Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: With new owners and renewed focus on fans, can Kings bring back the glory days?

An exciting new era starts Wednesday night for the Sacramento Kings. But will it bring back the glory days?

The region’s only major-league franchise has new owners committed to its future in Sacramento. After the penny-pinching, mercurial Maloofs, that alone is generating goodwill and season-ticket sales.

It’s welcome that principal owner Vivek Ranadive and team president Chris Granger are putting a priority on improving the fan experience. When fans file into Sleep Train Arena for the season opener against Denver, they will notice upgrades to the fading 25-year-old facility. The leaky roof is patched, there are new VIP lounges and there are 90 more Wi-Fi nodes. New concession stands will feature local food and beer.

Big, enthusiastic crowds are important not only for the team’s success and the city’s psyche. They are also crucial to the financial viability of the proposed new city-owned arena downtown – and whether the project, which includes a public subsidy of at least $258 million, is a good deal for taxpayers.

If attendance projections don’t pan out, a 5 percent ticket surcharge and arena parking almost certainly would not generate $4.3 million a year – nearly half of what the city requires to backfill its general fund for parking revenue diverted to finance the arena’s construction. While the city is promised at least $1 million a year from arena operations, additional profit-sharing would be out of the question. The arena deal is based on 1.4 million attendees, or an average of 9,302, at 152 events, including 44 Kings games. That total is significantly higher than during the recession, though lower than before the downturn.

Already, the Kings are talking about reducing the seating capacity from 18,500 to no more than 17,500 as part of a first-of-its-kind design for the arena, scheduled to open in 2016. That would make it more important to fill available seats.

In the near term, the team is counting on a 5 percent ticket fee at Sleep Train to speed repayment of the $62 million it still owes the city on a 1997 loan. Plus, happier fans could build support for the proposed arena in case opponents of the public subsidy get a measure on the ballot next year.

This city has proven beyond any doubt that it is a strong NBA market, but fans are starving for a winner.

During the eight straight playoff appearances from 1999 to 2006, and even in some down years, fans flocked to Kings games, with 19 seasons of complete sellouts out of 28 in Sacramento.

Last season, however, the hapless Kings ranked dead last in home attendance among the 30 NBA teams, averaging a paltry 13,749. The five prior seasons, the team was in the bottom four. The last time the Kings had a winning record and made the playoffs, in 2005-06, they were in the middle of the pack, selling out every game with an average of 17,317 fans.

With a new coach and general manager, the Kings are still rebuilding and seeking the right mix of players. It would really help the franchise and the city if this team is at least competitive and entertaining. Making an unexpected run at a playoff spot this season would work wonders.