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For Virginia Beach, a loooong way to the NBA
For Virginia Beach, a loooong way to the NBA

Now that Virginia Beach's effort to attract what sources say were the Sacramento Kings is dead, city leaders face an uphill battle to attract another major league sports team.

Franchise relocation occurs in the National Basketball Association, but not often. And when it does, it tends to happen with little warning.

The Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001, and the Hornets moved from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002.

The Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, and this season, the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets.

On Wednesday, Yahoo Sports reported that a group led by Seattle investor Chris Hansen is nearing an agreement to purchase the Kings from the Maloof family, which sources say had negotiated with Comcast-Spectacor about relocating the team to Virginia Beach. The team would play in Seattle next season at KeyArena, home to the former SuperSonics, while a new arena is built.

In the near future, no other NBA franchises appear likely to move. The Milwaukee Bucks are one of the few teams still playing in an older arena, but they recently signed a six-year deal to remain in Wisconsin and are negotiating to build a new arena.

The New Orleans Hornets, who have struggled for years, were purchased last year by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, who said the team is staying in the Big Easy. The Atlanta Hawks draw poorly, but it's doubtful the NBA would want to lose the lucrative Atlanta television market.

The prospect of the region landing a National Hockey League team looks only marginally more promising.

Drew Dorweiler, managing partner of Dartmouth Partners, a Montreal business valuation firm, told Forbes magazine in November that NHL franchises in Raleigh, N.C.; Phoenix and Miami are losing money and likely must find new homes in the next few years.

However, Forbes also identified Quebec, Seattle and Portland, Ore., as the cities most likely to attract an NHL team.

Hampton Roads remains the nation's third-largest metropolitan area without major league sports - behind only Las Vegas and Austin, Texas. The region is larger than 10 metro areas with major league sports teams - Nashville, Tenn.; Milwaukee; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Oklahoma City; Raleigh; Salt Lake City; New Orleans; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Green Bay, Wis.

However, the problem with Hampton Roads is that it lacks an adequate arena immediately available for a team to use.

The Hornets, Thunder and Nets all moved into new, taxpayer-funded arenas. The Grizzlies played in the 21,000-seat Pyramid arena while Memphis built a new facility.

In Hampton Roads, by contrast, the Kings would have been forced to play two seasons at Norfolk's Scope or Old Dominion University's Ted Constant Convocation Center while a new arena was being built in Virginia Beach. Both buildings hold about half the 18,500 seats considered essential for an NBA arena.

That was the same problem Charlotte Hornets' owner George Shinn faced when he was considering relocating his team to New Orleans or Norfolk in 2002. He said he preferred the Hampton Roads market but chose New Orleans, in part, because playing at ODU's 8,500-seat Constant Center would have cost him at least $40 million those first two seasons.

Virginia Beach's effort failed largely because Comcast-Spectacor was unable to come to terms with a major league sports team, which sources have identified as the Kings. But the city's request for $150 million in state aid for the project also faced an uphill fight in the General Assembly.

"No one city in the commonwealth of Virginia can build a major sports facility without the help of the state," Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said.

Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said that was also the case in his city's abortive attempts to attract NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball teams. Each proposal made by Norfolk included agreements with the state to rebate back all state tax revenues generated by a team, such as sales, income and business bases. Norfolk would have used that to help pay off arena debt.

Fraim suggests that the dormant Hampton Roads Sports Facility Authority, created by the state in 1996 to help Norfolk finance an arena for an NHL expansion team, be revived and become the facilitator for the region's next attempt to attract major league sports. The authority would have issued bonds for Norfolk's NHL arena and used state tax revenues to help pay off the debt.

Legislation setting aside state tax revenues for a major league sports facility was not renewed by the General Assembly.

"Virginia Beach needs a strong partnership with the state and to some degree the rest of the region," Fraim said. "I think the Beach and the region should take a deep breath and then try to organize ourselves in a fashion so that all of us, together with the commonwealth, can do the heavy lifting to build a facility like this."

Fraim said regardless of where an arena is built, bringing major league sports to Hampton Roads would improve the quality of life here.

Virginia Beach has plenty of competition. It is one of nine cities actively seeking NBA franchises, including Seattle, NBA Commissioner David Stern said late last year.

Among the strongest candidates: Louisville, Ky., which recently opened a new downtown arena; and Anaheim, Calif., which has an existing arena in the nation's second-largest TV market and nearly cut a deal a year ago to attract the Kings.

Others Stern mentioned: Kansas City, Mo.; Pittsburgh; Vancouver; Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio. Sacramento, a region with nearly 2.2 million residents, likely will be added to that list. It has an arena that could serve as a temporary home for the NBA, and city officials offered the Kings a new arena.

Stern has in recent years said the only expansion on the NBA's agenda involves teams in Europe. But he also gave local NBA boosters some hope.

When asked whether expansion might occur in the next few years, he said that's an issue that will be tackled later this year by the NBA relocation committee.

"I wouldn't preclude it," he said.

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