City Beat

Kings boost philanthropic efforts, but critics remain skeptical

They’ve shown up recently at the Crocker Art Museum’s fundraising ball. They’ve forged a partnership with the B Street Theatre and they’re helping the city animal shelter raise money – and awareness about pit bull adoptions.

In May, on the day his group of investors closed a deal to buy the Sacramento Kings, new principal owner Vivek Ranadive touted his vision of “sports as an agent of change” and vowed to be a visible presence in the city.

“You can expect to see me and my kids and the other owners active in the community,” he said.

So far, leaders of some of Sacramento’s largest arts groups and nonprofit organizations said they are encouraged by what they’ve seen – though opponents of a taxpayer subsidy for a new Kings arena remain skeptical of the team’s motives.

The team has donated more than $1 million to local charities and organizations since the Ranadive group took control six months ago, Kings officials said this week. They also conducted a holiday-themed campaign called “The 12 Days of Giving Big” that benefited 60 local organizations and featured toy drives and Kings players visiting children in hospitals. The team donated 10 percent of season ticket proceeds generated through Oct. 10 to more than two dozen local organizations, including the Salvation Army and Autism Speaks, an autism research and awareness organization. The gifts from that effort totaled more than $400,000.

“We talk about using our celebrity as a means of social change and social good, and I want us to be a key part of the fabric of this community,” said Kings President Chris Granger. “This team is not here without this community and we’re not doing our part unless we’re returning the favor and doing everything we can, given our social status, to make Sacramento a better place.”

Community involvement is not new for Sacramento’s lone major league sports franchise. The Maloof family, which owned the team until selling to the Ranadive group, gave roughly $21 million worth of in-kind donations and services over their 14 years of ownership, family spokesman Troy Hanson said.

Nor is it unusual nationally. National Basketball Association franchises – like teams in other professional sports leagues – have a long-standing track record of donating to community causes around the world. The NBA said last week that its teams had conducted a combined 500 community events over the holiday season.

But in Sacramento, the team’s largesse carries an added dimension.

Political consultants said the Kings’ philanthropy makes sense from a public relations perspective, given that a plan calling for the city of Sacramento to contribute $258 million to a new downtown arena for the team faces a possible public vote next year. Signatures gathered to place a measure on the June ballot are being validated; if it qualifies for the ballot and passes, plans to contribute money to professional sports projects in the city, such as the arena, would require voter approval.

“Clearly what’s going on is a combination of things, one of which is the very altruistic nature of charitable giving, while at the same time (the Kings) are hoping that it will influence the voters so they will support the arena project and not an initiative that might prevent the arena from being built,” said political strategist Doug Elmets.

Opponents of the arena subsidy are dubious of the team’s community involvement.

“They’re using our money (the city’s arena contribution) to give it back to the community in order to look like tremendous supporters of Sacramento and its nonprofit pursuits,” said arena critic Craig Powell, who was involved in the effort to force a public vote on the subsidy plan. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not disinterested charitable giving. These are tactical donations meant to improve their political position in the community.”

Granger said the Kings feel no added pressure to support local causes because of the arena plan. He noted that the team is planning to contribute at least $190 million to the arena, as well as hundreds of millions more toward the revamping of Downtown Plaza into a mix of office space, housing and entertainment venues.

“We take that partnership (with the city) seriously,” he said. “We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

In a city that lacks Fortune 500 companies and has a relatively small roster of ultra-wealthy families, nonprofit leaders said they are hopeful the new Kings ownership group will help fill a much-needed void.

“People look to the Kings for inspiration and leadership and their focus on philanthropy would be very important,” said Shirlee Tully, marketing director for the Sacramento Region Community Foundation. “We do not have a lot of old family money or large corporate headquarters, all of the things that you see in communities that have a high percentage of philanthropic giving.”

Tully said the Kings have not donated to the regional foundation, but that the organization “would absolutely work with them” to support causes with the greatest need, including senior care, environmental work and arts groups.

In contrast to the previous owners, the new ownership group has engaged significantly with the city’s main arts organizations. Some of those groups also have received financial assistance from the City Council in recent weeks to help with long-standing efforts to build new rehearsal and performance space, but those municipal gifts are dwarfed by the monetary contribution the city plans to make in a new downtown arena.

Earlier this month, Ranadive was joined at the Crocker Art Museum’s annual fundraising ball by Granger, team co-owner Mark Mastrov and his wife, and team executive Matina Kolokotronis. Mark Friedman, another team co-owner whose family contributed millions to help construct the expanded Crocker, also attended the event.

The Kings sponsored a table at the ball and Ranadive purchased a dinner at a fundraising auction, said Lial Jones, the museum’s director.

“I’m happy to say I’m encouraged (by the team’s involvement),” said Jones, adding that the Maloofs had never attended the fundraising event. “I hope it bodes well for the future.”

The B Street Theatre, which is $4 million shy of generating the money it needs to build a long-planned theater complex in midtown, received a “significant” contribution from the Kings for the company’s ongoing operation, said theater managing director Bill Blake, who declined to reveal the exact amount of the team’s donation. Blake said the theater company is in talks with the Kings to form a marketing partnership that could involve B Street performances at games.

“There’s a shared mission and a shared market between B Street and the Kings,” Blake said.

The city animal shelter also has benefited. The facility was a “nonprofit of the game,” receiving proceeds from ticket sales from a Kings game this month against the Lakers.

Gina Knepp, the shelter’s director, said the facility also has developed a relationship with Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who donated a signed jersey that was raffled at the Lakers game to raise money for the shelter. Cousins is an advocate of pit bull adoptions. He owns four of the dogs.

“(The Kings) are trying to do some rebranding with community involvement,” Knepp said. “I can only see it getting better. I’m going to have every single player adopt a dog or cat from us before I’m done.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee