever replaced. Fort Wayne, IN was the original home to the Pistons.

Our own Kings’ history offer less optimism, having passed through Cincinnati and Kansas City, cities of similar size to Sacramento, neither of which have received a new team. St. Louis, another similar sized city was also the home to the Hawks before they finally settled in Atlanta. Vancouver also lost the Grizzlies, but they are in Canada, so the precedent may not be valid.

With expansion seeming unlikely for the foreseeable future, we are playing a zero-sum game. For Seattle to gain a team, another city has to lose. Ethics aside, there are few obvious candidates. New Orleans seemed likely to become the second city to be left twice, but the new ownership group has given every indication that they are committed to the city. I have heard that the Charlotte ownership group is on shaky grounds, but they play in a modern arena that was built with taxpayer funds and has been open less than 8 years, so new owners would almost definitely be local.

The Bucks may be the best target, with an older arena (built in 1988, but with recent improvements), typically poor attendance, a smaller market and, most importantly, an owner willing to sell, they have several strikes against them. If Hansen’s Seattle group looks to acquire the Bucks, they may not be alone. Kansas City, Pittsburgh and, of course, Anaheim — all of which have quality arenas in place — would be tough competition. I do not see any other likely movers in the next few years, so any city that does not get the Bucks may have a long wait.

Fortunately, that is likely the situation Sacramento would have found itself in, had the Kings departed. Most cities that lost them have gotten teams back, but smaller cities, like Sacramento, have often had a long wait. Seattle may have to wait a couple more years, but their wait will likely end quickly. A fate Sacramento likely would not have shared.

Mayor Johnson overcame two strong precedents to keep the Kings. Whatever we may believe about the value of an NBA franchise or the wisdom of a large public subsidy, the Mayor was relentless and effective in his fight for the team. Here’s hoping history proves his cause right.

* For the purpose of this article, I ignore short distance moves, such as the Warriors hopping back and forth across the Bay, the Nets moving around the New York/New Jersey area and the Bullets/Wizards moving from Baltimore to Washington D.C.

  • Coral Henning

    Nice summary!

  • Tony Sheppard

    Will the current Seattle group pursue another team – perhaps the Milwaukee Bucks?

    Edit: Oops – just noticed that question is raised in the article – I should read more slowly/thoroughly.

  • Mark


  • Bruce Fairbanks

    Maybe now our Mayor can get back to governing the city and dealing with the REAL issues that need to be addressed, rather than chasing after the Kings?

  • bye bye Sacpress

    The Kings should make “Final Game in Sacramento, Ever” an annual event. Kind of like The Who’s series of “Final Tours” through the 80’s and 90’s.

  • Have the fans thought about where they will park. Sleep Train Arena has a huge convenient parking lot. No new parking is planned for the new arena. I hope you enjoy circling downtown looking for a space in one of the monetised parkiing structures.

    • Sacramento Fan

      Parking was $10 at Sleep Train Arena. Parking downtown for a game will likely cost about the same…

  • Downtown Partnership predicts over 200 events per year. If you want to go to downtown those nights to go to a restaurant, club, bar or theater, where will you find parking. The arena will kill numerous downtown and Old Sac. businesses and cultural events. Thinking Big will destroy livability in our City.

    • Sacramento Fan

      I disagree with your assessment. Parking is abundant downtown Sacramento. The Sacramento General Plan (2009) reports 46,000 parking spaces being vacant at peak use in Sacramento’s central business district. Off peak use is when most events take place. In addition, many fans can arrive using light rail to the proposed arena. I think the arena will support downtown and Old Sac businesses, and improve livability, not destroy it.
      Reference Finding #1 below:

  • Bruce Fairbanks

    Based on the numbers I’ve seen, the city will need to dramatically INCREASE parking revenues to pay for their share of this new arena. So, goodbye free parking after 6 PM. Goodbye free parking on Sundays. Those will be things of the past.

    • William Burg

      I can live without those…but, because parking revenue almost certainly won’t be enough, say “goodbye” to things like pools, parks and libraries once the cost of this project starts banging up against the general fund. It will be a real boon for private parking lots–but none of that revenue will go toward paying off the arena debt.

  • Bruce Fairbanks

    Sadly, you may be right. I guess the city thinks it more important to fund projects for millionaire sports owners than to subsidize the amenities you’ve listed.

  • I think this is an example of the Winner’s Curse – although Sacramento ‘won’ the auction, we probably overpaid based on the value of the club and certainly overpaid what the city can afford to contribute. It would have been a serious blow to Sacramento’s esteem to lose, so I can understand the need to retain the Kings. But at what cost? As William Burg points out, this debt is going to start eating the budget unless Sac really gets smart about it

    • William Burg

      We haven’t “won” anything yet–the Kings have not been sold, and the money has not yet been borrowed..