Suddenly, the battle for the Sacramento Kings is shaping up as a multimillionaires' bidding war, with the NBA looming as final arbiter.
Amid a fresh round of reports Friday that a Seattle group was about to buy the Kings from the Maloof family, two more deep-pocketed bidders said they were interested in buying the troubled franchise and keeping it in Sacramento.
Bay Area investor Mark Mastrov, the founder of the 24 Hour Fitness chain, told The Bee he has assembled a group to buy the Kings and "work with the city to get an arena deal if possible."
Mastrov was a finalist two years ago in the bidding for the Golden State Warriors, with his reported offer of $350 million falling short. The team ultimately was sold for an NBA-record $450 million, which Mastrov said he "could not see clear" to match.
He added that he has "been in touch with the Maloofs" about a possible purchase.
The Maloofs did not acknowledge receiving overtures from Mastrov. Eric Rose, the family's spokesman, said the family wouldn't comment on "rumors or speculation."
Mayor Kevin Johnson told USA Today late Friday that he's trying to round up a bid of at least $425 million. He said such a bid would be competitive with whatever the Maloofs could get from Seattle because of relocation costs. He said he believes Sacramento has a real shot at keeping the team.
Also expressing interest in playing some role was Dale Carlsen of Sleep Train Mattress Centers Inc., whose company is the naming sponsor of the Kings' arena in North Natomas.
Carlsen said he has talked with other potential investors as well as Johnson.
"My hope is we're given an opportunity as a community to put our offer in," Carlsen said. "There's several groups that are trying to put that together."
Yet another potential bidder is Ron Burkle, the billionaire supermarket tycoon whom Johnson first secured as an interested buyer when the Kings threatened to leave for Anaheim in 2011.
Johnson said this week he still considers Burkle a contender, and NBA Commissioner David Stern said Thursday it would be reasonable to give Burkle a chance to match any offer by the Seattle interests.
A new report Friday by a Comcast Sports analyst said the Maloofs had a handshake agreement to sell the team for $525 million to hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer.
But there was no announcement from either side, and a source close to the Maloofs said Friday evening there was still no signed deal.
A spokesman for Hansen didn't return calls seeking comment.
Sources told The Bee as recently as Thursday that the Maloof family had not received a formal offer for the team, but was expecting one very soon.
The family has never publicly expressed an interest in selling the team, which it has controlled since 1999. But a source close to the family said the Maloofs battered by economic setbacks in recent years, including the loss of their Las Vegas casino have begun warming to the idea. The team owes more than $200 million and is on track to lose up to $7 million this year, sources say.
If the Maloofs sell to the Hansen group, a tug of war could develop, with the Maloofs and Hansen squaring off against the bidder supported by the city of Sacramento.
The NBA's board of governors, comprising the league's team owners, would have to approve both a sale and a relocation proposal. The deadline for seeking approval is March 1, although that could be pushed back.
Sacramento officials say a local bidder could actually buy the team more cheaply than Hansen, and the Maloofs would make just as much money.
That's because a local buyer wouldn't have to spend more than $100 million on moving costs including a league relocation fee of at least $35 million and the immediate repayment of the Kings' debt to the city, which would cost $77 million.
Sacramento officials are hoping that the NBA would reject the Seattle bid and pressure the Maloofs to sell to the local group.
Stern personally negotiated the deal for a new downtown Sacramento arena last spring, a deal ultimately rejected by the Maloofs. The commissioner's statement Thursday that Sacramento should have a chance at matching Hansen's bid was seen by city officials as further sign of Stern's desire to keep the team from relocating.
If the league did approve a sale to the Seattle group, the team would move next season and spend two years playing at KeyArena, an aging facility that was home to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2008.
Hansen's group, which also includes members of the Nordstrom family, has a tentative deal with the city of Seattle and King County to build a $490 million arena south of downtown.
The Kings' future in Sacramento has been unsettled for some time. The team nearly bolted for Anaheim in 2011, and its status became uncertain again after the proposed downtown arena project collapsed last spring.
Mastrov, the fitness magnate, said he was aware of the details of that arena plan and that he "likes the idea and concept and location."
The Maloofs, the NBA and the city had tentatively agreed last year upon the parameters of that proposal for a $390 million arena in the downtown railyard before the Maloofs withdrew from the plan. The deal included a $255 million contribution from the city.
Any new owners who commit to keeping the team in Sacramento would have the opportunity to take part in that financing plan, city officials said.
"We do want people to know that we're still open to making a deal on a new arena in our downtown," City Manager John Shirey said Friday.
Mastrov said Johnson is aware of his interest in buying the Kings.
"(Owning an NBA franchise) is a passion of mine," he said. "I love basketball and I love the NBA."
Mastrov, who lives in Lafayette, is one of the fitness industry's "most respected" executives, said Pamela Kufahl, editor-in-chief of Club Industry magazine.
Mastrov sold 24 Hour Fitness for $1.7 billion in 2005 and founded a fitness-oriented investment firm called New Evolution Ventures. He has invested in numerous chains, including one named after pop star Madonna and another named for Steve Nash of the Los Angeles Lakers.