PR effort to save Kings ratchets up its game

03/08/2013 12:00 AM

03/08/2013 4:57 PM

Mitch Richmond, a retired Sacramento Kings legend, walked into a midtown bar Thursday to greet a few dozen fans and sign autographs. His goal: to rally fans in the ongoing effort to keep the Kings in Sacramento.

It was a carefully choreographed event, with Richmond escorted into a packed Firestone Public House by two members of the task force leading Mayor Kevin Johnson's public campaign to hold on to the team. Many of the people waiting to meet Richmond were part of Crown Downtown, an organized fan group that has taken to attending City Council meetings and holding rallies at City Hall.

After spending a half-hour with fans, Richmond – who has pledged $1 million to be part of a local ownership group of the Kings – told reporters, "We want our team here."

Events like Thursday's are part of Johnson's strategy to persuade the NBA to block the Kings' move to Seattle, an effort that over the next six weeks will closely resemble a political campaign, the mayor's aides said.

The key element of that push is Think Big, a public relations machine funded by private donations assembled to galvanize local support for the cause. Think Big has another task as well: catching the attention of national media outlets in an attempt to sway the opinions of key NBA officials.

The effort to keep the Kings also relies upon Johnson's experience as a politician. His team has identified "swing votes" on the NBA's board of governors who could be sympathetic to Sacramento's cause and vote against the Kings' relocation attempt. Johnson and his aides have been reluctant to provide details on whom the mayor has lobbied and whom he plans to meet with as the team's future is decided over the next six weeks, but they described it as an intense effort.

One group Johnson is expected to target: the four men who own franchises in both the NHL and NBA. That's because Ron Burkle – the Southern California billionaire who has pledged to partner on a bid for the Kings and a plan to build a new downtown arena – is also a part-owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. He is well respected among the hockey league's other owners for turning a once-bankrupt franchise into a Stanley Cup winner playing in a new arena.

"As an elected official, you know how important lobbying is," the mayor said Thursday at a tree-planting event at a south Sacramento school. "It's about telling our story."

In order to block the sale to the Seattle group, Johnson must persuade eight of the NBA's 30 team owners to side with him when they meet in New York in mid-April. Team sale agreements require three-quarters approval from the board of governors, while relocation attempts need only a simple majority.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who has re-emerged as a key Johnson adviser in the effort after leading Think Big for the previous two years, said the Sacramento group has identified what he called "the bull's-eye audience," including key team owners.

"Politics are very sophisticated these days with micro-targeting," Lehane said. "You know exactly who you need to talk to in order to win."

Bill Sutton, a Florida sports-business consultant and former NBA vice president, said it's smart for the city to be rolling out a public relations campaign. He says it helps change the perception of what's going to happen to the team.

"They're going from a defensive position, that 'We're losing the team,' to an offensive position of 'We're keeping the team,' " he said.

Not everyone is impressed, however. Isaac Gonzalez, a Tahoe Park neighborhood advocate and blogger who has publicly voiced his concern over the city's possible contribution to an arena, said he worries the mayor is giving residents the false impression that he can guarantee the team won't leave.

"I'd rather have an honest doctor than a doctor who filled me full of false hope if I was suffering from an ailment," Gonzalez said. "I'd rather have an honest mayor who was careful not to cross the line while rallying to keep the Kings rather than one who will make wild statements to get applause."

Part of Johnson's strategy involves taking advantage of connections his partners in the effort have with key decision-makers, Lehane said.

Mark Mastrov, the founder of the 24 Hour Fitness chain who has filed a bid to purchase the Kings, made a pitch of $420 million in 2010 to buy the Golden State Warriors, an offer that would have been a league record had he not been outbid. His bid for the Kings has not been revealed.

For his part, Burkle has advocated for his Sacramento arena plan directly to NBA Commissioner David Stern multiple times in recent weeks.

The Seattle contingent is not just sitting still, of course; it is conducting its own intense lobbying effort, having already paid a $30 million deposit to the Maloof family.

A league source, who was not authorized to comment publicly, said representatives of hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer, the leaders of the Seattle effort, have been contacting NBA team owners to push for their deal to buy the team and move it to Seattle in time for the 2013-14 season.

Those efforts are taking place outside the media spotlight. Johnson, in contrast, is conducting a much more public campaign to alter the national media's view of Sacramento's prospects.

There are signs that the PR blitz is paying off.

In the days immediately following the news that the Kings had been sold, sportswriters and pundits outside of Sacramento largely sided with Seattle, describing the move as inevitable.

Noted NBA commentator David Aldridge wrote in January that the Kings were on "a clear path" to Seattle. Last week, he said the move is "no longer a sure thing."

Former NBA star Magic Johnson said last year he hoped that Hansen and Ballmer would "come together and a team will end up (in Seattle)." This week, he tweeted, "I hope my good friends Mark Mastrov, Ron Burkle and (Mayor Johnson) can keep the (Kings) in Sacramento!"

Sacramento political consultant Doug Elmets said it's important for the mayor to continue to change that perception.

"The (NBA) owners are not blind to public sentiment," he said. "They are influenced by public opinion and campaigns just like this. At the end of the day, why not do it? What do you have to lose?"

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