Covington & Burling and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy have landed the lead M&A roles negotiating a potential sale of the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings to an ownership group that is expected to move the team to Seattle next season.
Yahoo Sports broke the news this week of the proposed sale of the Kings, whose future in California’s capital city has been in doubt for several years as a result of the deteriorating finances of the Maloof family, which took control of the team in 1999.
The Maloofs made their fortune in the entertainment and gaming industry, which has been hit hard in recent years amid the economic downturn. The family sold its majority stake in Las Vegas’s Palms casino in 2011 and now appears poised to unload the Kings for $525 million—a record sum for an NBA franchise—to a group led by hedge fund manager Christopher Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steven Ballmer, according to an unconfirmed report on Friday.
In order for the Kings to move to Seattle next season, the team’s new ownership group must submit relocation plans to the league by March 1. A source with knowledge of the sale talks told Yahoo that it was “first and goal at the one” in terms of the Kings being sold.
The Am Law Daily has learned from two sources knowledgeable about the matter that Adam Moses, a corporate partner with Milbank in Los Angeles, is taking the lead for the Maloofs on the Kings sale talks. Moses did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Milbank financial restructuring coleader Paul Aronzon, who has handled work related to the Palms in Las Vegas. (Aronzon led a Milbank team that helped Station Casinos—which took control of some of the Maloofs casino properties a decade ago—exit Chapter 11 proceedings in 2011.)
David Price, general counsel for the Kings and a solo practitioner in Roseville, California, declined to comment on the potential sale of the team when contacted by The Am Law Daily. Price—who has served as outside counsel to the Kings since the team moved to the city in 1985 from Kansas City, Missouri—took over the general counsel role in 2010 after the departure of the franchise’s previous in-house legal chief Jason Levien.
Levien, a former sports agent, was part of an ownership group that bought the Philadelphia 76ers for roughly $280 million in 2011. He went on to become the new CEO and managing partner of the Memphis Grizzlies last fall following the close of that team’s $377 million sale to technology investor Robert Pera. (Levien was also part of a group that bought Major League Soccer’s D.C. United last year.)
The Kings are the latest NBA team to hit the auction block despite more than two years of efforts on the part of city officials to keep the team in Sacramento. That campaign appeared to be on the verge of success in early 2011 when a civic group represented by Jeffrey Dorso, chair of the land use and environmental law group at Sacramento’s Diepenbrock Harrison, successfully fought off a bid to move the Kings to Anaheim, according to our previous reports.
But Diepenbrock Harrison broke up shortly thereafter, and in early 2012 the Maloofs backed out of a handshake deal to keep the Kings in Sacramento that would have used municipal funds to help finance a new home for the team to replace the outdated Sleep Train Arena.
NBA executive counsel for business and finance Harvey Benjamin, a former Proskauer Rose partner, mediated the talks between city officials and the Maloofs, whose lawyers from Loeb & Loeb submitted a huge public records request for details on the proposed arena financing deal. The Associated Press reported at the time that the deal called for the city to contribute $255.5 million in public funds through the leasing of parking garages around a new arena, the Kings another $73.5 million, and $58.75 million coming from sports and entertainment giant AEG, which would run the new facility.
Loeb & Loeb media and entertainment partner Scott Zolke, who was representing the Maloofs at the time, did not respond to a call seeking comment about whether his firm is still advising the Maloofs.
Dorso, now managing partner of his own specialty firm the Pioneer Law Group, says that although it looks dire for the Kings chances to remain in Sac-town, he is confident that news of a possible move to Seattle will motivate local leaders—including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who once starred in the NBA—to strike a deal.
“Right now the community and business folks are putting their heads together to figure out what the next steps are,” says Dorso, noting that he is receptive to getting involved again in the effort to save the Kings. “The Kings are an important asset to the community and are absolutely worth fighting for.”
