There’s No Right Way to Save Your Team: Here We Stay, the Sacramento Kings, and the Faustian Bargains of the Modern NBA

One of the more under reported events of All-Star weekend is Commissioner David Stern’s State of the League address, where he typically unleashes a few stinging barbs and memorable sound bites. This year marked Stern’s final address, and unsurprisingly, Stern’s loquaciousness was on full display, yet there was one topic that he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: the future of the Sacramento Kings, and by extension, the future of the Seattle SuperSonics.

Stern was asked many questions and gave many answers about the Kings, and even a few about the Sonics, but they contained little substance, and gave no hint as to which side was “in the lead”. More than anything, Stern’s address did little besides confirm the facts we had learned since reports began coming out that the Sacramento Kings, a fixture in California’s central valley for the last three decades, were making concrete moves to relocate to Seattle. Indeed, a group from Seattle had submitted a bid to buy the Kings, and relocation papers had been filed. But at the same time, Stern confirmed that Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson was putting together a local ownership group in a bid to keep the Kings. Stern even clued reporters in on some of the rules of engagement. Expansion would not be on the table for this issue, and Stern let it be known that all future questions on that matter would (and should) be directed towards Commissioner-elect Adam Silver. The only certainty in the matter was that NBA Board of Governors would decide the issue on in their annual meeting on April 18th, 2013.

Truth be told, there wasn’t much Stern could say about the potential slaughter of the Kings. This is an unprecedented issue; three wrongs with no discernible right. If the NBA Board of Governors approve the sale of the Sacramento Kings by the Maloof brothers to hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, an unprecedented scenario may take place: the willful sacrifice of a living, breathing NBA franchise, a viciously calculated killing, in order to relocate and repurpose the carcass into a formerly deceased team and please the fans in a different city. This has never happened in professional sports, let alone in basketball. As such, the eventual outcome of the situation is a true unknown, and no one, from the cities of Sacramento and Seattle, to the ownership groups in both of the aforementioned cities, to the anxious fanbases of the Kings and the Sonics, can reasonably, or accurately, predict what will happen next.

However, for a large, vocal segment of the Kings fanbase and the blogging community, this hasn’t mattered. Instead, for them, the potential destruction of the Kings has provided an opportunity—perhaps a mandate—to innovate and fight. And fight they have, tasked with pioneering the art of direct political engagement with the goal of saving an entity that belongs to select wealthy individuals. The resulting “Here We Stay “and “Here We Buy” campaigns have been working diligently to organize Kings fans as a political and economic force to keep the team in Sacramento. While the campaigns are laudable due to their understanding of the specific factors that inform the sale of the Kings to a Seattle ownership group — that is, money and evidence of financial support—we question the messaging of the movement, as well as its “grassroots” labeling in the face of larger political and economic issues, namely, the continued bailout of millionaires and billionaires, and the public and private institutions they run into the ground.

***

In her book Becoming Political, a comparative study on citizenship education between Europe and the United States, political scientist Carole Hahn privileges two concepts when discussing the ways a “normal” individual—that is, a member of a given community who actively participates in the local economy and civil society—becomes politicized in classroom environments. The first is “political interest”, which Hahn defines as an individual’s personal investment in involving themselves in political matters. The second concept is “political confidence”, which Hahn defines as an individual’s confidence in their ability to affect political change. Both of these concepts are drawn from the idea of “political efficacy”, which gauges an individual’s belief that a governmental body will be sensitive to the will of the people, and change itself accordingly. In designing her research methodology, Hahn centered on these concepts to craft research questions, and get a better idea about the ways in which people (in particular, young people) developed political ideologies and crafted political action.

Indeed, the belief that one can affect change at both the micro and macro levels seems to inform political action. At the same time, circumstance and identity plays an important role not just in terms of participation in political action, but also the methods of action a politicized individual (or group) might take. For example, one might look to Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, who rose to prominence during early February 2011 as a high profile revolutionary. Ghonim had worked for Google as a regional manager before Tunisia began their revolution, which spread to Egypt (and all over the region). As protests grew in magnitude, and governmental oppression rose (including the shutdown of the internet by then-president Hosni Mubarak), Ghonim became politicized and took direct action. Since its founding in January 2011, Ghonim’s Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said”, named in memory of a youth tortured and killed by police in Alexandria, has served as an online hub for political discussion and mobilization. In February 2011, Ghonim left Google and became a full-time activist, spending time in governmental detention, as well as in front of large militant crowds. In this case, we see how belief in political change merged with interest in political change. And though the revolution in Egypt remains unresolved, political activity, both at the “formal” governmental level, and the “informal” citizen level, remains quite high. Even today, in Egypt and beyond, formerly “normal” people become permanently political, and furthermore, remain political, from posting information on Facebook, to taking arms against rogue governments.

