It will be an opening night for the ages, with Bollywood dancers, Shaquille ONeal, a sellout crowd and more glitz and glitter than Sacramento Kings fans have seen in years.
Game 2, a couple of nights later? A good deal quieter. Hundreds of tickets remain unsold.
The first week of the NBA regular season in Sacramento illustrates the promise and challenges facing the Kings and their new owners. India-born software tycoon Vivek Ranadive and his fellow investors, Shaq among them, have breathed new life into a tired organization, energizing fans and corporate sponsors while bringing an international flair to Sactowns only major-league sports franchise.
But after seven straight losing seasons, Sacramento isnt completely ready to embrace its Kings again. Many fans have been worn down and alienated by weak performances on the floor and the efforts by the previous owners to relocate the team the past three years, first to Anaheim and more recently to Seattle.
AUDIO: The Bee's Ryan Lillis discusses the return of Sacramento Kings basketball on today's episode of "Insight" on Capital Public Radio.
The Kings understand this better than anyone. New President Chris Granger said season ticket sales have improved substantially, and average attendance at Sleep Train Arena without question will improve over last years worst-in-the-league 13,749. Yet its clear it will take time before the Kings return to their standing-room-only status of old, when every home game sold out for years on end.
For a variety of reasons, our season ticket base has not been where we would want it to be over the last several years, Granger said in an interview in his third-floor arena office last week, taking a break from frantic preparations for Wednesday nights opener against Denver. As such, we need to sell a lot of tickets in order to get back to the glory years of the Kings. We are well on that journey, but were not there yet.
For all the euphoria about Ranadives arrival, the Kings are still in recovery mode. The teams image took a beating in the final years of ownership by the Maloof family, and it wont be surprising to see empty seats at Sleep Train this year, said Bill Sutton, a sports marketing consultant in Florida and the NBAs former vice president of team marketing and business operations.
The franchise was in neglect, Sutton said. People were apathetic. They found other things to do. Now you have to win them back. That can take six months to three years.
While the Maloofs were accused of scrimping, the Ranadive group has spared little expense in an effort to repair the teams battered reputation. Its deal to buy the Kings valued the franchise at a league-record $535 million, and that was just the beginning. They agreed to buy Downtown Plaza, site of the Kings proposed new arena, for a sum that hasnt been disclosed but is surely in the millions. They then plowed at least $1 million into new concession stands, improved wireless access and other improvements at Sleep Train, which is due to be demolished in three years.
The Kings have hired 92 new full-time employees, most of them in marketing, since Ranadive took over. The team staged a free outdoor scrimmage for thousands of fans on Capitol Mall earlier this month. Team merchandise stores have sprouted up around the region, to supplement the shop at the arena.
The efforts have begun to pay dividends. The Kings have attracted more new season ticket holders than any other team in the league, according to the NBA. Many are returnees like Mark Drobny, a Sacramento attorney who dropped out last year because of his anger toward the Maloofs.
Im back in the fold, said Drobny, who has four seats again in the lower bowl. The only reason I canceled my tickets last year was because of absentee owners trying to run the team into the ground so they could move. Hes been thrilled to see Ranadive and co-owner Mark Mastrov courtside during preseason games, and said the new owners know what they are doing, and will not accept anything less than success.
Yet Bruce Gordon, a Sacramento retiree and longtime season ticket holder, was finally done in by the years of losing. He gave up his season tickets this year.
This year, I may buy a few (single-game) tickets, Gordon said. It really depends on how they do. Lets see how the year unfolds.
Season tickets are critical to a teams financial success. Sutton said an NBA team generally needs to sell at least 10,000 season tickets in order to consistently sell out its arena.
Granger wouldnt say how many season tickets have been sold. But it is clear that the team will struggle to fill all its seats at times this year.
Although Granger said Wednesdays opener against Denver will be a sellout, the game still had nearly 200 unsold tickets Monday afternoon. The second game on Friday night against an attractive opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers had 1,500 tickets left.
Kings officials say they believe fans will be patient with the on-court performance as long as they see the team generally improving. Off the floor, Grangers staff is micromanaging things like food, customer service and the fan experience at games what Granger calls the infrastructure of the team.
Nightly sellouts are a byproduct of doing things the right way, said Granger, whom the Kings hired away from the NBA league office in New York this summer. Im more focused on the infrastructure than 41 sellouts. That will come.
Just as some fans arent yet committing to the Kings, so are some would-be corporate sponsors. Quest Systems, a Sacramento cloud computing company, used to spend $500,000 a year on a luxury suite, arena signage and more. That ended several years ago, and while Quest still holds a small block of season tickets, it isnt ready to resume its sponsorship.
Were excited that its moving in a positive direction, said Chief Executive Tim Burke. Nonetheless, were in a little bit of an evaluation, wait-and-see mode.
Part of Burkes hesitation is over the teams future in Sacramento. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the league could yank the franchise away if the new arena isnt open by 2017, one year later than scheduled. There are still question marks about the longevity, Burke said.
Despite the remaining uncertainty, including a possible vote on whether the city should subsidize the planned arena, Kings Vice President Donna Schwartze said the team has lined up six new corporate sponsors this year. Two new sponsors, Kaiser Permanente and Golden 1 Credit Union, have secured the naming rights to two of the arenas entrances a first for Sleep Train.
This is a vote of confidence for the new ownership, the fans, the community, said Golden 1 Chief Executive Donna Bland. The credit union wouldnt sponsor the team under the previous ownership because the Kings were not committed to staying here, she said. Bland wouldnt disclose how much Golden 1 is spending.
Ranadive has spoken repeatedly of making the Kings a global brand, and the team has already dispatched the Kings Dancers to his native India. Granger has spoken with the NBA about taking the Kings on an international goodwill tour, and he said overseas corporations could become sponsors some day. Were going to attract more interest on the global front, he said.
The new direction will be on vivid display at Wednesdays opener. A pre-game fan fest outside the arena will include a demonstration of Indias national sport, cricket. Ranadive, Shaq and other owners, along with Stern, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and other VIPs, will walk on a purple carpet to enter the arena, evoking the red carpet walk of movie stars at the Oscars.
The game will air live on Sony Six, asports channel in India that regularly televises NBA games (tipoff is 7:30 a.m. Thursday in India). There will be 17 cameras, more than twice the usual number, and new head coach Michael Malone will wear a microphone during the game. The Sacramento telecast, on News10, will air without commercials so viewers at home can watch whats happening during timeouts. We want to give as many people as possible the arena experience, Granger said.
Among the experiences the new owners want everyone to see: a pre-game video that sort of highlights the downs and ups of the last 36 months, Granger said.
Our overall goal ... is to celebrate our fans, he added. To celebrate the journey that theyve been on the last few years, which has been rocky at best, and to let them know we are here to stay.
Call The Bees Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler