The value of Sacramento’s incumbency in the fight to keep the Kings

Sacramento Kings Sign Lady at Here We Buy Night (Photo: Steven Chea)

The word incumbent has become one of the power words used by both Mayor Kevin Johnson and the NBA’s brass in this battle for the Sacramento Kings.  It feels like a buzz word used by politicians, but it’s much more than that.  Incumbency stands for 28 years of loyal service to a league that is known for relocating unsuccessful franchises.  And while the Kings have been unsuccessful on the floor for the majority of their tenure in the capital of California, they have an incredible history of success at the box office.

Seattle was once an incumbent.  For 41 years, the Supersonics played in the Emerald City and it is an absolute tragedy that they now reside in Oklahoma City.  It took a perfect storm for Seattle to lose the Sonics and the scars are deep.

That is why the NBA is taking it slow this time around.  The relocation bug is a plague on the NBA community.  It is a last resort measure that raises up one city and demolishes another.  When a team leaves a city, there is nothing left to go back to and the NBA understands this all too well.

“The NBA does not want to move a team from one market to another – period,” Johnson said after Sacramento’s presentations before the joint committee in New York on April 3.  ”We already know that.  They normally move a team from one market to another when the fans don’t support it or you can’t build a building.  That’s not the case in Sacramento.”

The NBA has attempted to reunite a community with their product in the past.  Charlotte lost the Hornets in 2002 and the NBA quickly moved to replace them with the Bobcats just three seasons later.  North Carolina is a basketball state and Charlotte used to be an NBA town.

But it’s not anymore.  Now it is one of the leagues mistakes.

Charlotte is one of the reasons that the NBA is looking so hard at the Sacramento market.  And it is also why they are leery of the folks up in Seattle.

The Kings are part of Sacramento in the same way that the Knicks are part of New York, the Bulls are part of Chicago and the Lakers are part of Los Angeles.  And in the same way that the Sonics were part of Seattle.

Chris Hansen has spent plenty of time and energy telling everyone in the world how much better the city of Seattle is compared to Sacramento.  Which is ironic when you consider that he resides roughly 150 miles from Sacramento in San Francisco.

For the most part, Hansen is spot on with  his assumptions.  There is more money for corporate sponsorships in Seattle.  There are more eyes for television sets and Hansen and Steve Ballmer are dream owners for the league.  And the NBA understands all of this and more.

“I think it’s a public trust of sorts.  And that’s how communities see their teams and we’re experiencing that in Sacramento right now,” Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said two weeks ago on the Charlie Rose Show.  “I think some people are surprised at the preliminary decision the relocation committee has made because they say, well but look at Seattle – there’s more corporate headquarters, there’s more TV households, there’s the potential to generate more revenue there – shouldn’t you move a franchise to the market where there’s more revenue?  And our response is not necessarily.  That if you look at total value over time, and brand building, and community support, that continuity is important.  I mean, look (at) Seattle now – part of why the citizens there are so upset, and we understand that, is they lost their team to Oklahoma City.”

We keep saying this, but some people aren’t listening, this isn’t about Seattle, it is about the incumbent.  Has Sacramento done everything in its power to remain an NBA city?  Yes, everything and more.  The fans, the politicians and a new ownership group are ready to stand behind this team for the next 35 years.

And if the NBA leaves the city of Sacramento and its $258 million subsidy on the table, they would set a horrible precedence. But more than that, they would snuff out an NBA market that has been incredibly successful, for one that they left more than a half a decade ago.

The bridge will be burned and, like Charlotte, Sacramento will become a ghost town for the NBA.  And there is no promise that the Seattle fanbase will come back either.  After five years away, it takes more than a few thousand engaged fans to make this work.  Hansen would have you believe that his 44,000 email list of potential ticket buyers is legit, but even the most naive person understands that number is grossly inflated.

There is a legitimate concern that Seattle, like Charlotte is a dead NBA market.  That the fanbase has soured on the NBA after going through what they have gone through.  That the narrative of Sonicsgate, which paints the NBA and David Stern in such a negative light, has made Seattle fans bitter, or worse, apathetic.

So Sacramento is getting a longer rope than anyone expected.  And rightly they should.  In the face of adversity, everyone involved stepped forward.  They have showed the NBA why Sacramento is still a great basketball town worth preserving.  They have fought for their team with every ounce of energy.

Seattle doesn’t like it, but come Wednesday, there is a very good chance that Sacramento will still be a NBA city.  There will be a lot of speculation as to why the NBA would choose a smaller market over a larger one, but remember that Sacramento is the incumbent and they have earned the right to keep the Kings.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.