Now, organizing fans of professional sports is not the same as joining a political revolution. That is a ludicrous assertion; perhaps even disrespectful towards true revolutionaries. But sports can become political, and by extension, fans of sports can become politicized. Circumstances can change in a heartbeat, and the proceedings on the court, pitch or field can take on brand new meanings. When those moments occur, fanbases often have no choices but join the fray, taking stands on a variety of issues related not just to the team, but also the community the team plays in, where the employees of the team call home. This, of course, has happened in Sacramento, as fans of the Kings have suddenly been drafted into the line of duty, tasked with somehow contributing to the effort to prevent the sale of the team to out-of-town investors who intend on moving the franchise to Seattle, Washington. Further compounding the matter is that Kings fans are peerless; indeed, as of yet, the book on saving your team doesn’t exist. It has never happened.

Now, perhaps it’s not fair to say that Kings fans are the first. Of course, Seattle lost its team in 2008. There were efforts to save the team, but they came far too late in the process. A spring 2008 lawsuit from the City of Seattle proved ineffective, and the creation of the grassroots group “Save Our Sonics” and a 3,000-person strong rally was no match for the power and desire of Clay Bennett to move the team to Oklahoma City and rename them the Thunder. The excellent film “Sonicsgate” provided a comprehensive narrative for the departure of the team, and the way the city’s residents were effectively blindsided by the speed and efficiency of Bennett and McClendon once the relocation process had begun, and had no idea how to craft a formidable enough insurgency to halt the move.

Understanding this history, and taking into account the mechanical efficiency the Bennett-McClendon group employed to whisk the Sonics away—a systematic, calculated process which soured the relationship between the team and the city, and portrayed a metropolis that had “given up” on their team—an active segment of Kings fans have quickly closed ranks and begun to wage the difficult fight against the Seattle-based investment group bent on purchasing the Kings. The result has been the “Here We Stay” campaign, a grassroots movement to keep the Kings in Sacramento through the construction of a new arena in the city’s downtown area. Political activity with Here We Stay has taken a variety of forms, from fundraising efforts like securing pledges to buy season tickets, to more tangible events like organizing mass attendance and support at a chosen game. The results have been impressive: as of February 28th, 2013, 5,515 fans have pledged to buy season tickets in a new arena (should it be built). This has added up to over $23,000,000 in (pledged) season ticket sales; an impressive number for any NBA team, regardless of market size.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Here We Stay has been its strong organizational structure that seems to operate with neither an identified leader nor a brain trust of activists that can be seen by the larger movement as “leaders”. Indeed, the common refrain from the previous relocation scare—“In KJ we trust”, referring to celebrated mayor (and former NBA All Star) Kevin Johnson—seems to be the galvanizing cry amongst Here We Stay’s most ardent members. Instead, Here We Stay makes effective use of the internet and social networking, borrowing tactics and techniques from activists all across the world to create a mobilization that is simultaneously united and diffuse. Many of the public voices of the movement seem to be media members that cover the team: Tom Ziller, Greg Wissinger, Kevin Fippin and Akis Yerocostas of Sactown Royalty; James Ham and Jonathan Santiago of Cowbell Kingdom; radio host Carmichael Dave and Kings play-by-play man Grant Napier. All of these individuals have thrown the full weights of their names behind the movement, and stand unflinchingly in the face of relocation.

As the movement has grown, gaining both bodies and dollars since its founding in early 2013, so too has its messaging. The past few weeks have seen a number of compelling pieces that provide necessary body to the movement, and help it become more legible to those who aren’t directly involved in its founding or maintenance. Early dispatches were understandably edgy, defensive over the latest (and seemingly greatest) bid to take the Kings from California’s capitol. There are a number of examples one can choose from, such as this interview with Grant Napear, the TV play-by-play man of the Kings. In the interview, Napear asserted that this time he was “ready to fight” to keep the team in Sacramento. While not directly employed by the Maloofs, Napear is still in a very precarious position; a position in which the prudent move is probably to stay silent. This is the tactic he took two years ago, when it looked like the Kings (and the Maloofs) were on their way to Anaheim to become the third professional team in Los Angeles. Obviously this option is not acceptable to Napear this time around, and the circumstances have moved beyond his control to the point where he must commit his political energy to save not only the institution he loves, but his job as well.

