They've alienated elected officials, many of their fans and some of their sponsors. Yet the Sacramento Kings remain a powerful brand in this community and a compelling draw for corporations and advertisers.
The team today will announce a partial lineup of corporate partners for 2012-13, including new sponsors Nokia Siemens and Wal-Mart, and a returning former sponsor, Verizon Wireless. For Nokia Siemens, the deal is the first with a professional American sports team, Kings officials said.
The list represents "more sponsorship commitments than at any point during the Kings' 27-year tenure in Northern California," the team said.
"Between Halloween and tax day (April 15), the Kings are the most highly trafficked entity in Sacramento, the dominant force in this market," said Jeff David, the Kings' senior vice president of sales and marketing. "That is what businesses want, traffic-driving promotions, highly visible signage and TV commercials that are TiVo-proof."
Experts said the lineup shows the continued popularity of sports teams, including the Kings. This remains true even after the team's owners infuriated many in the community by walking away from a deal for a new downtown arena and have allowed rumors to flourish about possible moves to Seattle or Virginia Beach, Va.
Despite the turmoil, the Kings say more than 80 percent of last year's season ticket holders have renewed for the upcoming season, which begins Oct. 31. That gets the attention of corporations, said David Carter, a sports business expert at the University of Southern California.
"The Kings still have a lot of popularity," Carter said. "Sports fans tend to be pretty loyal and they'll put up with an awful lot."
The tumult of the past few months has taken a toll, however. Several sponsors have left the team, including long-time supporter Carl's Jr., hospital giant Sutter Health, which had a one-year deal, and Jiffy Lube's area franchises.
It was Jiffy Lube that spearheaded the billboard campaign last year to rally community support for a new Kings arena. This year, it decided to put its money elsewhere.
The company insisted its decision was a strategic move and had nothing to do with the decision by the Kings' owners, the Maloofs, to reject the arena deal last April.
"As frustrating as things have been this year, we took the emotion out of the decision," said marketing director Matt Graham. "We have a unique new opportunity coming up" and are putting the marketing money into that instead.
Another sponsor from last year, software maker Synergex International Corp., said it felt betrayed by the Maloofs' decision to walk away from the arena project.
Synergex was among those that answered Mayor Kevin Johnson's call to businesses to support the Kings when it looked like the team would flee to Anaheim in 2011.
Kings officials on Tuesday insisted Synergex remains a sponsor with a multiyear deal. But Synergex chief executive Michele Wong said her company won't renew its sponsorship after the Maloofs rejected the arena deal last April.
"We felt that they were not showing good faith," she said.
The possibility the team might move weighs heavily on even the most loyal of sponsors. Phil Oates, chairman of the Buzz Oates Group of Companies, said he's convinced "they want to stay in Sacramento" but even he thought about withdrawing his firm's support following reports last month that the Maloofs were negotiating with Virginia Beach.
Oates said he was mollified after hearing from the Kings' David, who told him he'd never heard of any such negotiations. The firm sent in its sponsorship check last week.
The team remains without an arena naming-rights partner typically a major source of revenue. The building is still called Power Balance Pavilion, but that corporate partner severed its contract and hasn't paid a dime to the Kings since filing for bankruptcy protection last fall.
The Kings have been in talks with several potential replacements, including Sleep Train Mattress Centers. Sleep Train's chief executive, Dale Carlsen, said this week there are "no real updates" to report on the talks.
David said the team is "hopeful" it will have an arena naming-rights deal by the start of the season.
The Kings, he said, have been able to boost their overall number of business partners by introducing a program last year allowing more than 400 smaller businesses to promote their products through the team for a fee.
David declined to say how much revenue that brings in, but said team officials are pleased with their progress, and expect to announce more sponsors between now and opening day.
While it deals with sponsors, the team is also pushing hard to win over reluctant season ticket holders, offering reduced prices and other incentives. One such holdout, Sacramento attorney Mark Drobny, said the team offered him a $400 rebate and free additional seats if he would renew. He hasn't so far.
He's in the minority. Team spokesman Chris Clark recently said more than 80 percent of last year's season ticket holders had renewed for 2012-13. "Fans cite improvements to the roster as a major impetus to purchasing seats for next season," he said.
That helped persuade sponsors like Thunder Valley Casino, which is negotiating a new agreement.
"It's not about the Kings and certainly not about the Maloofs," said casino spokesman Doug Elmets. "What it is, is an advertising opportunity where you have thousands of people in an enclosed space for as many as three hours who have discretionary income, time on their hands, and fit an age demographic similar to someone who might be inclined to go to Thunder Valley."
The uncertainty over the team's future enabled Western Health Advantage to get a better deal. The Sacramento health plan is paying the same amount as last year $100,000 but this year is getting TV commercials and more prominent arena signage.
Spokesman Rick Heron said the Kings offered a three-year contract, but Western Health is inclined to sign up for just two.
"It was a consideration that the ownership appears not to be as stable as one would want," Heron said. He said he believes the team still has solid fan support. "Unfortunately, Joe and Gavin, the Maloof family, make it tough. They test that loyalty."