Update 03-01-2013: Kevin Johnson did indeed produce the "whales" at the State of the City speech on Thursday night, and the bid was submitted to the NBA today. In addition to a plan to buy the team and build a new arena in downtown Sacramento, the new ownership would revive the Monarchs WNBA franchise. Some details from the Sacramento Bee.
The fate of the Sacramento Kings basketball team is up in the air. Its majority owners, the Maloof family, made a surprise announcement in mid-January that they were selling their stake to a group of investors who plan to move the team to Seattle. But Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former star of the NBA, is determined not to lose the Kings, and has organized a rival investor group to put in their own bid.
Earlier this week the city council authorized negotiations with that group on public-private financing for a new arena near downtown. This is complicated by the fact that no one other than the mayor knows for sure who the investors are, although speculation centers on businessman Ron Burkle and 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov.
Johnson referred to the mystery investors several weeks ago as "whales" -- because they're big. The term has caught on among Kings fans, who communicate via an impressive social media network of blogs such as Sactown Royalty and Cowbell Kingdom, arena supporters such as Crown Downtown, and daily podcasts from a former host at KHTK known as Carmichael Dave. Johnson is expected to reveal the whales this week, perhaps at Thursday evening's State of the City speech.
While they wait for the whales to surface, the Kings fan community is providing them with some krill, so to speak. Supporters attempted to sell out the February 9 game against the Utah Jazz. They called the effort "Here We Buy Night," and it started with a tailgate party before the game, where I interviewed several fans. Some had made signs referencing the battle with Seattle, such as this one that used the Starbucks logo to represent the northern rivals.
Noah Justin was one of several people handing out flyers instructing the crowd what to chant, and when. "We have the SAC-RA-MEN-TO chant, and that's basically saying we want them to stay here," he explained. "We have a chant during the second quarter for LET US MATCH, because we need to show everyone that we deserve to match that offer that [lead investor] Chris Hansen has for the Maloofs. Then we have HERE WE STAY, when the Jazz have free throws in the third quarter."
Not that Kings fans usually need a cheat sheet to make noise. As Christina Dunn of Chico pointed out, they've put their arena into the Guinness Book of Records for loudest sports venue. "Something like 130 decibels," she says, "which is just incredibly loud. And it's just so much fun, you really can't beat it, even when the crowd is not maybe that big -- when it's a close game at the end, it is loud."
The chanting is supplemented with cowbells, a Sacramento tradition. Tyler Brant of Granite Bay is too young to remember when it started, but he's heard the story. "The other cities were saying we were just a cow town," he says. "So everyone brought their cowbells, saying we'll show you a cow town. We rung 'em all loud, and every coach in the league didn't want to play in here because it was so loud. That's what we're trying to bring back."
"Here We Buy" organizer Kevin Fippin told me he understands the NBA, like the rest of pro sports, is a business. They'll make decisions based on the bottom line, not sentiment. But Fippin says the Kings fans have to act on their feelings. "What are we supposed to do?" he asks. "We support this team, and what else are we going to do except fight? And this is the way we fight."
Fippin's co-organizer Ed Montes says Sacramento's smaller than Seattle, but it could be a better market for the NBA. Unlike Seattle, fans here don't have major league baseball, football, or hockey competing for their attention, and their dollars. "Sacramento's a one-team town," he says. "We have the Kings and that's it. So they might not be a good team, they might have been a bad team for a long time, but you know what? This is all we have."
Like many others at the tailgate, Tim Ghiorso of Fair Oaks sympathizes with Seattle fans, who lost their team to Oklahoma City in 2008. But Ghiorso says if the NBA wants to repair the damage done to Seattle, they should give them a new expansion team and stop shuffling franchises. "It really hurts the NBA brand," he says. "If I'm in another city (watching the Kings leave) I'm thinking there's nothing I can do to keep my team, it's up to some billionaires who might move it. So why should I get into this sport?"
Nancy Daley from Elk Grove has been a season ticket holder since 2006. She's worried about the economic impact if the Kings pack up. "The coaches and the players, they're all going to be fine," says Daley. "But we know our usher. We run into him around town. This is the way they support their families, so the real pain for us would be watching those people lose their jobs, and possibly having to leave town."
Daley's optimistic that the Kings fans won't go unnoticed by the NBA, who have the final say in relocation matters. "Just the other day David Stern, the NBA commissioner, said support was a big factor when they consider purchases and relocation," she says. "It's hard to say that we're not passionate supporters."
February 9th's "Here We Buy" night came a little short of a sellout - about 16,000 of the 17,000 seats at Sleep Train Arena were sold. Several hundred were donated to youth groups by fans who bought extra tickets. Still, it was enough of a success that the fans are organizing Here We Buy Night #2 for March 24th.