NBA rarely blocks teams from moving, but Timberwolves case gives Sacramento Kings fans hope

01/20/2013 12:00 AM

04/18/2013 7:51 PM

When NBA teams try to move to another city, they generally get their way.

But not always.

As Mayor Kevin Johnson tries to keep the Sacramento Kings from moving to Seattle, he can take heart from the story of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The NBA prohibited the team from moving to New Orleans in 1994. It's believed to be the last time the NBA rejected a formal relocation request.

The NBA even sued the Timberwolves to make sure they stayed put. The team eventually sold to local owners.

"The NBA told them, 'Look for other buyers,' and they did," said attorney Elliott Kaplan, who represented the NBA in the case.

Sacramento's circumstance is different. But as was the case in Minnesota, Johnson's strategy relies on persuading the NBA to take the unusual step of vetoing a team's relocation petition.

Johnson plans to present the NBA with a local purchase offer to compete against the reported $525 million offered to the Kings' owners, the Maloofs, by a group from Seattle.

He appears to have the support of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Stern gave him permission to speak this spring to the NBA's board of governors, a group made up of the league's 30 team owners. Stern also got entertainment conglomerate AEG – which would have run the arena proposed for downtown Sacramento last year if the Maloofs hadn't abandoned the plan – to declare that it remains committed to the project if the team stays in town.

Still, there's no predicting which city will win.

Former NBA executive Andy Dolich said the owners will weigh Sacramento's past success and loyalty to the NBA against Seattle's ample wealth. The board of governors will insist on seeing revenue projections for the team in its proposed new home.

"You have to be pretty specific," said Dolich, who was president of the Vancouver Grizzlies when they moved to Memphis in 2001. "The building, demographics of the marketplace, broadcasting."

Dolich said NBA owners want the Kings located in whatever market enhances the overall prosperity of the league – and their own franchises.

"The blood of this is green – it's money," he said.

The Maloofs have bumped into relocation resistance before. They were on the verge of applying to move to Anaheim in 2011. Then Johnson, a former NBA star, breezed into New York's St. Regis Hotel and persuaded the board of governors to give Sacramento one more chance. The Maloofs backed away from Anaheim without petitioning for relocation.

Dolich said the NBA doesn't take relocation lightly – "stability is important."

But the league is also wary of picking a fight with one of its owners, especially if it could spill into the courts.

When the Maloofs went to the board of governors last year to explain why they were abandoning an arena project for downtown Sacramento, they brought with them a lawyer specializing in antitrust cases.

Attorney Barry McNeil never mentioned antitrust, the law of anti-competitive behavior. But his credentials were duly noted by Stern at a press conference later, and the issue makes sports leagues jumpy.

The NFL lost a famous antitrust suit to the Oakland Raiders' Al Davis in 1982 when the league tried to block his move to Los Angeles.

Legal experts said it's not clear if the Maloofs would have a case, especially if a Sacramento bidder offers as much for the team as Seattle. Still, it might make the NBA think twice about blocking a relocation.

"Leagues certainly have to consider the possibility of an antitrust claim by a person who's denied the right to buy a club and move it," said Matt Mitten, a sports-law expert at Marquette University. "I don't think leagues are terrified but it's something they've got to consider."

In the past 35 years, five teams have been granted permission to move. Only one – Minnesota – has been turned down. The list of movers includes the Kings, who left Kansas City in 1985, and the Seattle SuperSonics, who moved to Oklahoma in 2008.

A sixth team, the Los Angeles Clippers, didn't bother seeking permission when they left San Diego in 1984. The NBA sued the team after the move, but the Clippers stayed in L.A. and settled the case by paying the league $6 million.

The Clippers debacle was still fresh in NBA executives' minds when the Timberwolves sold in 1994 to boxing promoter Top Rank.

NBA officials said the $152 million deal was riddled with shaky financing, resting largely on bank loans that hadn't been secured.

On June 15, 1994, the NBA's relocation committee, an enormously influential group consisting of six team owners, voted unanimously to block the sale.

The committee's vote was enough for Stern to declare the Timberwolves weren't moving. The full board of governors ratified the panel's recommendation a week later. To make sure, the NBA sued the Timberwolves and Top Rank to get an injunction blocking relocation.

"Sometimes we have lawsuits in a drawer for special occasions – birthdays, weddings and franchise transfers," Stern said at the time.

It got messy for a while. Top Rank filed its own lawsuit in a Louisiana court. But the NBA prevailed, and the team was sold to a local owner.

No one is questioning the financial pedigree of the Seattle group bidding for the Kings. The group includes Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer and the Nordstrom family.

But Johnson contends he can provide a competitive counteroffer. Potential bidders include investor Mark Mastrov, who tried to buy the Golden State Warriors in 2010. Also in the mix is grocery tycoon Ron Burkle, whose effort to buy the Kings in 2011 was instrumental in Johnson's drive to keep the team from going to Anaheim.

The mayor said he also has to convince the NBA that Sacramento is a better market than Seattle, which was home to the Sonics for 41 years.

Selling the market to the NBA is crucial. When Minnesota was fighting to save the Timberwolves, then-Gov. Arne Carlson flew to New York to talk to NBA owners. City leaders put on a public relations push.

"We wanted to show the league it was in their interest to keep the team in our market," said Henry Savelkoul, who was chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission at the time.

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