The long road back for Kings starts Wednesday

It will be an opening night for the ages, with Bollywood dancers, Shaquille O’Neal, 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 Sactown’s only major-league sports franchise.

But after seven straight losing seasons, Sacramento isn’t 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.

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 year’s worst-in-the-league 13,749. Yet it’s 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 night’s 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 we’re not there yet.”

For all the euphoria about Ranadive’s arrival, the Kings are still in recovery mode. The team’s image took a beating in the final years of ownership by the Maloof family, and it won’t be surprising to see empty seats at Sleep Train this year, said Bill Sutton, a sports marketing consultant in Florida and the NBA’s 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 team’s 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 hasn’t 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.

“I’m 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.” He’s 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. Let’s see how the year unfolds.”

Season tickets are critical to a team’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Wednesday’s 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, Granger’s 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. “I’m more focused on the infrastructure than 41 sellouts. That will come.”

Just as some fans aren’t 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 isn’t ready to resume its sponsorship.

“We’re excited that it’s moving in a positive direction,” said Chief Executive Tim Burke. Nonetheless, “we’re in a little bit of an evaluation, wait-and-see mode.”

Part of Burke’s hesitation is over the team’s future in Sacramento. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the league could yank the franchise away if the new arena isn’t 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 arena’s 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 wouldn’t sponsor the team under the previous ownership because “the Kings were not committed to staying here,” she said. Bland wouldn’t 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. “We’re going to attract more interest on the global front,” he said.

The new direction will be on vivid display at Wednesday’s opener. A pre-game “fan fest” outside the arena will include a demonstration of India’s 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 what’s 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 they’ve been on the last few years, which has been rocky at best, and to let them know we are here to stay.”

What fans will see for Wednesday's Season Opener

Revamped from top to bottom in the off-season, the Kings play their opener Wednesday at Sleep Train Arena. Here’s what fans will see:

New owners: After preventing the team from moving to Seattle, investors Vivek Ranadive, Mark Mastrov, Mark Friedman & Co. bought out the Maloofs – and brought in Shaquille O’Neal as a partner.

New management: Respected former NBA executive Chris Granger is team president. Michael Malone is the coach and Pete D’Alessando is general manager.

New amenities: Set to be torn down in three years, Sleep Train Arena has new “farm to fork” concession stands, craft beers, new VIP lounges and better WiFi service. The roof and parking lot potholes were patched, and Disney helped train arena employees on customer service.

New glitz: Ranadive vowed to make Kings a “global brand,” and Wednesday’s game will be televised in his native India. Other highlights at the opener: a Bollywood-style dance performance and a parade of VIPs, including NBA Commissioner David Stern, on a purple carpet leading into arena.