The Sacramento Kings have given their aging arena a new name and a fresh coat of paint. They've pumped up their player payroll and gone the extra mile to satisfy sponsors and ticket buyers.
But as Sacramento's 28th season of NBA basketball tips off on Wednesday, the Kings' owners refuse to answer the question preoccupying their fans: Will this year be the last?
Seven months after the owners, the Maloof family, abandoned a tentative agreement for a new downtown arena, speculation remains strong that the team will move to another city.
The latest scare came in August, when media reports out of Virginia said the Kings were negotiating to move there. Team officials assured corporate sponsors there was no truth to it, but the story doesn't end there.
In Seattle, a wealthy hedge fund manager has put together a tentative deal for a new NBA-ready arena. NBA fans in that city, which lost its franchise to Oklahoma City in 2008, have honed in on the Kings as a logical target.
NBA Commissioner David Stern has made it clear he would like to keep the Kings in Sacramento. At a state-of-the-league news conference in New York on Thursday, Stern, who also announced he would retire in early 2014, said he considers Sacramento "a great NBA city."
People close to the Kings organization, including corporate sponsors, say they don't think the team will leave. The Maloofs, who nearly bolted for Anaheim in 2011, insisted last spring they want to stay in Sacramento.
But nothing is certain without a better arena, a building capable of generating vast new revenue that the Maloofs say they need to compete in the NBA. The Maloofs abandoned the city's deal to build a $390 million downtown arena, saying it didn't pencil out financially.
"They told me they would like to stay in town if they can make it work," said Sleep Train Mattress Centers President Dale Carlsen, who just made a deal to put his company's name on the Kings' current arena in Natomas for the next five years. "Time will tell."
At his news conference, Stern put it this way: "Over time, it is agreed that for the Kings to stay in Sacramento they need a new arena."
The usually talkative Maloof brothers, Joe, Gavin and George, are refusing to do interviews on the subject. Family spokesman Eric Rose said they won't "discuss which cities have approached the organization and are not going to comment on every rumor."
Even the other Kings owners who control 47 percent of the team are in the dark. "We don't get any pertinent information from them," said businessman David Lucchetti, who owns 1 percent.
He said the regular twice-a-year owners' meeting, set for next week, has been canceled without explanation. The meeting is supposed to be rescheduled, he said.
The Maloofs' silence raises anxiety in Sacramento.
"The community wants to know if this is their swan song or if they're going to continue to play here," said Doug Elmets, spokesman for Thunder Valley Casino. The casino didn't renew its Kings sponsorship this year, although Elmets said the decision wasn't a sign of dissatisfaction.
Despite the uncertainty, and the anger directed at the Maloofs over the failed arena deal, many fans are still keeping faith. The team says 80 percent of season-ticket holders renewed for this year.
Sweeteners for sponsors
Among those signing up again is Bob Dreizler, a Sacramento financial consultant who put aside his animosity because he thinks the team is turning the corner after six straight losing seasons.
"The morale is high about the team, but the faith in the Maloofs is pretty low at this point," Dreizler said. It didn't hurt that the Kings gave him better seats at the same price, plus 15 free parking passes.
The Kings also went out of their way to accommodate sponsors. Western Health Advantage is paying $100,000 the same as last year but is getting more TV commercials and arena signage.
Of all the Kings' sponsors, perhaps none is more important than Sleep Train. The respected Rocklin retailer signed a five-year deal in mid-October to put its name on the arena.
Sleep Train replaces Power Balance, which lasted a little over a year. A maker of sports wristbands, Power Balance went bankrupt after getting deluged with lawsuits over dubious product claims. It severed the Kings' deal after paying just $700,000 of the first-year fee of $935,000.
Neither side will say how much Sleep Train is paying, but price is almost beside the point. The five-year commitment, though it has an "out" clause if the team leaves, suggests to some observers a commitment to Sacramento.
"I think Dale Carlsen signing on to be naming-rights partner is one of the most positive things that has happened in years," said Greg Van Dusen, who was a Kings executive before the Maloofs bought control in 1999.
Time for team-building
Van Dusen, now a business consultant, is among those waiting for word from the Maloofs. Along with the arena's original architect and engineer, he's pushing a plan to renovate the 24-year-old facility. The Maloofs last spring endorsed the idea of a renovation, but Van Dusen can't get an audience with them.
"They tell us they will meet with us to discuss the renovation. We don't know when. That is up to them," he said.
He said he doesn't fault the Maloofs. He said their silence is probably a legacy of the failure of the downtown project.
"They have been saying, 'Let us focus on (the team) first.' They were really burned out on that (arena) issue," Van Dusen said.
This season, the old arena has a new paint job, free Wi-Fi and other improvements.
As for the team itself, spokesman Troy Hanson said the Kings' player payroll this season will match the NBA's $58 million salary cap. That's a marked improvement over last year's $45 million, the league minimum.
The extra money comes in part from a new revenue-sharing agreement that directs millions of dollars to small-market teams.
Even so, the Kings still struggle to compete financially. Many teams exceed the salary cap, and the Kings' payroll is still among the lowest, according to the website HoopsHype. The Maloofs have lost control of their Las Vegas casino, and Bee research shows the team is about $200 million in debt.
"The revenue-sharing (from the NBA) does allow the Kings to be able to compete better on the court. But I don't think it changes the decision-making process of the Kings wanting a new arena," said Daniel A. Rascher of SportsEconomics LLC consultants in Orinda.
"I don't think it (would) keep the Kings from moving if they end up with a viable offer in a good market," said Rascher, who was on Mayor Kevin Johnson's arena task force.
If they do move, Seattle seems the most likely destination. But even though financier Chris Hansen has a deal for a new arena, hurdles exist. He wants to buy a team; the Maloofs have said the Kings aren't for sale. And the NBA isn't anxious to have the Kings move to Seattle.
Stern called Seattle's arena project "a great development," but added: "I don't have any current view on where such a team comes from."