Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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    Mayor Kevin Johnson watches Tuesday's game from courtside at Sleep Train Arena. The Kings play their next five games on the road, where they are 5-23.


    The Spurs' Kawhi Leonard (2) tries to protect the ball as the Kings' Chuck Hayes reaches in. San Antonio showed why it has the NBA's best record (43-12) by coming up with big plays down the stretch.


    Jason Thompson dunks for two of his 11 points. The Kings were outrebounded 46-42, the 36th time this season they have been outrebounded.


    DeMarcus Cousins reacts after missing a tip-in to end the first half. The Kings had six players score in double figures but shot only 37.8 percent from the floor.

  • Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Small-market , yes, but San Antonio is thriving

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013 - 12:36 pm

Oh, so that's right. It's not impossible. Small-market cities and counties actually solve arena financing riddles, secure the future of their major professional sports franchises and consistently put a quality product on the court.

Take the San Antonio Spurs, for instance. Members of the NBA's premier small-market organization came to Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday night to do what they do – bore some folks and fascinate others. Gregg Popovich. R.C. Buford. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker. Role players who adhere to the program or find themselves dispatched elsewhere.

They have their slumps, but they never snooze for long. They are masters of the small-market house, the organization that adopted a philosophy in the late 1990s and adapts by the season. On the court. In the locker room. In the stands. And definitely in the community.

In ESPN The Magazine's most recent Ultimate Fan Rankings, a rating system that evaluates pro sports teams on ticket prices, arena/stadium comfort, quality of coaches and general managers, among other factors, San Antonio's only major pro franchise finished third, trailing only the top-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder and Green Bay Packers.

In terms of the NBA, the edge probably still belongs to the Spurs, mainly because they have done it longer and more efficiently than anyone else.

"Something we are learning from these studies," ESPN author Peter Keating told me in 2004, "is that the connection between the small-market teams, and in part, solo franchise cities might be born out of necessity.

"When teams make a virtue out of that necessity, they create a bond that is stronger than anything we see with the major-market clubs. And the Spurs are sort of like this perfect machine. They make fewer stupid mistakes than almost any team."

Not much has changed. The Spurs have won two additional NBA titles.

An aging Duncan, Parker and Ginobili continue to produce. Owner Peter Holt remains a committed, connected boss. Popovich and Buford still poach from the overseas market more effectively than their peers. Young players are drafted and expected to improve. Knuckleheads are banished.

"A lot of it has to do with circumstances," Popovich said tersely, refusing to be drawn into a conversation about similarities in the Sacramento and San Antonio arena situations. "Some circumstances work in your favor. Some don't. As I remember, we drafted Tim Duncan. That helped a lot."

True, but the Kings also could have drafted Dirk Nowitzki or Paul Pierce. Mistakes happen. The Spurs excel because their errors don't become fatal. Their owner didn't become seduced by fame and crippled by the economy.

Their business president didn't alienate a community that devoured every season ticket for 20 of the first 22 years. Their basketball president didn't inexplicably forget how to assemble a winning roster consisting of stars and complementary parts.

Imagine – just imagine – if the Kings had followed the Spurs' blueprint? Had capitalized on decades of sellouts (often despite lousy teams) and good vibes from the Vlade Divac/Chris Webber/Peja Stojakovic era and outlined the value of a new sports and entertainment complex?

Indianapolis. Brooklyn. Salt Lake City. San Jose. Portland. Denver. It happens. If the Kings relocate to Seattle, the region would still need a modern venue to attract major concerts, NCAA Tournaments, political conventions and other sports and cultural events that appeal to businesses and enhance an area's image and identity.

But back to San Antonio (36th), an even smaller television market than Sacramento (20th), and those thorny arena matters. The Spurs are not without their scratch marks, either. Before a joint venture was finalized and AT&T Center constructed in 2002, there were failed ballot measures, fears of relocation, polls showing that 80 percent of those contacted opposed using tax dollars to help fund a facility.

Two major developments helped swing public sentiment: The organization conducted a vigorous Saddles and Spurs marketing campaign and the Spurs won the 1998-99 NBA championship.

On the same day Commissioner David Stern presided over the ring ceremony, voters approved a county-driven measure that increased tourism taxes and secured a private/public partnership with the Rodeo Association.

The only downside is a big one – the location is dreadful. The arena is situated in an undeveloped industrial area miles from the delightful River Walk and the city's urban center. Complaints about the site and handwringing about squandered business opportunities persist.

Nonetheless, the Spurs found a formula that works for them. They're still kicking, and they're still winning.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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