I first met Kevin Fippin in February, in the parking lot of Sleep Train Arena. He was making the rounds at a tailgate party before a Kings game. That was about three weeks after word had come that the Maloof family, the team’s majority owners, had made a deal to sell their share to a group of investors who planned to move the Kings to Seattle.
After that announcement, Kings fans went into action, using an existing network of blogs, podcasts, and groups like Crown Downtown and Here We Stay/Here We Buy, which had formed in the wake of previous relocation whisperings. Fippin, who works in IT and in his spare time serves as the social media editor for the SB Nation blog Sactown Royalty, helped spread the word: we need to sell as many tickets as possible for that Feb. 9 game, dubbed Here We Buy Night.”
The game came close to selling out, but Fippin said he knew that wasn’t enough to keep the team in the state’s capital. “That’s not what this is about,” he said. “It’s about the fact that you even know this is happening, and national media around the country knows this is happening tonight.
“I think the best-case scenario is for the NBA to take a look at how valuable Sacramento is as a market,” Fippin continued. “And I don’t think that has anything to do with Seattle. Seattle is a great market and they do deserve a team, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t.”
On Wednesday, the NBA Board of Governors agreed. They voted 22-8 to deny the relocation request. I reached Kevin Fippin late in the afternoon in the lobby of the Dallas hotel where the NBA owners had held their meeting. He was there with about a dozen other Kings fans who’d flown from Sacramento to Dallas.
“Most of us drove to Oakland [Tuesday night], got on a flight that left Oakland at 2:30 a.m., and got in about 8 a.m. Dallas time,” he said. “And then we came straight to the hotel. We just wanted to be here when the decision was made. We wanted to represent the love that Sacramento has for this team and show the world that these are the kinds of fans we are. If the fate of the team is on the line, we’re going to be there.”
Fippin and the other fans were confined to a corner of the hotel lobby near the press corps, including a large contingent from Sacramento. They spent the day watching team owners and executives going in and out of the meeting, chatting with reporters, and even making friends with a couple of fans of the old Seattle SuperSonics, who were hoping the NBA would reincarnate the team they lost in 2008 when it became the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the news leaked out, it wasn’t a huge surprise–the NBA’s relocation committee had recommended against the Seattle move on April 29. But Kings fans were thrilled when Vivek Ranadivé, who heads another ownership group that has made an offer for the team, made a detour on his way to the press conference.
“He actually requested to take a picture with us, and we all posed for him,” Fippin said. “He was a little late to the press conference because of it, but we thought that was really cool of him. After the press conference, he came back and said, ‘This happened because of you guys, and I want to thank you so much.’ Really appreciative of all the work the fans had done.”
There’s still work to do. The NBA vetoed the relocation, but the league is unlikely to force the Kings’ current owners, the Maloof family, to sell to Ranadivé and his group. Rather, NBA commissioner David Stern said at the press conference that the league hopes to facilitate that sale within the next several days.
And the second part of the plan to keep the Kings, building a new multipurpose arena downtown to replace the aging Sleep Train, will take a few more years to complete. Three Sacramento residents filed a suit the day before the NBA’s decision, alleging that the city’s subsidy of the arena plan will amount to more than the $258 million in the official term sheet. Others have called for the city to put the arena funding on the ballot.
Kevin Fippin acknowledged the challenges ahead, but he said the time was right for the city to support such an ambitious project. “There was a time in this city when we didn’t have the political backing that we needed to pull something like this off,” he said. “We didn’t have a city council that would vote in favor of building an arena. We didn’t have a mayor that would fight the way Kevin Johnson’s fought. This is something that not just Kings fans, but residents of Sacramento want. There’s a lot of pride that we take in this team.”
Fippin’s also a fan of the Oakland A’s, who’ve gone through their own relocation saga over the past several years. He says the Kings’ story should send a message: it’s possible for small market sports teams to resist the lure of a larger, richer market, if fans, investors, businesses, and elected officials form a strong alliance.
“We’re writing the blueprint: this is how you keep your team,” he said. “This is how you demonstrate that the failing isn’t with the fans. There’s ways to do it without completely selling out. And there’s a lot of things that could go wrong, a lot of wild cards. But assuming everything plays out the way that we think it will, I think a lot of people could learn a lot from what we did here.”