Support builds for Kings' move

Updated: March 31, 2011, 7:23 PM ET
Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The five-county Los Angeles metropolitan area already has two NBA teams, two baseball teams, two pro hockey teams, two major collegiate sports programs and dozens of minor athletic endeavors for a laid-back, West Coast population that doesn't obsess over sports in the first place.

So why are the Sacramento Kings so eager to crash this already packed party by moving to Anaheim?

Because much more than freeways separate Orange County and Los Angeles, according to Anaheim's mayor. Because the sprawling Southland has more than enough population and wealth to take an even larger role in the national sports scene, according to demographics experts -- even some who never went to college.

"It's L.A., and people love basketball in Southern California," said Kobe Bryant, who lives on the Orange County coast. "It would be great to have a team here."

Bryant spoke before the theoretical possibility of an NBA team moving to Anaheim became an imminent reality. Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof appear determined to relocate to Honda Center in the fall, with a majority vote of the NBA's owners looming as the biggest remaining obstacle.

It's L.A., and people love basketball in Southern California. It would be great to have a team here.

-- Kobe Bryant

If it happens, the Los Angeles area's roughly 18 million residents will have three teams in the same pro sport -- the transcendent Lakers, the star-crossed Clippers, and a well-traveled franchise likely to be christened the Anaheim Royals, reclaiming the nickname from their 1940s genesis in Rochester, N.Y.

The New York City area's three NHL teams for 19 million people have the only comparable arrangement in North America. Some don't see how it can work, with Lakers coach Phil Jackson calling the prospect "ridiculous," but those with their fingers on the pulses and wallets of Orange County residents largely agree with the Maloofs, who declined to comment for this story.

"As we all know, Orange County is different," Anaheim mayor Tom Tait said Tuesday after announcing Anaheim would approve $75 million in lease-revenue bonds to entice the Kings. "You go up to L.A. for a game, it can take you two hours. This is a different place, a different population. ... Orange County is 3 million people. If you add people from the Inland Empire, north San Diego County, that's millions more, maybe 5-6 million. It's a big area. We've been trying to get an NBA team in Orange County for 20 years."

Indeed, Orange County alone has more than twice the population of Sacramento County, with a per-capita income more than 20 percent higher. It's larger than current NBA markets such as Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee.

Although the Kings draw their fans from throughout Northern California in a population base of roughly 2 million, the Royals could market themselves north to Riverside County and south to San Diego County -- which hasn't had an NBA team since the Clippers left in 1984 -- further expanding their footprint to more than 5 million people outside Los Angeles.

But can Orange County be separated from Los Angeles, as Tait and others insist? Most people in Anaheim say it can.

Given Los Angeles' traffic, a drive from San Diego to Anaheim sometimes takes just about as long as a drive from Orange County to Staples Center, San Diego native Luke Walton noted. Anaheim boosters also cite demographic shifts that have long shown the Los Angeles area's population shifting to the south and east.

In a measure of the Kings' belief in Anaheim, AEG president Tim Leiweke said his sports conglomerate would love to move the Kings back to Kansas City and the 3½-year-old Sprint Center operated by his company.

"But they won't talk to us," Leiweke said. "I think you can pretty well assume they're going to Anaheim. I think that's a foregone conclusion. Anaheim is 4 million people, Orange County, and so I understand why they think that.

"I know they see that as the land of dreams. I think they are inspired by being part of the Hollywood scene. But Orange County is not Hollywood, and what they're going to learn pretty quickly is it's the most competitive marketplace in the United States today, and it's going to get even more competitive in the future. I think it's unfortunate that they're not taking a look at a place like Kansas City. But they're not."

And it's easy for people of means to enjoy a good life in Orange County. Just ask the NHL's Anaheim Ducks or baseball's Los Angeles Angels, who invariably cite the balmy weather, 42 miles of coastline, nine beaches and countless upscale amenities in the area in their decisions to stay with or sign with an Anaheim team.

Bobby Ryan, the Ducks' high-scoring right wing and a New Jersey native, cited Orange County as a major reason he signed a new five-year contract to stay in Anaheim last fall.

"I can't imagine any better place to live and play," said Ryan, who lives in Newport Beach. "Look around: You're 13 miles from the water. I've fallen in love with the area completely, and a lot of guys do. I'm sure being in Orange County would be a huge positive to any Sacramento Kings or any NBA free agents, there's no doubt. You can definitely sell it to guys."

The city-owned Honda Center was built in 1993 with the intention of housing two pro teams. The Vancouver Grizzlies considered moving there in 2001, and the Clippers played a handful of games in Anaheim every season from 1994-99, always drawing larger average crowds than in the outdated Sports Arena and considering a permanent move before owner Donald Sterling elected to live in the Lakers' shadow at Staples Center.

The Ducks have sold out just four home games this season, yet Honda Center never looks half-empty, as the Kings' home, formerly known as Arco Arena, frequently has been over the past three seasons.

Although buzz around the Kings/Royals built slowly in recent weeks, adding fuel to the saturation theory, interest appears to be picking up. Dozens of fans and businesspeople attended the dry City Council meeting approving the bonds -- and with almost no promotion, 500 fans put their names on a waiting list for season tickets 24 hours after Honda Center announced it this week.

"I'm confident an NBA team in Orange County will do very well," Tait said. "L.A. and Orange County are far apart. Anyone who lives here knows that. We will fill the stands when the NBA comes to Honda Center, believe me."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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