DALLAS — Seattle might have had the money.
But Sacramento had the power — specifically, said NBA Commissioner David Stern, the power of incumbency.
And it was a reluctance to move the Sacramento Kings, everything else being relatively equal, that led to the NBA’s Board of Governors voting 22-8 against allowing the team to be sold to a group led by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer and relocated to Seattle next season.
“I think that once Sacramento got engaged in doing this and being able to deliver on the promise, which didn’t really exist when the original deal was made in Seattle, that the principal advantage to the incumbent was going to prevail, looking back with hindsight,” Stern said.
The decision means that Seattle — which lost the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 — will remain without an NBA team indefinitely. But Hansen vowed to keep up the fight.
Stern said there were no promises made to the Seattle group about a team in the future, though both Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver indicated expansion could be an option later, seeming to soften their previous stance that adding teams was not in the cards.
Silver said the league might take a more serious look at expansion after its current national TV contracts expire after the 2015-16 season.
“Expansion was discussed at least as a possibility down the road,” said Silver, who will take over as commissioner Feb. 1. “We want to wait and see what happens in our next national television negotiation, but we’re very appreciative of the fans in Seattle, and we’ve regretted having to leave the market the last time and we fully expect we’ll return there one day.”
Hansen made an agreement in January to buy 65 percent of the Kings for $341 million, an overall valuation of $525 million that was the most ever offered for an NBA team. After a Sacramento group matched the offer, Hansen twice raised his bid — to an overall value of $550 million in late April, and then to $625 million on Friday.
Stern said the Seattle bid was considered on the strength of the $625 million offer but that, ultimately, the decision was about rewarding Sacramento and its 28 years of support of the NBA, and the willingness of that city to quickly put together a $448 million arena plan that includes $258 million in public money.
“It’s nice to see two great cities being so interested in an NBA franchise, but the big winner here was Sacramento,” Stern said.
Left unsettled is the issue of who will own the team. Voting against relocation killed the original deal Hansen had with the current owners, the Maloof family. However, the Maloof family could still keep the team or sell to a Sacramento group, or even possibly broker a deal in which Hansen would become a limited partner. Reports of that so-called “backup plan” — in which Hansen would buy 20 percent of the team — leaked over the weekend.
Stern said he would talk with the Maloofs and try to facilitate the sale of the team to the Sacramento group within the next 24 to 48 hours.
Hansen tried one last time to make Seattle’s case in a roughly 45-minute presentation to the Board of Governors on Wednesday. That was followed by a similar presentation by the Sacramento group, then almost two hours of discussion and the vote.
Hansen did not speak to reporters afterward but released a statement through his sonicsarena.com website in which he said he was “extremely disappointed with today’s relocation vote and truly believe we put forth both a significantly better offer and Arena plan.” He said he would “look forward to hearing back on our agreement to join the Maloofs as Limited Partners in the Kings.”
He thanked “everyone in Seattle who has been a part of our effort.”
George Maloof said his family, which bought the Kings in the 1990s, would consider keeping Hansen involved, while saying he couldn’t speak to the report of a deal for 20 percent of the Kings.
“That agreement is over,” Maloof said of the initial deal for 65 percent of the team. “There are other possibilities.”
Maloof said he had spoken briefly to Hansen after the decision was announced and said, “He’s disappointed. We’re all disappointed because we’ve worked on it so hard, for so long.”
Maloof insisted again that there were no buyers in Sacramento interested in the team when he began talking to Hansen — who made it clear from the start his goal was to buy the Kings and move them to Seattle.
Buying the Kings would have been the culmination of an effort that began roughly three years ago when Hansen began quietly buying up land in Sodo for a new arena.
When the agreement with the Kings was announced on Jan. 21, one national reporter described Seattle as being so close to landing the team that it was “first and goal at the one.”
But once the deal was made public, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson — a former three-time all-star NBA point guard — immediately began assembling an ownership group that could match the offer, as well as reviving a previously approved arena plan that quickly sailed through the City Council.
Stern said it was that effort that saved the Kings for Sacramento, saying if the city “could produce a site, a construction team, a strong, financially strong ownership group, and the kind of support by the city and the region that Mayor Johnson has galvanized, then the appropriate outcome was to keep the team in Sacramento.”
Johnson, who held a number of news conferences through the process that bordered on pep rallies, was more measured as he met the media after news of the vote. He said he was confident all along that if Sacramento could match the initial offer from Hansen’s group and come up with an arena plan the team would stay. He said whenever something was asked of Sacramento, “we did that each step along the way.”
That included, according to Vivek Ranadive, the leader of the potential ownership group, putting the full $341 million purchase price into escrow this week.
Johnson sounded equally confident that the Ranadive group will reach a deal with the Maloofs in the next two or three days “so we can close this out and move on.”
The vote came 26 days after the NBA postponed making a decision at the league’s annual Board of Governors meeting in New York on April 19.
At that time, Stern said the Seattle-Sacramento battle over the Kings was “quite difficult and confusing for the owners as well” and that the Sacramento offer “was not as complete” as it was going to be soon.
Sacramento firmed things up a few days later, and on April 29 the league’s Relocation Committee voted 7-0 to recommend that the Kings not be allowed to move. Many took that to mean the issue was settled. Hansen’s increased bid, as well as an offer of a $116 million relocation fee, clouded the issue a bit, and some pointed to the nearly four-hour length of Wednesday’s meeting as proof that the vote was not a slam dunk.
Relocation required the approval of 16 of 30 owners. It was not revealed who the eight were who sided with Seattle, though one vote came from the Portland Trail Blazers, owned by Paul Allen, also the owner of the Seahawks and Sounders.
Stern disputed the notion that delaying the process bought time for Sacramento.
“I would say that, for us, the calendar was what the calendar was,” he said. “Because of the report that had to be done and because of the way the calendar worked, we couldn’t make it in time for the last meeting. So we had to schedule a special meeting and it is where we are.”
Johnson said he knew that losing out on a quick return of the Sonics, after the way the team left in 2008, would be “devastating” to Seattle NBA fans.
“I’m hoping they can get a team at some point and I think they will,” he said.
Hansen has said in the past that he knew it might take a few tries to return the NBA to Seattle, one reason he crafted a memorandum of understanding with Seattle and King County on the Sodo arena deal that lasts through 2017.
Hansen ended his statement with a hopeful message for Sonics fans.
“Our day will come,” he wrote. “And when it does it will just be that much sweeter for the struggle.”