The Sacramento Kings' season ticket sales have already surpassed last year's total, team officials said this week, thanks to NBA marketing assistance and a newfound ardor among fans after the team nearly left town this spring.
But that bonanza could slow, starting Friday.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight Thursday. If the league and players don't come to a new agreement by then, a lockout may ensue, and with it the possibility that the upcoming season will be shortened or canceled entirely.
That untimely drama creates new questions about the team's future in Sacramento. Can the team owners, who have struggled financially, handle months of lost momentum as they try to rebuild fan and corporate support in Sacramento?
Can Mayor Kevin Johnson and local political leaders continue progress toward a do-or-die March 2012 deadline to finance a new sports and entertainment arena downtown?
Kings officials refused this week to discuss the possibility of a lockout, or its potential financial effect on the team. National Basketball Association officials, however, emailed The Bee a statement saying that ticket buyers face no risk.
"In the unfortunate event that games are missed next season, all NBA season ticket holders have the opportunity to receive a refund of the purchase price, plus interest, for all missed games," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said.
A lockout lasting into the basketball season would harm the Kings in the near term but could benefit them over time, NBA business experts said.
"Short-term, it would derail the momentum," said Bill Sutton, a former NBA vice president, now a marketing consultant for NBA teams. "Right now, everybody is excited about the Kings. Everything is going good."
Larry Coon of the University of California, Irvine, an expert on NBA collective bargaining, agrees that the Kings could be "one of the bigger losers" initially if there is an extensive lockout.
"They're retooling and trying to build brand awareness back and attract a following," he said, "and a lockout interrupts all that."
But if a lockout produces changes sought by the NBA, it could help stabilize the Kings financially and make it easier for the team to stay in Sacramento, both Sutton and Coon agreed. The league is pushing for new player-salary caps and league revenue sharing to benefit smaller-market teams.
"Any solution that fundamentally overhauls the league finances has the potential to help them considerably," Coon said.
For fans, it amounts to yet another fingers-crossed moment during an emotional, roller-coaster year.
Ed Montes of Sacramento just bought half-season tickets, saying he felt it important to support the team and participate in keeping it here. A lockout would be a letdown.
"We're excited for the season after everything we had to endure, excited about the team coming back at least one year," he said. "We really want to keep the momentum going. The fans I know are trying to stay optimistic."
James Ham, a Kings blogger at Cowbell Kingdom and other websites, says it's not time to hit the panic button. "We have time," he said. "The NBA doesn't really start until October."
Kings officials have declined to say how they would hold up financially should the worst-case scenario a canceled season materialize.
Although league officials say some money-losing teams would do better financially if a lockout cancels the season, the Kings do not appear to be one of them. Kings owners have told The Bee the team made money last season.
In a brief email Tuesday, Kings president Matina Kolokotronis said the team already has sold more season tickets than it did last year. "The momentum is unlike anything we've seen in recent years," she said.
The league and the players union are tentatively set to hold talks Thursday, hours before the contract expires.
A lockout would not be unprecedented. The league canceled more than a third of its season in 1998-99 during a labor dispute. Fans leaguewide returned in lesser numbers after the labor battle. But fan support at then-Arco Arena remained solid for a Kings team that had begun winning and gaining recognition as one of the most exciting in the league.
"Winning cures all," said Daniel Rascher, president of SportsEconomics LLC and a member of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's committee studying how to finance a new downtown sports and entertainment facility.
The mayor's people say the lockout possibility does not change their timetable. The group plans to release a blueprint in September on financing an estimated $387 million multi-use entertainment facility in the downtown railyard.
"We're focused on what we can affect," committee executive Chris Lehane said. "If we come up with an approach we believe is in the region's best interest, we will enter discussions with the team and the league. Whether or not there is a lockout has no bearing on that."
Johnson's chief of staff, Kunal Merchant, said the mayor wants to build a facility regardless of what happens with the Kings. "We have (our) fingers crossed for a successful season," he said. "But this really is about much more than the Kings. This is an asset for our community."