A year ago, they wondered if it was the last time they would ever see the Sacramento Kings. This time, they came to cheer for a franchise reborn and recommitted to Sacramento.
Sacramentans crammed into Sleep Train Arena on Wednesday night to watch the Kings wrap up their eighth consecutive losing season. Unlike last year’s finale, when a possible move to Seattle was under discussion, the mood was almost purely celebratory.
The Kings are nearly a decade removed from their golden era, when sellouts and playoff appearances were the norm. But in its first season, the new ownership group led by Palo Alto software tycoon Vivek Ranadive reenergized an organization that had been gasping for resources during the last few years of the previous regime. Ranadive and his investors spent more on marketing and player salaries. They gave the Kings’ aging arena a modest face-lift, even as they poured millions into preparations for a new downtown venue.
And fans responded. Wednesday’s game against Phoenix was expected to be the season’s 14th sellout, the most in seven years. Home attendance averaged 16,265 per game, not counting the finale. That represented an 18.3 percent increase over last year, when the Kings had the worst attendance in the NBA. Only the New Orleans Pelicans enjoyed a bigger bump in ticket sales.
Not that the team has suddenly become an elite contender again. But fans said an infusion of new players has generated excitement and hope following years of lackluster basketball and almost constant talk of relocation to Anaheim, Seattle or some other city.
“The security is there. You don’t have to worry about them leaving,” said Patrick Lawson after settling into his seat in the arena’s lower bowl. “The ownership gave us what Sacramento really needs.”
New Kings President Chris Granger said he knew fans would come back to Sleep Train, but not in such huge numbers.
“After what they’ve been through for so long, it’s really been refreshing to see attendance improve this much and this soon,” Granger said. Season ticket sales are off to a strong start for next year, he said.
Granger promised more changes for Sleep Train and described the makeover of the Kings organization as a work in progress. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re not going to be satisfied until we’re selling out every night and winning every night.”
Last year, as the team took the floor for its finale against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Kings’ fate was uncertain. NBA owners were meeting in New York to discuss a plan by the Maloof family to sell the Kings to investors from Seattle.
Most Kings fans were cautiously optimistic that Ranadive and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson could block the move, but there were no guarantees. It wasn’t until mid-May that the NBA vetoed the Seattle plan. The Maloofs then sold the Kings to Ranadive’s group in a deal that valued the team at $535 million, an NBA record at the time.
Ranadive hasn’t produced a winner yet, but four longtime fans tailgating outside the arena before Wednesday’s game toasted the season anyway, hoisting glasses of white wine to celebrate the new atmosphere around the Kings organization.
“Tremendous difference,” said one of the foursome, Dexter Bergounous. “This new ownership – they want to win. They’re going out and getting players and spending money.”
Even as the losses have accumulated, fans said there’s more energy on the floor and in the stands. In prior years, fans “expected the team to lose,” said Jason Smith of Yuba City, a season ticket holder sitting in the upper bowl. “This year, they expect a win. It’s a more positive atmosphere.”
Renewed fan enthusiasm wasn’t simply a function of the departure of the unpopular Maloofs, who flirted with a move to Anaheim in 2011. Hailed as white knights for keeping the team in town, the new owners deserve credit for refusing to take Sacramento for granted, said Andy Dolich, a Bay Area sports business consultant.
“They said, ‘We’re not going to be able to turn it around overnight, but we’re going to do everything in our power ... to get back to where this franchise was,’ ” said Dolich, a former executive with the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies.
Improvements were evident on and off the court. Player payroll, among the league’s lowest the past few seasons, increased 17 percent this year to nearly $63 million, according to HoopsHype.com. All but invisible around the NBA in recent years, the Kings raised their profile considerably, adding TV personality and former Kings nemesis Shaquille O’Neal as a part owner and bringing Google Glass and other high-tech gadgetry to the fan experience. The leadership of Ranadive, a native of India, provided international exposure.
Sleep Train got new concession stands, locker rooms, VIP lounges and other improvements. Two of the entrances were “branded” for the first time, by Kaiser Permanente and Golden 1 Credit Union, a symbol of the new owners’ ability to tap the corporate community for dollars. Granger said sponsorship revenue more than doubled this year.
More physical improvements are coming at Sleep Train for next year, Granger said, although he wouldn’t go into details.
“We will continue to invest in our product,” said Granger, who was hired away from the NBA’s headquarters last summer. “We’re not going to be on hiatus” just because the old arena is a lame duck, he said.
As for the new arena, the Kings spent $36 million buying Downtown Plaza and have worked with city officials and architects on designing the $448 million arena and surrounding development. They also worked with city attorneys to fend off a lawsuit that would have forced a public vote on arena subsidies, which might have jeopardized the project.
City staffers will release an update today on the development agreement with the Kings, including the city’s proposed $258 million subsidy. The City Council is expected to approve the project May 13, with groundbreaking set for sometime in the summer.
Granger said the agreement with the city will follow closely the nonbinding term sheet approved by the City Council in March 2013. The next few weeks will be spent plowing through details of the plan.
“We’re making great progress,” Granger said. “We’re going to be ready to go May 13.” The arena is scheduled to open in 2016.