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Shaun Powell

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A prolonged lockout could affect the new arena plans for mayor Kevin Johnson and the Kings' owners.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Labor unrest could play big part in Sacramento's NBA future


Posted Sep 5 2011 9:04AM

The emotional and heart-wrenching effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento could be heard in the stammering voice of TV play-by-play man Grant Napear and seen in the quivering lips of color analyst Jerry Reynolds as they struggled to sign off the final Kings telecast last season.

At that moment, judging from desperate pleas of basketball fans at Power Balance Pavilion (the former Arco Arena), those who remembered the halcyon days of Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and those epic clashes with the Lakers, the public wanted the Kings to stay put. It's the only game in town and it makes Sacramento known for something besides the state capitol and cowbells (Phil Jackson's term, not mine).

But: What effect, if any, will a possible lockout have on the cause? Will missed games or a missed season have the same massive deflation as Robert Horry's 3-pointer at the buzzer in the 2002 playoffs against Sacramento?

The emotional momentum from that final telecast, when the locals realized the Kings were in jeopardy of leaving, has had positive ripples.

Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former Suns star, took an aggressive approach to rousting support from local businesses and politicians. Fans gobbled season tickets, enough to surpass last season's total. After the Kings' draft, anticipation was high and even the Maloof brothers -- Gavin and Joe -- were surprised by the swell of support. They seemed to place any ideas of moving the club on the back burner.

But the city of Sacramento still must meet a March deadline to get financing for a new arena estimated at $387 million, or else commissioner David Stern will step aside should the Maloofs load up the U-Haul and relocate the club to Anaheim or anywhere else. If there's no basketball in November or December -- or at all this season -- does that support from the public and business leaders suddenly turn cool and disappear?

Can the Maloofs, who were forced to surrender all but 2 percent of their stake in the Palms Casino to satisfy debt, handle the economic sucker punch of a lost or delayed season?

Public sentiment for professional sports is always at risk whenever there's a labor fight. The image of wealthy people fighting over billions of dollars doesn't resonate among the rank and file, who are worried about the next mortgage payment. So the stakes are high in Sacramento, perhaps more than anywhere else. The Kings managed to get the emotional tide on their side last April, and now the trick is to keep it flowing in the right direction despite labor talks and the threat of doom.

Johnson is proposing a new arena/entertainment center in the downtown railyard area and the blueprint is expected soon. Financing the project (to be revealed this week) will be a crucial issue, since the Maloofs are in no position to foot the bill themselves.

Once the Maloofs suffered financially in Las Vegas, the Kings became more of a business for them and less of a hobby. Therefore, the public will be on the hook to some degree for a new arena. It could be argued that the threat of a lockout doesn't harm the proposed arena or the public's desire for it. But how can it possibly help?

Even bigger is the labor deal itself and whether it will be a life preserver for small-market teams such as the Kings, who don't have the financial flex of larger-market teams. Much depends on how the owners share their revenue, especially important for cities like Sacramento.

Why is that important? While all teams share the revenue produced by national TV, they're on their own when it comes to local TV. And that's where the Kings, who get an estimated $11 million from local TV, are at a big disadvantage to the Lakers, who signed a multi-billion-dollar, 20-year deal for two new regional Lakers-only channels starting in 2012-13.

In the current financial climate and NBA labor structure, owners like the Maloofs are severely pressed to maximize revenue streams. They can't raise ticket prices without some sort of backlash. If they did raise prices marginally, the public-relations hit could be considerable, especially with the rebuilding Kings working a streak of three sub-30-win seasons.

So there's much at risk for Sacramento in the coming weeks and months. Soon after Labor Day, the arena committee appointed by Johnson will reveal several financing options. Those will probably include ticket surcharges, increased parking fees and perhaps some sort of sales tax hike.

Whether the public buys any or all of it depends on the appetite for basketball, the Kings and Johnson's pitch that the area needs a new arena to spur job growth and economic activity. The surge of emotions seemed strong enough last spring.

What about now? What about November?

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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