A year ago, tearful Sacramento Kings fans thought they had lost their team forever. Now, it's the team that faces potential rejection.
The curtain closes tonight on a tumultuous season with drama still unfolding. Upset by the team's unwillingness to sign an arena deal to secure its future in Sacramento, some vocal season ticket holders are talking about canceling purchases for next season, some sponsors are rethinking contracts, and civic leaders are calling for the Maloofs to sell.
With that as a backdrop, team officials face one of the most difficult marketing tasks in their Sacramento tenure: persuading frustrated fans to reinvest financially and emotionally in the team that nearly jilted them for Anaheim last year, and may remain in town for no more than another few years.
That effort could pivot on events today. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson will meet with team owners in a 13th-hour push to keep his downtown arena dream alive. The meeting is expected to last for several hours. The mayor said he wants to keep communication open, but expressed more hope than confidence.
"I don't think a whole lot has changed, other than us agreeing to have one more conversation," he said Tuesday.
Team co-owner George Maloof said little as well. "We're going to do the best we can, try to get something done."
Maloof has said the team is focused on finding a way to stay in Sacramento, but team officials have not publicly addressed how to make that happen without a new arena, other than making reference to the possibility of expanding Power Balance Pavilion, which is among the oldest and smallest facilities in the NBA.
In the meantime, the Kings face a backlash from long-time fans such as Mark Drobny, an attorney who estimates he has spent $600,000 on Kings tickets over the past 26 years. He is canceling his season ticket purchase, saying the Kings persuaded him to re-up just days before the Maloofs announced in New York they were backing out of the arena deal.
"I don't believe they have money to put a quality team on the floor," he said. "I don't believe they are going to sign a big free agent. They are stuck here for one more year, trying to put a happy face on the thing.
"They can't do it with my money."
Team officials, however, say they think the Kings retain a strong following in Sacramento, regardless of what happens on the arena. Team spokesman Chris Clark said the team has hit the 88 percent renewal rate among season ticket holders. Only a few of them have backed out since the arena deal fell apart.
"The perception that we are dead in the water is a faulty one," Clark said. "These are the best fans, and as long as we work to improve the quality of the team, they will come to games."
Attendance was up 7 percent this year, he said.
Since the Maloofs pulled out of the deal for a new arena April 13, reported attendance has topped 16,000 for each of three games at Power Balance, although one of those games was "fan appreciation night" with numerous prize giveaways. At another game, the team gave free additional tickets to season ticket holders.
Clark said the team's sales staff will steer clear of politics and personalities, and instead talk to ticket buyers about team events such as the upcoming draft lottery, where the team has a chance for a top pick.
"We are trying to get back to basketball," Clark said. "Fans are renewing ... for basketball, not for the Maloofs, not for the arena."
Co-owner Gavin Maloof spent last week calling some season ticket holders as well as team sponsors and business leaders, asking them what the team could do to maintain their support.
Sports business consultant Bill Sutton said that for many fans, the decision to buy comes down to a gut check: "They have to be convinced that these guys want to keep the team in town."
Corporate sponsors, he said, are more likely to look at the bottom line. If the fans show up, companies will renew their sponsorships.
Doug Elmets, spokesman for one of the team's biggest sponsors, Thunder Valley Casino, said the sponsorship has been great for the casino's business, but the casino is taking a wait-and-see approach about renewing.
"If ticket sales fall off substantially, and we don't get some kind of break on the (advertising) rates, then it doesn't make particularly good sense," he said.
The main sales job may well happen on the court itself when games start next season, said former Kings team president Rick Benner. "If you win, it covers a lot of other problems," he said.
Drobny said he's heard the "wait till next year" talk and promises before, including in a call from Gavin Maloof last year. He's not buying.
Drobny said he called the Kings repeatedly attempting to cancel after the arena deal fell through, but didn't get a call back, so he contacted American Express to cancel his payment.
Other fans say they are considering dropping out, but even after everything that's happened, it's hard to let go.
Bob Dreizler, a financial consultant, renewed his season tickets the day before what some Kings fans call Black Friday the 13th, the day the arena deal imploded in New York. He decided to keep his tickets.
"I feel betrayed on this one, but I don't want to punish myself by not going to Kings games next year," he said. "I am one of those hopefuls. Next year is the year."
Longtime season ticket holder Jack Spiegelman wrestled with the decision, and ultimately decided there is too much on the line for Sacramento to drop out now.
"We are on the spot to buy tickets," he said. "If we don't, and they don't make money, they are gone. We can't give them excuses. If we support them, I think the league will put pressure on them to make a deal."
Even Drobny, who talked about organizing a boycott of the team, said opting out is tough.
"I have a sense of loss," he said. "It is hard to deal with. There is going to be a big void in my life."