City Beat

News, insight and discussion on Sacramento and its neighborhoods

February 25, 2011
With Kings' future uncertain, what can DC's history teach us?

I did a Q&A over email this week with Steve Mehlman, who helped launch a grassroots campaign in the 1980s to keep the NHL's Washington Capitals from leaving DC. Mehlman has lived in Sacramento since 2004 and is the communications director for the UDW Homecare Providers Union.

Here are excerpts from our conversation over email:

First, could you explain what you were able to do in Washington?

Working with the news media, political and business leaders and sports fans in DC, we were able to create a groundswell of support for the team. This resulted, among other things, in a group of new investors stepping forward to bring new resources. It also led to the business community guaranteeing sellouts for the first ten games of the 1982/83 season by purchasing any unsold tickets.

One key lesson to be learned from our success in D.C.: The Washington Capitals now play in a modern, downtown arena - Verizon Center - that was built in 1998. Not only do they play in front of sellout crowds every night, the area around the arena has been totally revitalized. Vacant lots and boarded-up buildings have given way to restaurants, apartments and condos, and other thriving businesses. This could happen in Sacramento as well.

What was the key to the successful campaign to keep the team in DC?

I think there were two key factors: First, we had strong support from the media - including strong backing on the editorial pages of the Washington Post and on TV and radio stations (our NBC affiliate actually ran a Save the Caps telethon.)

Second, we did not have to convince the people of DC of the value of a major league sports franchise. The Redskins were on the verge of winning their first Super Bowl. The NBA Bullets had recently won a championship. Most important was the fact that we had lost major league baseball teams to other cities twice. One of our most successful tactics was to remind baseball fans that their hopes of getting another baseball team in DC would be dashed if the city were to lose yet another major league sports team (the Caps). As a result, even non-hockey fans joined our Save the Caps campaign.

Have you studied the situation here? If so, what advice would you give based on your experience?

There are several things that need to change and change quickly if we really want to get a first-class entertainment/sports complex in Sacramento and keep the Kings here

First and foremost, people need to understand that this is not about the Maloofs; it's about our community. Regardless of what happens to the Kings, Sacramento needs a new venue for entertainment and sports. As I've said on many occasions: Why should the citizens of the capital of a state with one of the largest economies in the world have to take their children to Stockton or San Jose if they want to see the circus or Disney on Ice? Furthermore, as we proved in DC, a new arena with a major league team can bring enormous economic benefits to the community.

Second, the support by the media and the business community for a new arena is disappointing. And we've heard next to nothing from the Chamber of Commerce. That won't cut it.

I work for a union representing low-wage homecare providers and elderly and disabled Californians, so I am not oblivious to the fact that there are other pressing needs in our community. And if I thought that the money--mostly private funds--that would go toward a new arena could be used instead to help the poor and sick in our community, I might oppose an arena myself.

But that will not happen. The only thing our failure to build a new arena will mean for Sacramento is more unemployment, more urban blight, and perhaps an even higher ranking on Forbes Magazine's "misery" index.

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About City Beat

Ryan Lillis has covered the city of Sacramento, its 108 neighborhoods and its politicians since 2008. Prior to that, he covered crime at The Bee. A native of upstate New York, Lillis has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Contact reporter Ryan Lillis at rlillis@sacbee.com

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