Unfortunately for Sacramento, it isn’t the only city ready to battle for an NBA franchise. The Am Law Daily reported last year on a handful of Am Law 200 firms advising on a $490 million deal to build a new sports arena in Seattle designed to lure an NBA or National Hockey League team to the Pacific Northwest.
The Emerald City lost its former NBA franchise, the SuperSonics, after a brief litigation battle in 2008 when the team moved to Oklahoma City and changed its name to the Thunder. (Seattle revisited the painful split last year when the Thunder—led by NBA superstar Kevin Durant—lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.)
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom advised the NBA on a $75 million settlement with the city of Seattle under which the city retained the Sonics’ name in exchange for dropping its opposition to the relocation of the franchise to Oklahoma City. Seattle was represented on the agreement by K&L Gates, which is now serving as bond counsel to King County—Seattle is the county seat—in connection with the new arena construction deal.
Ballmer, whose name was mentioned four years ago as a prospective buyer for the Sonics, is now part of the Hansen-led group of investors seeking to buy the Kings. Under the terms of the tentative transaction, the Kings would take the old Sonics name and play in the team’s former home at KeyArena until a new facility is complete.
A team of lawyers from Covington led by corporate partners Douglas Gibson, Bruce Wilson, and Peter Zern are advising the Hansen-Ballmer group on its negotiations to buy the Kings. All three are veterans of high-profile sports deals, with Wilson and Zern advising billionaire Tom Benson last year on his $338 million purchase of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets, according to our previous reports.
Zern, who has a wide variety of sports industry expertise, has also been busy in recent weeks advising the Big East collegiate athletic conference as it seeks to cope with a series of defections to rival conferences. (This week a group of seven Catholic universities with big-time basketball programs retained Proskauer Rose sports law group cohead Joseph Leccese—who was tapped two years ago to be the firm’s youngest-ever chair—to assist in their quest to exit the Big East and negotiate their own television broadcast rights deal.)
Daniel Grigsby, chair of the national sports law group at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell in Los Angeles, is also advising the Hansen-Ballmer group in its quest to lure an NBA team to Seattle. Grigsby—a longtime outside lawyer to the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and onetime protégé of team general counsel James Perzik—is advising the Seattle-based investor group along with local land use and real estate lawyer John “Jack” McCullough of McCullough Hill Leary.
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe public finance of counsel Susan Barry in Seattle is advising the city itself on the deal to build the new indoor sports arena, along with Hogan Lovells corporate partner Tyler Harvey and government and legislative affairs partner Craig Umbraugh in Denver. Hogan Lovells has previously handled legal work for the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks and the Seattle Sounders of MLS. (The firm also has a close relationship with AEG, which runs KeyArena in a partnership with the city of Seattle.)
Foster Pepper, Seattle’s longtime bond counsel, is also advising the municipality through partners Hugh Spitzer and Marc Greenough. (Foster Pepper has been busy this week with work of interest to local denizens. The firm is currently advising another investor group called Global Baristas, which is led by actor Patrick Dempsey, on its proposed $9.15 million purchase of bankrupt coffee chain Tully’s.)
Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine—both of whom are lawyers—are also expected to take leading roles on any deal aimed at bringing the Kings to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes, who took office in 2009 after an election that focused heavily on the Sonics’ departure, is also likely to be a key player in any potential agreement.
On the outside looking in is the city of Virginia Beach, Virginia, which earlier this month suspended a bid to lure the Kings with plans to build a new 18,500-seat arena for the team. Virginia Beach City Attorney Mark Stiles, who did not respond to a request for comment, authorized the payment of roughly $30,000 to retain Williams Mullen as bond counsel for the project. Leading the Williams Mullen team working on the plan to build a new arena in the Hampton Roads region is CEO Thomas Frantz.
As for Hansen, who founded San Francisco–based hedge fund Valiant Capital Management in 2008, he’s already reportedly purchased all of the land he needs in Seattle on which to build a new arena for a revitalized Sonics franchise.