Thiel: Kings' solution is Vancouver, then Seattle

Thiel: Kings' solution is Vancouver, then Seattle

Credit: Getty Images

The Vancouver Canucks currently play at Rogers Arena -- the former home of the NBA's Grizzlies.


by Art Thiel


Posted on April 19, 2012 at 3:21 PM

Updated Saturday, Apr 21 at 6:30 AM

Poor David Stern.

Despite his best efforts, replete with loans, lawyers, love and a new collective bargaining agreement, he cannot make the NBA work in Sacramento.

Two facts seem irrefutable. As with nearly every major California city, Sacramento is in a financial crisis. And the owners of the NBA franchise there, the Maloof brothers, have reached the Madoff-McCourt idiocy level of of pro sports franchise ownership.

Bad combo. Not gonna work there.

So in the spirit of being courteous and helpful to my favorite sports commissioner, let me offer a solution that works all the way around (except for Sacramento, but how many chances does a town get?).

The NBA should purchase the Kings from the Maloofs in the fashion that the NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets from fellow Cro-Mag George Shinn. Whatever the price is between thieves matters not.

But to avoid having another ward of the state, the NBA should prepare a second deal to sell the team at a bargain price to Francesco Aquilini, owner of the NHL Canucks in Vancouver, where the Kings will play in 19,700-seat Rogers Arena, the former GM Place that housed the Grizzlies from 1995-2001 and houses the Canucks.

From there, things are not as simple, but more intriguing.

The return of the NBA to Vancouver could be billed as a temporary home for a franchise that will eventually land in Seattle upon the completion of a proposed arena by Chris Hansen by the 2015-16 season, with an agreement that the next NBA team to move would go to Vancouver. Or it could be a permanent move if Seattle fails to create an arena.

In the event of failure for the 2015-16 season, Seattle would be next in line for a relocation should its arena act ever come together in the time before the sun goes supernova.

The beauty of the Vancouver play is it gets rid of the Maloofs and puts an NBA franchise (the Kings or others) in a position to succeed where the Grizzlies failed because the teams under one proven ownership in the same arena allows them to be co-marketed and obviates the need for a new building.  And the temp arrangement provides incentive for Seattle investment because the proposed arena will no longer have to be built on spec, which, traffic be damned, is the largest current unknowable that will impede development.

Far-fetched? Only a little. Aquilini has looked into it.

For now, with the Kings stuck in an apparent death-rattle season in Sacramento in 2012-13, following the Maloofs' spectacular failure to live up to an arena deal struck in February, he must say little.

"I can tell you we don’t have any plans to bring an NBA team to Vancouver,” Aquilini told the Vancouver Province this week. What else could he say?

Then he went on to show he kicked some tires.

“I think if there was enough support, enough of a fan base, definitely the arena is ready to go,” he said. “There was a basketball team here before. The building is really plug-and-play. We could start tomorrow if we wanted to.

"But the question is always about market size. That really is the issue. The (Grizzlies) did leave Vancouver for a reason, because there just wasn’t enough market support. If there was, they wouldn’t have left in the first place. We’re continually doing work on that, to assess whether there is enough of a market for an NBA team in Vancouver.”

Aquilini poor-mouths the Vancouver option. Things have changed since the Grizzlies, under a tepid ownership, a lousy expansion deal, terrible team management and an outsider relationship with the Canucks, failed. Two changes make a big difference -- the Canadian dollar is on par with the U.S. dollar (no more taking in Canadian income and paying salaries in Benjamins) and the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, which is what Seattle NBA fans consistently overlook regarding its influence on the proceedings.

Estimates are that the changes in revenue sharing will mean as much as $10 million annually to smaller-market teams. From a cash-operations perspective, that is significant. It's also why Stern tried so hard to save the Kings for Sacramento. If after all the blood was spilled in the lockout to get the new CBA, the game still fails in the league's 20th-largest TV market, it will be mortifying to Stern and the league, which was mired in the old deal when the Sonics ordeal ended in relocation in 2008.

But it's hard to imagine the owners agreeing to allow Stern to spend more time and treasure on the Kings after already granting a one-year reprieve and failing. Stern may still have a play with another owner, such as Bay Area billionaire Ron Buerkle, to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Regardless,  a new guy won't change the view that arena opponents own the incontrovertible fact that Sactown is broke, and will remain so for the foreseeable.

Regarding Aquilini's apprehension about market size, Vancouver's 2.2 million area residents, according to 2010 figures, puts it behind Denver, Portland, St. Louis and Tampa, about the same as Pittsburgh, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City and ahead of Orlando, Sacramento, Cincinnati,  Kansas City, San Antonio and Charlotte.

That's population, not TV market, which doesn't factor in U.S. TV ratings. But they would own the western half of Canada, for whatever that's worth.

To restate, the other asset is joint ownership and management of the teams. Even though it's different sports and different seasons, it's a little like the Seahawks and Sounders under the management of First & Goal. If a company buys season tickets for one team, they get a deal for the other, as well as discounted tickets to concerts and flat shows. It's probably the only way Vancouver works, and Aquilini knows it and the NBA knows it.

One potential wrinkle is Aquilini is going through a divorce, the same circumstance which crippled the Dodgers under soon-to-be former owner Frank McCourt, and is affecting the No. 2 owner of the Mariners, Chris Larson. But Aquilini's wife said the divorce will have no impact on the Canucks.

In any event, ESPN senior NBA writer Ric Bucher Friday told a radio audience on ESPN 710 Seattle that he believes Vancouver is now the “most viable” destination for the Kings. He's right -- the Anaheim option puts three teams in Southern California, something to which longtime NBA owners Jerry Buss (Lakers) and Donald Sterling (Clippers) are vehemently opposed.

Stern is on record as saying his greatest disappointment of his long tenure has been the league’s failure in Vancouver. He's also said something similar about Seattle.

Whether anyone believes him, circumstances have presented an opportunity for an imaginative solution for one or both places, while no one can say he didn't try in Sacramento.

What's more improbable  -- a Sactown-Vancouver-Seattle play, or finding a rich guy willing to assemble $290 million in private capital for a arena?

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