Unless you're a lobbyist or cowbell retailer, there's not much reason to prefer living in Sacramento over Southern California. It now appears that two of our state capitol's most prominent residents, Joe and Gavin Maloof, are coming around to just that conclusion. Principal owners of the Sacramento Kings, the Maloofs are reportedly thinking of packing up the team and moving it southward to Anaheim, where it would play its home games at the Honda Center. By the start of the next NBA season, whenever that happens to be, hoops-mad Southern California could be home to a third league franchise.
Why would the Maloofs consider ditching Sacramento? Why do sports franchises ever change cities? Because they want a better (read: more revenue-spewing) arena. ARCO Arena, where the Kings have played since 1988, is obsolete by the standards of modern NBA facilities. It lacks the luxury suites, glittery restaurants and other cash geysers that a small-market team like the Kings needs to keep pace financially with the rest of the league. In 2006, a sales-tax measure that would have funded construction of a new building was rejected by Sacramento County voters.
In the face of the team's woeful on-court performance and an increasingly grim economic landscape, the Maloofs are now looking for a quick exit on a life raft. Team officials have been in Orange County this month to scout out the neighborhood. NBA rules require the Kings to file a formal relocation request by March 1, but on Thursday of this week, they asked the league to extend the deadline, a move that displeased Sacramento mayor and onetime NBA star Kevin Johnson.
If the Kings do ask permission to relocate, the move would be subject to a vote of league owners. Fifteen of the other 29 ownership groups would need to give the green light. At All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, Commissioner David Stern did not sound troubled by the idea of the Kings bailing on Sacramento and essentially washed his hands of the matter:
All I'll say is that we and they have tried very hard over the years to see whether a new building could be built. And with the collapse of the last attempt, which took a few years and several million dollars on behalf of the league, I said we are not going to spend any more time on that. That is for the Maloofs and the people of Sacramento.
The move, if it happens, will make Southern California the unquestioned hoops capitol of the world. Anchored by the Lakers, the league's flagship brand, a full 10 percent of the NBA would have a SoCal address. Locals would relish seeing some of the most electric young talent in the game - Blake Griffin, Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins - grow up in close proximity. In a few seasons, after the Clippers' and Kings' youngsters have had time to develop and coalesce, three of the eight teams in the Western Conference playoffs could hail from these parts. And think of the buzz and energy if two of the three are ever contenders at the same time. Think back to the Lakers' and Kings' legendary conference finals series in 2002, and imagine what that would've been like if the teams were just down the road from each other. Throw in an A-list college program at UCLA and vibrant prep and pick-up scenes, and SoCal's gravitational pull on the basketball world would be unmatched.
Of course, the Lakers and Clippers themselves are not so enthusiastic. At the moment, they're the only NBA teams that have to share a market (although the Nets and Knicks will soon join them in this distinction), and they're apparently not delighted by the idea of yet another snout in the trough. Lakers spokesman John Black tells me that the organization will not be commenting publicly about the Kings' potential move. (A Clippers representative could not be reached for comment.) But ESPN's Marc Stein reports that the Lakers are "strongly opposed" and that they and the Clippers will attempt to rally opposition from other teams.
That's understandable. In the short term, however, having the Kings in the neighborhood could actually benefit both the Lakers and Clips by converting two road games a year into de facto home games. Instead of flying up to Sacramento twice a season, they'd need only cruise down the I-5 to Anaheim. And when they arrived, they'd find a much friendlier crowd than they would at ARCO. This holds especially true for the Lakers, who dominate the mindshare of local basketball fans. Until the Kings earn the affections of an organically grown, Orange County fanbase -- a process that will take years, if not decades -- the Lakers will feel at home and much loved when they visit the Honda Center.
In fact, the idea that the Anaheim Kings would cut deeply into the Laker empire, even in the medium term, seems far-fetched. The Lakers aren't merely the most popular local NBA team. They're the most popular institution of any kind in California, maybe anywhere west of Texas. Decades of breathtaking success have earned them the fervent loyalty of millions and a prolific flow of cash from celebs and other well-heeled showbiz types. Their local TV revenues are locked in for 20 years thanks to their gargantuan new deal with Time Warner Cable. None of this is threatened by the arrival of the Kings, who can't meaningfully compete with the luxury product the Lakers represent. People don't forego buying Chateau Lafite just because Ralphs has a special on Heineken 12-packs.
The Clippers can't afford to be so dismissive. Their fanbase is far, far smaller than that of the Lakers. They don't have Time Warner backing up the Brinks truck for the right to carry their games. And because they haven't been in Los Angeles nearly as long, nor nearly as successful while they've been here, they don't command the same loyalty. Many Clipper fans came to the team initially because they couldn't afford to attend Laker games or found the Lakers' poshness off-putting. (Kevin Arnovitz's 2003 article for Slate remains a splendid exegesis of this phenomenon.) The Anaheim Kings would be pitching themselves to this same class of "free agent" fans. A middle-class guy who wants to take his kids to an NBA game but can't afford Laker tickets would now have more than one alternative.
Over the long haul - we're talking the next 20 to 30 years - the Kings should be able to overcome the difficulties borne of parachuting into a market with two established teams. Soon there could be kids born in Orange County whose first NBA experience will be attending a game at the Honda Center. They'll grow up with the Kings as their hometown squad. The parents will always root for the Lakers (and, in rare cases, the Clips), but those kids will love the Kings the way we all love the first teams we were ever aware of. And for them, the "Sacramento" Kings will seem as distant and antiquated as the Minneapolis Lakers do to us.
More than anything, the fate of the three franchises will depend on what happens on the court. People gravitate toward winners. Hollywood money really gravitates toward winners. The Clippers and Kings will succeed, if at all, by putting successful teams on the floor, year after year. The Lakers already have that track record, and there's no reason to think they can't prolong it, even with a new arrival on their home turf.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.