WATCH: Ron Burkle, Mark Mastrov officially announced as major partners in Sacramento’s fight to keep Kings

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The whales have been freed in Sacramento.

During last night’s 21st annual State of the City address, Mayor Kevin Johnson officially unveiled Ron Burkle and Mark Mastrov as the deep-pocketed investors who will lead the charge to keep the Sacramento Kings from relocating to Seattle.

According to Johnson, Mastrov will pursue majority ownership of the team while Burkle will handle planning for a new arena.  With Burkle’s involvement, Johnson also announced the Downtown Plaza as the location of choice in the city’s effort to build a new entertainment and sports complex.

“Mark Mastrov was going to be the lead on the team and that was very clear that’s where his passion lies,” Johnson told reporters after last night’s festivities at the Memorial Auditorium.

“And Ron wanted to be the lead on the arena side and that makes sense,” Johnson added.  “He did it very successfully, as I said earlier, in Pittsburgh and revitalizing downtown (with) a green arena – all those sorts of things – so they compliment each other.  They play to each other’s strengths.”

Mastrov is submitting his formal proposal to buy the Kings to the NBA this morning.  An arbitrary deadline for the city to enter a bid on the team was set for today.

“This is about building a winning franchise for a winning community,” Mastrov said in a prepared statement. “Sacramento has proven time and time again to be a great NBA market. As a longtime resident of Northern California with deep ties to Sacramento, I am thrilled to be a part of an effort to do something special for the region.”

In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s announcement, speculation ran rampant on who Johnson was recruiting in the city’s fight to save the Kings.  Mastrov went public with his interest to purchase the team in mid-January, while reports also surfaced that Burkle had connections to JMA Ventures, the owners of the Downtown Plaza.

“I am excited about the economic possibilities for the arena and for downtown Sacramento as a whole,” Burkle said in the city’s press release. “We have an opportunity to transform downtown into a vibrant hub of economic and cultural activity that will create jobs and generate a positive economic impact for years to come.”

Mastrov and Burkle are no strangers to the sports business.  Mastrov, a native of the bay area, attempted to buy the Golden State Warriors in 2010, but came second in bidding to current owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber.  Burkle is co-owner of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, which under his leadership won its third Stanley Cup in franchise history during the 2008-09 hockey season.

Bullets and Highlights

  • The 20-plus investors with Sacramento ties pledging $1 million each will submit a bid to purchase Bob Cook’s 7-percent stake that’s currently being held in bankruptcy.  If they successfully buy Cook’s shares, does the mayor envision them invoking the right to match?  “I think the right of refusal issue is still something to be debated,” Johnson said.  “It’s not clear.  It certainly can end up in the courts.  But we do know there’s an opportunity to try to acquire that 7 percent for X amount and the local ownership group is very interested in doing it, which is awesome for us.”
  • Johnson also revealed that former Kings great Mitch Richmond is part of the group of local investors pledging dollars to keep the team in Sacramento.  Until Thursday, Richmond remained anonymous about his involvement in the effort.
  • Burkle has big plans for the Downtown Plaza that are still being conceptualized.  Johnson sees the shopping mall and its surrounding area turning into an entertainment district similar to L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles. “If you think about the Downtown Plaza, that’s an opportunity to do other development and other economic opportunities,” Johnson said.  “So Ron Burkle I’m sure has a vision.  We don’t know all of that yet, but we know it’s going to be a darn basketball facility.  We know that retail and entertainment and restaurants are all going to benefit.  Is there going to be office and hotel?  I’m not sure of all that, but I think those are all the opportunities he’s going to look at.”
  • When asked about minority owner John Kehrioitis’ apparent efforts to buy the team, Johnson said it was “good news” but offered a seemingly muted response.  “Optionality is a good thing,” Johnson told the media contingent last night. “Our goal is to keep the team in Sacramento.  We don’t care how we do that.  That ultimately is it.  And this has been a process over what – six, eight weeks where we’ve vetted a lot of opportunities.  And we believe there’s a strong frontrunner that we’re behind.  But we’re certainly not going to exclude anybody who feels they can finance an arena all privately with no public subsidy.  That would be a dream for all of us.   But on the same token, a lot of times those hail mary’s don’t work out.  And I can’t comment on it at this point, but we’ll continue to do our due diligence.”
  • The region’s corporate base is stepping up with a major investment in the fight to save the Kings.  Johnson stated that the Sacramento business community has pledged $50 million over the first five seasons in a new downtown arena if the team stays.
  • With a push from Johnson, Mastrov’s ownership group intends to bring back the Sacramento Monarchs either through expansion or relocation.  After winning the 2005 WNBA Championship, the women’s pro team folded four years later in 2009.  Johnson said that he’s had conversations with WNBA President Laurel J. Richie about bringing back the defunct franchise.

WATCH: Johnson answers questions about the State of the City address with reporters outside Memorial Auditorium

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About: Jonathan Santiago

Jonathan Santiago serves Cowbell Kingdom as senior editor specializing in writing, podcasting and video production. He also handles the majority of CK’s day-to-day beat coverage of the Kings.