Mayor Kevin Johnson has drawn up his play to keep the Sacramento Kings. And once again, it involves going one on one with another city in front of the NBA's highest court.
Johnson said Tuesday he's been granted an audience with the NBA board of governors, consisting of the league's 30 team owners, to present a competing bid that would prevent the Maloof family from selling the Kings to a group from Seattle.
A powerful ally for Sacramento came forward Tuesday: Arena operator AEG, which pledged $59 million to the downtown arena project abandoned by the Maloofs last spring, said it's still committed to the idea.
AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke, during an appearance at the Capitol, said he received encouragement in recent days from Johnson and NBA Commissioner David Stern. "To the commissioner's credit, I don't think he ever forgot about Sacramento," said Leiweke, adding that Stern does not like to move franchises.
The mayor plans to present at least one ownership group directly to the board of governors, probably in mid-April in New York following the conclusion of the NBA's regular season. Johnson, who spoke with Stern over the weekend, said he wants his plan finalized before the March 1 deadline for the Kings to seek relocation.
The board of governors has final say over team sales and relocation requests.
Johnson's arena plan could involve parts of the tentative deal approved by the City Council last year for a $391 million facility in the downtown railyard. A second, less complete proposal has emerged to build a new arena at the site of the Downtown Plaza.
Either way, Johnson said a plan to compete with Seattle's bid has to include a package for a new arena.
Leiweke said AEG will let the city take the lead on choosing a location for the arena. Even though the privately held entertainment conglomerate has been put up for sale, he said AEG's commitment to the Sacramento project hasn't wavered.
"It was not our idea to discontinue the conversation," he said, referring to the Maloofs' decision to scuttle the railyard plan. "We haven't changed our opinion about Sacramento or the arena."
Leiweke came to the Capitol to display the Stanley Cup hockey trophy, won last year by the AEG-owned Los Angeles Kings.
Johnson's strategy to match Seattle's bid isn't just about finding a local group to buy the team from the Maloof family, which has controlled the franchise since 1999. He said he will also try to convince the NBA that Sacramento is the better market for the Kings franchise.
He plans to cite attendance figures for the Kings and Seattle SuperSonics a franchise that moved to Oklahoma City in 2008 as proof that his city has the more rabid fan base. And he will highlight the fact that a team in Seattle would have intense competition with other big-time sports for the attention of fans.
"We want this to be the final act of a saga that's gone on for far too long," Johnson told the crowd assembled at the Sacramento Convention Center Tuesday for the State of Downtown breakfast.
The key to Johnson's plan is persuading a potential owner to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Kings and a new downtown arena. The mayor has conducted talks with a short list of wealthy potential buyers who he says are interested. His goal: to pair at least one of those investors with local partners.
Suitors lining up
Political strategist Chris Lehane, who has served for two years as a lieutenant to Johnson on the arena issue, said there are several groups who have shown interest in Johnson's plan, including some who have dealt with the NBA before.