The Kings blogosphere has worked through some early growing pains in terms of messaging Here We Stay to a larger reading audience as well. Tom Ziller’s response to (perhaps) a poorly-timed open letter from the producers of the Sonicsgate documentary snarkily misrepresented Seattleites (and jilted Sonics fans) as enemies to the Kings. While the film producers were insensitive with their timing, Ziller’s response was aggressive and off-putting, and did not cast Kings fans in a positive light.  Similar aggression was shown when Ziller got into multiple heated arguments with ESPN Business Reporter Darren Rovell over the issue during the second week of January, and got snarky (again) with Seattle news reporter Chris Daniels over a fairly innocuous question about Sacramento’s city deputy. Now, Darren Rovell isn’t considered by some to be that thorough, respected or trustworthy of a reporter, and Chris Daniels, as Ziller says, can seem like a “booster for the city”. But these were opportunities to create dialogue that were missed out on, and became needlessly confrontational instead.

Since then, however, Here We Stay has struck a far more conciliatory tone. Ziller’s February 18th piece (which actually came out before his response to Chris Daniels) about why he wouldn’t begrudge fans in Seattle if the Kings moved there was sincere and balanced. It properly identified the enemies—that is, the Maloof brothers—and took into account all of the factors that lead to this particular moment. In his blunt, yet eloquent words, is the tension of this situation: “Chris Hansen isn’t screwing Sacramento. The people of Seattle aren’t screwing Sacramento. David Stern isn’t screwing Sacramento. The Maloofs screwed Sacramento. So many times, in so many ways,” he wrote. “And either way, they’ll be rewarded. And you’re damn right that I’ll begrudge them that reward. Every day, forever.” It’s a clearer, stronger message, as is the movement that is growing more with each passing day.

The only problem is that we don’t—can’t, really—agree with it.

***

Sacramento is the capitol of California. It lies about 90 miles northeast of San Francisco, where the Sacramento and American rivers meet. It is the heart of the northern Central Valley, but is also the jumping off point for Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as tech money flowed into the Bay Area and housing became more expensive, people began to move to the Central Valley in search of more affordable living. That included Sacramento and its suburbs. It is possible to commute from the Sacramento area to jobs in the greater Bay Area (and some do). It is the 25th largest metropolitan statistical area in the country, larger than Orlando, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and many other areas with NBA teams that seem much bigger.

The national recession hit the Sacramento area harder than already hard-hit California, and especially harder than the rest of the country. According to a study by Brian Leu and Yang Sun, the national recession lasted a full year longer in Sacramento, due mostly to a challenging housing market and severe drop in consumer spending. Additionally, Sacramento’s main employer—the State of California—was cutting programs and jobs across the board. A weak public sector combined with a depressed private sector has not been good to Sacramento. A 2010 Brookings Institution report calculated that of the 50 largest metro areas in the United States, Sacramento was the 14th worst hit by the recession. Unemployment is at 7.8% across the U.S., while it is 9.8% in California and a staggering 11.7% in Sacramento. A quick look at an unemployment map in the Sacramento metro area (and outlying regions) shows it at the heart of a still-struggling to recover Northern California. Though the recovery is well under way, there is still much work to be done.

Despite these economic issues, the mayor of Sacramento and the city council are ready to put official money into their fight against the Maloofs, NBA, and the Seattle-based investment group. On Monday night, the city council voted 7-2 to allow Mayor Johnson access to limited funds in order to start assembling his own team of investors to challenge Hansen and Ballmer. The city manager’s office also released a staff report to the media, which gave further information about public-private business relationships, the location of a new arena (no longer in The Railyards, the focus of the 2012 plan), an assessment of third-party parking structures and the guiding principles for the new entertainment center, which included protecting taxpayers, investing in the net-value of the new parking assets and redeveloping the land just outside of Sacramento where Arco Arena currently stands.

