November 5, 2012

Sleep Train seems a comfortable fit as Kings' arena partner

For a team trying to soothe an angry and anxious fan base, what better partner than a respected retailer known for customer service, philanthropy and deep roots in the community?

Joke all you want about the name "Sleep Train Arena" – about Sacramento Kings games turning into snooze fests, about players sleepwalking and such.

Dale Carlsen, founder and chief executive of Sleep Train Mattress Centers, has heard the wisecracks and doesn't mind them.

"It's fun, and it gives somebody something to joke about," Carlsen said at his Rocklin headquarters last week. "When they talk about sleep, they talk about Sleep Train."

Carlsen can afford to chuckle. His $450 million-a-year retail chain is strong, growing – and could give the Kings a jolt of good will as they play their first home game of the season tonight in the newly renamed arena.

For a team trying to soothe an angry and anxious fan base, what better partner than a respected retailer known for customer service, philanthropy and deep roots in the community?

By becoming the arena's naming-rights sponsor, "we're hoping it helps keep the Kings here," Carlsen said. "I want them to stay here. It's vital to this city, this region."

And by supporting other forms of live entertainment – from concerts to ice shows – he said the deal helps the economy.

Sleep Train, in turn, gets its brand plastered in front of thousands of spectators.

"The prestige of the NBA is a powerful umbrella," said David Perry, executive editor of Furniture/Today magazine in North Carolina. "I've got to think it's going to be good for Sleep Train even if it's a team that's struggling."

From now on, whenever a Kings player makes a three-point basket, the train whistle from Sleep Train's commercials will blast over the public address system.

"Isn't that cool?" Carlsen said.

One other thing: The deal will raise awareness for foster children. That's been Carlsen's pet cause since he studied the issue as a student at California State University, Sacramento.

Sleep Train already holds clothing drives and donates thousands of new mattresses a year to foster kids. The Kings will donate game tickets and stage clothing drives, Carlsen said.

As names go, Sleep Train's sponsorship means the end of Power Balance Pavilion. The contrast couldn't be more striking.

Power Balance, founded by a surfer from Orange County, went bankrupt barely a year into its deal with the Kings after being hit with consumer lawsuits over claims that its wristbands helped athletes perform better.

Sleep Train is the anti-Power Balance. It will surely never get endorsements from Kobe Bryant or David Beckham, who sported Power Balance bracelets. Its boldest promise is that its mattresses are "your ticket to a better night's sleep," as the commercials say.

Carlsen is no surfer dude. He's a short, gray-haired 50-year-old Republican with two teenaged kids, a pediatrician wife, a dog and an affable, aw-shucks manner. He holds controlling interest in Sleep Train and owns a Cessna, but you'd hardly call him a jet-setter.

"He's proud of himself. He has a right to be," said Nolan Gamble, a retired Sacramento mattress wholesaler who mentored Carlsen early on. "But I don't think he goes out with his chin sticking out in front of his face. That's not Dale."

Carlsen has held Kings season tickets since 1986. But Sleep Train wasn't a sponsor until a year ago, when it joined several other companies in a campaign to dissuade the Kings from moving to Anaheim.

After the Power Balance company imploded, the team approached Carlsen about the arena name. It made a five-year deal with an "out clause" if the Kings should leave. Neither side will disclose financial terms.

Carlsen is aware of potential pitfalls. The company already sponsors three amphitheaters – in Yuba County, Concord and Ridgefield, Wash. The Yuba County venue has been plagued by terrible attendance in recent years.

Some marketing experts believe the Kings' brand has been tainted since the team's owners, the Maloofs, scuttled a deal for a new downtown arena last spring. Their decision left many believing the team will eventually leave.

Carlsen is aware of the issues, but still thinks "in the end, we did the right thing."

Sleep Train has largely steered clear of controversy. The only real exception came a year ago, when a dispute arose with Carlsen's old friend Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh was Carlsen's original pitchman, starting in 1986, when he was a host at KFBK (1530 AM) radio in Sacramento and read Sleep Train's ads on the air.

The relationship continued after Limbaugh went national. It ended last spring, after Limbaugh publicly insulted a law student who had testified before Congress about contraceptives.

Sleep Train pulled its ads from his show. After Limbaugh apologized, Sleep Train tried to resume advertising – but was rebuffed in an email to Carlsen from Limbaugh's public relations representative.

Carlsen wouldn't comment on the matter.

Even without Limbaugh's support, Sleep Train is doing fine. Carlsen said sales will hit $450 million this year, up from $371 million in 2011. Furniture/Today ranks Sleep Train as the nation's fifth-largest mattress retailer."Clearly they're the West Coast powerhouse," Perry said.

Sleep Train Inc. is actually three chains: the flagship brand in California; Sleep Country USA in Oregon, Idaho and Washington; and Mattress Discounters in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. A new boutique concept called Got Sleep? – has one store, in Roseville.

Despite its dependence on the housing market, Carlsen said Sleep Train weathered the recession well. Sales fell 15 percent in two years, but he said layoffs were minimal and the company found other ways to streamline. Executives, including Carlsen, took pay cuts. Sleep Train pressed vendors and landlords for better terms, and worked media outlets for better pricing on advertising.

"We're a far better company after this, just better at what we do," Carlsen said.

Store openings have resumed, as have acquisitions. Sleep Train just bought 10 more stores in Washington and Idaho, and will end the year with 275 locations.

"We're in a very good position to look at acquisitions," Carlsen said. "It's a good time to buy companies."

And, apparently, a good time to put one's name on an NBA arena.

"We've got to get all the controversy out of it and just enjoy basketball," he said. "I think we have a great opportunity to do well this year."

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