By Sharon Bernstein and Eric M. Johnson
LOS ANGELES/SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Seattle investor group vying to purchase the Sacramento Kings NBA team has vastly increased its offer to buy the basketball franchise, hoping to wrest momentum away from a Sacramento group that wants to keep the team in California's capital.
Hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, who is fighting to bring the team to Seattle to replace the city's beloved SuperSonics, posted on his website on Friday that his group's new offer would value the team at $625 million, up $75 million from a prior offer.
Hansen, who leads a group of investors that includes Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, had announced a deal in January to buy a controlling interest in the team from the wealthy Maloof family - at the time valuing the franchise at $525 million.
But in an increasingly public tug-of-war, Sacramento began to fight back - hard. The mayor of the California capital, himself a former NBA point guard, quickly put together his own team of technology titans, who vowed to match Hansen's bid.
Led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, the California group persuaded the Sacramento City Council to back a proposal for a new, $450 million arena for the Kings. Last month, a committee of NBA owners voted that the team should stay in Sacramento.
But Hansen, whose city lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, vowed to fight on. Under the new bid, his Seattle investor group would shell out about $406 million for a controlling 65 percent interest in the team.
"While we appreciate that this is a very difficult decision for the league and owners, we hope it is understood that we really believe the time is now to bring the NBA back to Seattle," Hansen said.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, commenting on the raised offer on Twitter, said: "Chris is playing to win."
By contrast, in Sacramento Johnson said Hansen's latest move should not change things and insisted the Kings "belong in Sacramento."
"I believe the NBA owners realize that there is far more to think about than just an increased bid."
Other California politicians jumped in as well.
"This is not about how much money wealthy investors can throw into the pot in desperation to overcome our good faith efforts," said Darrell Steinberg, who represents Sacramento in the state senate and is the president pro tem of that body.
"This is about our community. This is about what we've done to step forward to build a new arena, and this is about our long history of strong support for the Kings franchise."
Hansen's dramatic new offer may be in keeping with a strategy outlined to Reuters last month by a source close to the bid, in which the Seattle group would try hard to buy the team even if the NBA rules that it must stay in Sacramento.
The idea, the source said, would be to move the Kings after a few years if Sacramento does not follow through on promises to build a new arena or fails to sell enough tickets to keep the team profitable.
Michael McCann, a sports law expert at the University of New Hampshire school of Law, said it was highly unusual for a bidding war to take place after a deal has already been struck with a team's owner - as Hansen's was - and presented to the league.
The new bid could be attractive to team owners, who might see it as an indication of higher value for their own franchises.
"It is absolutely hard to ignore this offer," McCann said, but it would also be unusual for the league to decide the team should stay in Sacramento and then sell it to an owner who wants to move it to another city.
Owners of the NBA's 30 teams are scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Dallas and will vote the following day on which city should host the team.
Representatives from the Maloof family could not immediately be reached for comment on the Hansen group's new offer. An NBA spokesman declined to comment on the bid.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Los Angeles and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle. Additional reporting by Laura Myers.; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, David Gregorio, Dan Grebler and Richard Chang)