The billionaire thought to be Sacramento's best bet at keeping the Kings met with the NBA on Thursday to express his interest in buying the team and to advocate for building an arena at the site of the Downtown Plaza.
Ron Burkle, the Southern California grocery tycoon, sat down with NBA Commissioner David Stern at the league offices in New York, league spokesman Mike Bass said. The meeting, which lasted two hours, was brokered by Mayor Kevin Johnson.
A source told The Bee that the discussion focused not only on the Kings, but on Burkle's desire to help build an arena at the current site of Downtown Plaza – and not the downtown railyard. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.
Burkle and 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov are in serious discussions to team up on a bid for the Kings and to help the city of Sacramento finance a new downtown sports arena, sources and associates of both men have told The Bee.
Johnson plans to present a wealthy investor and an arena plan to the NBA in April as a counteroffer to the deal reached this week between the team's owners and a group seeking to move the franchise to Seattle.
The Burkle-Stern meeting presents evidence that the NBA is taking seriously Johnson's effort to present an alternative ownership group to the league that would keep the team in Sacramento.
Daniel Conway, the mayor's chief of staff, said Friday that "out of the respect for the private nature of these conversations, we are not commenting on discussions involving any potential equity partners."
A phone message left with Burkle's spokesman seeking comment was not returned.
Burkle is worth a reported $3.1 billion and has long commanded the respect of both Stern and Johnson.
When the mayor revealed in 2011 that Burkle wanted to buy the Kings and keep them in Sacramento – at a time when the team's owners, the Maloofs, were attempting to relocate to Anaheim – the reaction from the NBA was so favorable, the Maloofs dropped the Anaheim idea.
And when news first leaked two weeks ago that the Maloofs were negotiating to sell the Kings, Stern made a point of saying he thought Burkle should be given a shot at matching the offer from Seattle.
Burkle's endorsement of Downtown Plaza also marks the first time a precise location has been pushed by any of the investors being recruited by the mayor.
While the mayor has said he has not settled on a preferred arena site to present to the NBA, Downtown Plaza has been mentioned as a possible location for two weeks.
JMA Ventures bought Downtown Plaza in August for $22 million and quickly commissioned a study on the feasibility of converting the troubled mall into an arena.
The study, by the same architectural-engineering firm that has designed the new NBA arena in Brooklyn and several others, concluded the idea had merit.
"The site could work extremely well," Bill Crockett of AECOM, the firm that did the study, told The Bee two weeks ago.
JMA officials couldn't be reached for comment Friday. In a prepared statement, the company's CEO, Todd Chapman, said, "It's exciting to see that there's a concerted, organized effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento, (which) is gaining momentum, and we are happy to do what we can to support that effort."
Although the city made a tentative agreement with the Kings and the NBA last spring to build an arena at the railyard, many community leaders believe Downtown Plaza is an ideal site because of its proximity to light rail, restaurants and other amenities.
The mall has been struggling for years. Sales fell from $166 million in 2005 to $112 million in 2011, according to city officials.
Two more national tenants exited the mall this month – Gap and Brookstone – although JMA just announced it landed a local restaurant and the Sacramento Arts and Business Council as tenants.