What seemed impossible just one week ago doesn't appear so far-fetched today.
In an indication the National Basketball Association is seriously looking at keeping the Kings in Sacramento, NBA staffers will be in town Monday to conduct in-depth research on the region's ability to financially support the team next season, two sources close to the negotiations told The Bee on Thursday.
That visit would come on the heels of a hectic day Thursday, when two top NBA lieutenants came to town to conduct meetings with Mayor Kevin Johnson and area business leaders, listening to Sacramento's last-minute pitch to remain a major league basketball city.
By noon, a nearly jubilant Johnson told assembled news media downtown that the meetings were going well and NBA officials were taking the city's pitch seriously.
It was a far cry from just weeks ago, when Johnson lamented the Kings were likely to leave and that there appeared to be little the city could do about it.
"We wanted our commitment and passion to be palpable," the mayor said, standing outside the U.S. Bank Tower on Capitol Mall at noon, backed by business leaders. "The NBA has seen the best of this community."
The mayor and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said they and other leaders were working to show the NBA that Sacramento has rekindled its passion for the team and asked that the city be given one more year to show it can find the means to build a new basketball arena after numerous failed attempts.
"If we win today and we get one more year," the mayor said, "it's going to really boil down to our ability to build a new entertainment and sports complex. People are going to want to know what's different (than past attempts)."
A keynote of Johnson's presentation was a list of businesses he said are willing to invest $9.2 million next year in new corporate sponsorships, season-ticket purchases and luxury suite leases. Johnson has declined to make the list public.
NBA staffers are expected to vet that list in detail next week with both calls and visits to local businesses, the sources said.
New TV deal possible
NBA officials declined to comment Thursday on the visit. However, Commissioner David Stern indicated last week that the league not only wants to know more about the level of corporate support in Sacramento but also will be scrutinizing the deal the Kings have fashioned in Anaheim. That includes the TV deal, considered a key financing stream for NBA teams.
Adding to the drama Thursday, the general manager of the TV network that broadcasts Kings games, Larry Eldridge of Comcast SportsNet California, told The Bee that his station is willing to increase the value of its contract with the team if it stays in Sacramento.
The two members of the NBA contingent, Clay Bennett, owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder and chairman of the league's relocation committee, and league attorney Harvey Benjamin are expected to remain in Sacramento for more meetings today. One is expected to be with Kings representatives.
Stern has said repeatedly that Sacramento needs a new arena if it wants to stay in the NBA. To that end, the representatives heard an afternoon presentation from Tim Romani, president of ICON Venue Group, the firm leading Sacramento's latest arena study. ICON has built or renovated several arenas around the country, including the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, home of Bennett's Thunder.
A representative for Inland American Real Estate Trust, which owns Sacramento's downtown railyard, was also present in the meeting, which took place in an office overlooking the 240-acre site. Inland officials underscored the work being done to prepare the site for a mixed-use urban development that the city hopes will include a new arena and transit center.
Should the league agree to give the Kings one more season in Sacramento, that timeline would come with a restriction, a source close to the negotiations said: Plans for a new arena must be finalized by next March in order for the city to keep the team.
"We didn't buy three years in the same arena (Power Balance Pavilion,)" the source said.
Day packed with meetings
The NBA's day in Sacramento was tightly orchestrated. It started with a 9 a.m. meeting at City Hall, moved on to a session at the Capitol with Steinberg and local elected leaders, and was followed by the sit-down at the U.S. Bank Tower.
Members of the group ate lunch at the Sutter Club. After the railyard tour, Bennett met with Sacramento Bee Publisher and President Cheryl Dell and Gary Pruitt, president and chief executive of The McClatchy Co., which owns The Bee.
Pruitt, who also attended the downtown meeting with business representatives, said he believes "this is a very serious process by the NBA."
"This is not trifling," he said.
Pruitt declined to say what he and Bennett discussed in their private meeting.
Eldridge, vice president and general manager of Comcast SportsNet California, attended the meeting at the U.S. Bank Tower. He said the station was willing to negotiate a new agreement with the Kings but wouldn't comment on how much more CSN might pay for rights fees.
The current deal has been reported as netting the Kings roughly $11 million a year. Eldridge said a new deal could be significantly more lucrative for the Kings.
Steinberg said elected officials drove home the message that the region's leaders are committed to a new kind of effort, not limited to the city, to keep the Kings here. "Going forward, we think there is an opportunity for the region to participate in a different way," Steinberg said.
The NBA has given the Kings a deadline of May 2 to file a relocation request. The league's board of governors, made up of the 30 team owners, would make the final decision by majority vote.