NEW YORK — The family that owns the Sacramento Kings made clear again Friday it would prefer to sell the team to a group that would relocate it to Seattle for the 2013-14 season.
NBA commissioner David Stern, however, said in his annual news conference concluding the league’s Board of Governors meetings at the St. Regis Hotel that a decision won’t come until early May and continues to prove a “wrenching” issue for the league.
“This is one that’s just been quite difficult and confusing for the owners,” Stern said, adding that the BOG discussed the issue for at least two hours during its meetings.
Stern said the Finance/Relocation Committee will meet next week — probably Thursday or Friday — to consider whether to recommend the sale of the team to the Chris Hansen-led Seattle group, or deny it and force the team to stay in Sacramento.
Stern said league rules require at least seven business days before a vote by the Board of Governors could be held, meaning the earliest a decision could come is apparently May 6.
The Maloofs, though, took their strongest stance yet that they prefer the team be sold to the Seattle group. In a letter to the NBA, the Maloofs wrote “there is significant distance between us and the Sacramento group.”
Probably not so coincidentally, The Associated Press revealed the existence of the letter about 15 minutes before Stern’s news conference.
In the letter, the Maloofs stated that the Sacramento ownership group, led by Vivek Ranadive, will not enter into a binding agreement until after the Seattle offer is denied. They say that would put the family at risk of being in breach of contract and could also cause a loss of the “leverage to aggressively renegotiate terms in the event the existing agreement is terminated.”
The family also wrote that “we and our advisers see no reason to continue any dialogue with the Sacramento group or to give any further consideration to negotiating backup offers based on its latest nonbinding proposal.”
A source with knowledge of the situation said the family has concerns that the Sacramento deal would not close until June 30, compared to the Seattle deal, which would close upon approval by the league. If the sale to the Seattle group is denied, terms of a deal with the Sacramento group could then change before June 30, potentially not in their favor, the Maloofs believe.
Sources insisted the Sacramento offer continues to fall short of Seattle’s, in part by not including a $30 million nonrefundable deposit or the $16 million increase made last week by Hansen. The Maloofs’ letter states that the Sacramento group did match the initial Seattle offer of a total franchise valuation of $525 million (Hansen agreed to buy 65 percent of the team for $341 million).
Stern, though, said there is no appreciable difference in the offers, saying “they’re in the same ballpark with respect to the net result to the selling family.”
Stern also disputed that the offer is not concrete or does not include the $30 million deposit, saying, “There is a down payment. It is binding.” However, he also said he expected the Sacramento offer to change, saying, “It’s not as complete as it probably is going to be by the close of business today or tomorrow.”
Asked why, if the Maloofs want to sell the team to the Seattle group, they are not being allowed to do so immediately, Stern said: “I guess it would be fair to say as an issue that the owners are deliberating quite conservatively and deliberately because each team owns its team in its market, and that is why, when a team wants to move, it becomes the province of the board, rather than ownership. That’s why we have this constitutional provision which has this rather labor intensive process that is sort of weighing down on all of us as we go down the checklist, we get everything together.”
Spokesmen for the Hansen and Maloof groups said Friday they had no official comments on Stern’s comments or the meetings.
Owners who left the meetings continued to have little to say Friday amid rumblings they have been placed on a gag order by the league.
One source with knowledge of the situation said there is a feeling that part of the Sacramento strategy is to create confusion among the owners to continue to “buy more time” to improve its offer and arena plan.
The source said Stern’s willingness to allow the process to lengthen has “turned what should be a slam dunk for Seattle into a jump ball.”
Stern, though, took offense to a question from a Seattle TV reporter that he might be trying to sway the decision toward one city.
“At the end of the day the committee, which is going to meet next week, will have to take a vote and decide what to do,” he said. “So I don’t understand, not only your question, but where it would come from.”
Stern said he wouldn’t go into detail about the issues that still need resolved, but said at one point, “Of course we’re most concerned about the critical path of arenas getting built.”
He also seemed to again rule out that giving one city an expansion team could be an easy way out, though he was not quite as definitive on the topic as he has been in the past. Asked if expansion remains a non-starter, he took a long pause and said, “I don’t want to say a complete non-starter. If the question is: Was there any discussion of expansion? The answer is no.”
He said it was not being considered at the moment as a way out of this situation, saying “I haven’t heard that in any shape or form, particularly when we don’t know at this time what the next television network contract would be (the current deal expires after the 2015-16 season).”
The NBA is voting only on whether to approve the sale to the Seattle group (which requires 23 of 30 owners) and relocation (16 of 30). Notably, Stern said relocation would be considered initially: “I think the committee agrees, or the committee directs, that the first issue is whether we’re prepared to authorize the team to move. That will be the first order of the day.”
It was the first time Stern had characterized the voting process in order, and there was thought that voting first on relocation would allow the league to say it was not turning down the Hansen/Steve Ballmer bid but simply that it did not want to move the team out of Sacramento.
While Stern acknowledged again that one city or the other is likely to be left unhappy with the decision, he said it won’t be for lack of effort on the NBA’s behalf.
“This will be by far our most extensive review of anything like this in the league’s history,” he said.