SACRAMENTO — We'll build you a new arena, and we'll spend more than $500 million to do it. You sell all the tickets, hot dogs and T-shirts you can, for basketball games and concerts and everything else, and you keep almost all the money.
The Sacramento Kings simply had to say yes, and help persuade voters to say yes too. But the Kings said no, all but sealing defeat of two measures on today's Sacramento ballot designed primarily for their benefit.
If projections hold, voters will reject both measures, rather than raise their sales tax to pay for an arena in which the Kings have not committed to play, on land the city has not committed to buy.
"It has been the single worst campaign I've ever seen at any level in politics," said Dan Schnur, a Kings fan and longtime Republican strategist.
Joe and Gavin Maloof, the Kings' high-profile owners, could be free agents after the season. The Kings could leave town, upon repayment of a $70-million loan, and the state capital would be without a sports team.
If the measures lose and representatives from Anaheim or elsewhere call, Joe Maloof said, "I would tell them we're trying to get something done in Sacramento."
On the first day of the arena campaign, Joe Maloof all but killed it. At the September kickoff celebration, after several speakers rallied voters by declaring that a taxpayer-funded Kings arena would spur redevelopment of the surrounding downtown area, Maloof disregarded the script and announced his team might consider "alternative locations in Sacramento" for the arena.
"Everybody's mouth just dropped," campaign spokesman Doug Elmets said.
And, with that, the Kings effectively withdrew from the campaign. Mike Bibby, the team's star player, would not appear in commercials or at rallies to urge a yes vote. Neither would the Maloofs.
"There's no guarantee the active support of the Kings would get this passed," Schnur said. "There's no question the lack of support will defeat it."
When the Maloofs asked this year for a new arena with public money, city and county officials insisted on one location -- the old rail yards on the edge of downtown, a mostly abandoned 240-acre site targeted for reinvention as a historic cultural and entertainment district.
In August, after several months of negotiations, the parties agreed on the outline of a deal in which the Kings would play there for 30 years. So county supervisors put the tax hike on the November ballot, confident that by then negotiators could come up with a binding contract.
But, on the night after a negotiating session in which the Maloofs say city officials reneged on some points, Joe Maloof stood up at that campaign rally and dropped his bombshell about the arena.
"I couldn't guarantee it was going to go downtown," Maloof said. "We had no deal. I didn't want to mislead the public."
The Maloofs walked out of negotiations, then returned, without reaching a deal with the city and county. In addition, the rail yards developer has not finalized its purchase of the site or reached agreement to sell a parcel to the city for the arena, said Suheil Totah, vice president of Thomas Enterprises, the development company.
"They screwed this up so terribly from day one," said Dick Rosengarten, publisher of California Political Week. "They rushed into this. The powers that be were very afraid the Maloof brothers would move their team."
Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson said the Maloofs wanted the new arena open by 2010, a timetable that would have been impossible to meet had officials waited for the next available ballot.
Dickinson said he was "mystified" at the Maloofs' contention the city had reneged on deal points that he said remained under discussion. Nonetheless, Dickinson continued to pitch the sales-tax increase -- a quarter-cent for 15 years -- and a nonbinding companion measure that splits the proceeds between the arena and community projects throughout the county.
In its commercials and brochures, the campaign made no mention of the Kings. Whatever the team decides, proponents argued, the region needs a state-of-the-art arena to attract top sports and entertainment events.
"Consider the worst case if this passes: The Maloofs walk away -- even leave town -- and we have $1.2 billion to spend on whatever we want as community priorities," Dickinson said. "I'm having a hard time seeing that as all that horrific."
At first glance, the Maloofs appear unlikely to walk away. Under their ownership, the Kings have made eight consecutive playoff appearances and sold out 314 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NBA. "Why would we want to give that up?" Joe Maloof said.
But, by his own account, the Maloofs have lobbied for a new arena since their first months in town. This proposal, Joe Maloof said, is the fifth in seven years.
"We've had nothing but disappointment," he said. "We're frustrated."
Yet some locals are disappointed and frustrated about repeated attempts to get a new arena.