And though elements of the arena plan have changed—namely, the third party group that will finance the parking structures necessary to offset public costs for the arena—the heart remains the same. AEG and the City of Sacramento, represented primarily by Kevin Johnson, would work with the NBA to construct a $396 million dollar sports and entertainment complex in downtown Sacramento. Though there are provisions in place to offset the cost of construction, as well as spread out payments over many decades, the final number seems to be staggering: $256 million in taxpayer dollars to build a new arena, and by extension, keep the Kings in Sacramento.

Our main issue with a publicly funded arena matches our misgivings with the larger economic system as a whole: normal, everyday folks are being asked to bail out millionaires and billionaires once again. Here We Stay has made effective use of human mobilization to create powerful images, but in the end, the crux of the movement is money. Movement organizers have correctly identified fiscal solvency as the primary issue in the Kings relocation debate, and as such, have made fundraising a major component of their campaign. As stated before, Here We Buy has almost raised $24 million dollars in pledged season tickets, and earlier this season, Here We Buy raised over $10,000 for unprivileged families to come watch a Kings game. All of these numbers are impressive; indicative of the true power of social networking and crowd sourcing, and an indicator for how effective the internet can be as an organizing tool.

But is what Here We Stay doing in the community legitimate activism? Can pledging money to a different, unseen millionaire (or billionaire) be considered just and noble? Can offering tax dollars for a downtown entertainment center be considered a smart move in a depressed economy? Does “showing the money” now indicate that Kings fans will be willing to sit through the growing pains of a new ownership, and undergo many more years of rebuilding? Over the last five years, normal Americans have been asked to bail out our private banking and investment system (to no avail), as well as our war machines, schools, roads, hospitals and public safety officers. We have been asked to both tighten our belts for the things that matter and step up our consumer spending on frivolities at the same time. Providing funds for already rich men to acquire another asset—a major sports complex—to keep an emotional lynch pin in the city is a questionable move, regardless of the significance of the team to the fan base, as well as the proposed benefits a downtown arena would have on the outlying area. For those reasons, we cannot put the full weight of our support behind Here We Stay.

And that breaks our hearts.

***

Both Kevin and I were born in the Bay Area; Northern Californians through and through. Make no mistake: we unambiguously want the Kings to remain in the Central Valley for the rest of their basketball lifespan. We have put our support for their team in writing many times over. While the Kings have never been our primary team, we have happily followed them and wished them well (except when their annoying cowbells invade Oracle Arena). They belong in Sacramento.

Additionally, we are not fans of relocation. Hell, we are heartbroken that the Warriors will move 10 miles across the Bay to San Francisco: we can’t imagine what it would be like if they moved 800 miles north to Seattle. In that regard, we begrudge nothing to Kings fans fighting to save their team. It goes without saying: the Kings do not need a new city. They need new owners. They need a new front office. They need a total and complete reboot. That can happen in Sacramento. It doesn’t have to happen in a another city, Seattle or otherwise.

That being said, city money spent on a stadium is always a foolish investment, but especially so during the early stages of an economic recovery. There are many things the city of Sacramento needs to get back on track, and we’re not sure a public arena is one of them. Almost every single economic study shows that stadiums provide little to no economic benefits to large cities, and certainly not a big enough benefit to legitimize diverting $255 million in future public funds to building a stadium. With Sacramento’s unemployment rate much higher than the national average and California ranking 48th among the 50 states in students graduating with a high school diploma, perhaps there are better uses for this money.

But do fans of the Kings and the NBA have any other choice? This is not an issue of emotions, feelings or sentimentality, but dollars and cents. This is about television rights, locations to host All Star games. This is about many millions of dollars—indeed, Hansen has committed nearly $1 billion over the next ten years to getting a team back in Seattle—and in many ways, this is just a race to a finish line with no winners.

Nevertheless, Here We Stay will continue to grow and learn as the fight to save the Kings enters its final stages. While it has spent its early days as a problematic fundraiser, no political movement remains unchanged. Last night, a “Here We Stay” signs appeared in a different NBA city; in Orlando, where the Kings swept their season series with the Magic. At this point, the possibilities for growth and expansion become real. Perhaps Here We Stay catches on in other NBA cities where teams could fall hostage to impoverished owners and the no-win situation of a publicly funded arena. Possibly Here We Stay can be repackaged and distributed to other locations, other sports, much like the now-global Occupy movement. In any case, these are important days for Here We Stay, when popular grassroots movements transform into a united front, step up their militancy and sharpen their rhetoric.

One thing is clear: this fight isn’t over. It is likely just beginning.

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