By Sharon Bernstein
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California investors made a formal offer to purchase the Sacramento Kings basketball team, the NBA said on Wednesday, in the hopes of staving off a competing bid that would move the team to Seattle.
The offer comes shortly after Seattle investors raised their bid to buy the team by $25 million to $550 million last week. The Seattle group hopes to rebrand the team as the SuperSonics to replace a beloved franchise lost to Oklahoma City in 2008.
The prospect of losing the Kings and leaving the California capital without a professional basketball franchise spurred Sacramento's mayor, himself a former NBA player, into action.
In January, a day after the Seattle group announced a binding agreement to buy the team from its current owners, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson pledged to find investors of his own to purchase the team.
Johnson presented his group to local media this week and led a tour of a proposed site for a new stadium for the team, while staff members furiously finished up the paperwork for a formal bid. On Wednesday, NBC spokesman Tim Frank confirmed that the offer had been filed on Tuesday night.
The Sacramento investors, who include a number of powerful figures in the state's technology businesses, declined to give details of their bid. Their rivals, led by Seattle hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, have offered $550 million.
"We're in it to win it," said Vivek Ranadive, founder of data giant TIBCO Software Inc and the lead investor in the California group, who otherwise declined to discuss his offer. "We feel that we're doing everything that we need to."
The California group is generally viewed as the underdog in the contest, but funding for a new stadium and bolstering investor ranks with more tech magnates have provided hope to local boosters.
In weighing the two bids, the NBA owners will have to consider the public relations fallout and potential instability that can come with moving a team against the possibility that the Kings might sell more tickets and reach more fans in a larger city like Seattle, said David Carter, a sports business expert at the University of Southern California.
The tussle over the team is also coming down to a fight among titans of the high tech industry that is split between the two states. In addition to Hansen, who has invested heavily in tech companies, Microsoft Corp Chief Executive Steve Ballmer is a key player in the Seattle Group.
The California group is led by Ranadive and includes fitness mogul Mark Mastrov, former Facebook executive Chris Kelly, former Apple executive Andy Miller and Indian venture capitalist Naren Gupta.
A professional basketball team "would be like a nice-to-have thing for Seattle," Ranadive said in an interview on Wednesday. "But for Sacramento, this is the only team. It's the whole deal. It'd be like ripping the heart out of the city."
The California group is citing its tech savvy, promising to burnish the team's image by better use of digital and social media to interact with fans.
The group has also touted its expertise in building global businesses, saying it could help the NBA make inroads in India.
Last month, Sacramento officials announced they had reached a $450 million deal with private developers to build an entertainment and sports complex for the team that could spruce up the city's downtown district.
But questions remain. The Sacramento group has avoided providing details, and Ranadive declined to divulge specifics.
The Maloof family, which owns the controlling interest in the Kings, would not comment on the process or the competing bid, said spokesman Eric Rose. Hansen also declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce)