Sleep Train undergoing renovations for upcoming season

The old barn known as Sleep Train Arena is getting a million-dollar-plus new look – and a “farm to fork” food theme.

Saying they are sending a message that a new era begins now, the Sacramento Kings this month launched an upgrade of the 25-year-old Natomas facility, even though the building is outdated by NBA standards and likely destined for demolition in three years when the team moves to a new downtown arena.

The changes – expected to be ready opening night, Oct. 30 – include two new VIP lounges – one for the team’s three-dozen-member ownership group – and one expanded lounge. The visitors locker room, a long-reviled dungeon, will be doubled in size. Ninety new Wi-Fi nodes already hang from the ceiling, alleviating a communications bottleneck, allowing thousands of fans to tweet and text simultaneously.

The arena’s notoriously leaky roof has been patched and the parking lot’s many potholes filled.

Team officials say they are contracting with the Disney Institute, a company that will help them set up job performance standards for the arena’s service workers.

“We want to provide the best experience possible,” team President Chris Granger said Friday, standing in hardhat amid dust and jackhammer noise. “I’m not sure that’s been the case the last few years.”

The plan to re-energize Sleep Train includes jumping on the Sacramento region’s recent “farm to fork” food bandwagon by contracting with local farms and companies to include cheeses, tomatoes, meat and other local produce at several newly named concession nodes on the main concourse. Those concessions, the K Street Deli, Prime Cut Carvery, and two Smoque House BBQs featuring slow-cooked pork, will sit next to more traditional concession stands.

The team also plans to add a sampling of locally crafted beers to the mix. Kings officials said some food prices will increase, while others will remain the same.

Granger declined to say how much the team is spending on the fixes, although a quick view of the current work Friday suggests it will be in excess of $1million. Granger said the team is planning a few other changes – some big, some small – that will remain secret until fans file in the doors on opening night.

Team officials said they will continue to make changes at Sleep Train during the next three years, some of them serving as test concepts for a new downtown arena. The team and city of Sacramento have set fall 2016 as the target opening date for a $448million arena in Downtown Plaza.

“We want to be a world-class organization,” Granger said. “You can’t do that if you have a second-class setup.”

Several sports business and marketing experts said the move is strategically smart and should be worth the cost, even if the building is torn down in three years.

Robert Wassmer, chairman of the public policy and administration department at California State University, Sacramento, says the improvements immediately distance the new ownership group from the previous owners, the Maloofs, who spent little on the team and arena in recent years.

The team was purchased recently by a large group headed by Silicon Valley tech executive Vivek Ranadive.

“They are more of long-term perspective owners, rather than short-term profits,” Wassmer said. “The revenue coming in may not equal the actual costs they are putting in right now, but it will build support, and momentum.”

Wassmer said a better fan experience at Sleep Train also could help the team win voter support in case the city’s proposal to spend $258 million or more subsidizing the arena goes on the ballot next year. A group opposed to the plan is pushing a signature drive for a June ballot initiative. The city plans to own the arena. Petition drive leaders argue that the Kings owners have enough money to build their own arena.

Bill Sutton, a consultant for NBA teams and former NBA marketing and business operations vice president, said the new owners likely feel pressure to make changes now, rather than wait three years for a new arena. A recent article by ESPN that rated the Kings as the worst professional sports franchise in the country stung the owners, he said, even though the article was based on the team’s situation under previous owners. “They have to show people that they are serious about what they want to be, and they are going to start here,” Sutton said.

The work, however, essentially amounts to dressing up a faded building that most say lacks the amenities for the Kings to compete in the high-finance NBA world. Built for $40million in 1988, Sleep Train is one of the two oldest arenas in the league that have not undergone major remodeling.

The new Kings ownership made news on several other fronts this week.

On Monday, the team announced former Kings’ on-court nemesis Shaquille O’Neal, a retired NBA All-Star, has signed on as a co-owner.

The team and the city also took the first formal steps to implement their arena financing agreement from earlier this year, including imposing a 5percent surcharge on most tickets sold at Sleep Train over the next three years. That money will be used to speed payment of the $62million loan the city gave the team in 1997.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB743, the bill designed to speed up construction of the proposed arena at Downtown Plaza. The bill will streamline the court process for any environmental lawsuits that could arise against the project. It also makes it much harder for judges to halt construction on the project if a suit is filed.

“It’s another huge step forward in revitalizing the center of our region,” said the bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

The Kings and the city also announced Friday they have set up a website for public ideas on how to design a new arena and will hold an arena-design open house next Saturday in the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria’s East Room at the Central Library, 828 I St., Sacramento.

The Kings’ end game is clear, said Stanford economics professor Roger Noll, a sometime critic of subsidized stadiums: “The campaign for the new arena has now officially been launched.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916)321-1059. The Bee’s Ryan Lillis and Dale Kasler contributed to this report.