They’ve had three different head coaches this season. Their best player missed nearly two dozen games because of a bout of viral meningitis and various other ailments. And for the ninth season in a row, they’re stumbling to a lackluster finish near the bottom of the NBA standings.
Yet through it all, the Sacramento Kings are more popular with their fans than they’ve been in nearly a decade.
With Monday’s home finale against the rival Los Angeles Lakers expected to sell out, the Kings will finish the season with their highest average home paid attendance since 2007. Sleep Train Arena has been at 96 percent capacity this season for games, and the Kings said their season-ticket base has nearly doubled since a new ownership group took over in 2013.
A big reason for the increased attendance this season – and the bump in season-ticket holders – is the interest surrounding the downtown arena that is scheduled to open in 18 months, team officials said. Current season-ticket holders will be given priority for seats in the new arena, and the Kings could hit a self-imposed cap on season tickets in the new facility before the building opens in the fall of 2016.
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“There’s tremendous excitement for the new building,” said Kings team president Chris Granger. “Whether you’re talking about the design or the (food) concessions or the unprecedented amount of technology we’re going to have, I think people are fired up about the vision.”
Next season will be the last for the Kings at Sleep Train Arena after more than 30 years in North Natomas. Construction is progressing on Sleep Train’s $477 million downtown replacement, envisioned as the centerpiece of a sprawling entertainment, hotel and residential district.
Getting on the priority list for the new arena has drawn many new season-ticket holders, including Robert Ferrell, a 29-year-old lifelong Kings fan. He and a friend bought season passes and, despite the on-court woes, missed just five or six games.
“If they were able to stay (in Sacramento in 2013), I said I would find a way to get season tickets,” Ferrell said. “And with the new arena coming in, we wanted to make sure we had priority.”
Ferrell, whose seats are in the upper level at Sleep Train Arena, said it was tough at times sitting through so many losses. He and his friend considered selling their tickets but, “at the end of the day, we ended up sticking with it,” Ferrell said. “I would still be watching no matter how bad they were.”
Dan Kustin is another first-time season-ticket holder. Kustin, 20, who lives in Folsom, and his father bought seats this season “primarily for the new arena.”
Kustin said he thought the crowds at home games this season “were good, but could have been better.
“When I look at the product on the floor, I don’t necessarily blame people for not showing up,” he said.
But with veteran coach George Karl taking over in February and DeMarcus Cousins making the All-Star Game despite his injury-plagued season, Kustin thinks the fans are generally happy.
“For the first time since probably 2007, the team is going in the right direction,” he said.
The optimism that followed the hiring of Karl and the promise of a new arena were not enough for Kyle Hamilton to stick around.
Hamilton, a 38-year-old firefighter with two sons, had season tickets in the early 2000s, when the Kings were a perennial playoff team, and there was a waiting list for seats in Arco Arena. After a break of a few years, Hamilton returned when a new ownership group led by Vivek Ranadive took over two years ago.
But Hamilton said the price for his lower-level seats increased by roughly 20 percent this season. With the team struggling, that made it difficult for Hamilton to sell his seats on nights he wasn’t able to go. Worried that the price would go up again next season, Hamilton decided not to renew his seats.
“When we bought them, we wanted to get seats in the new arena, and we were happy with the direction of the club,” he said. “If the quality of the game was good, if I didn’t have to talk my kids into going, I think it would have been easy to renew.”
Hamilton said he thinks that if the team improves next season and he decides to buy seats again, it won’t be difficult to secure season tickets for the new arena in 2016. Granger wasn’t so sure.
“By the time 2016 rolls around, you’re talking about not having many places left for season tickets,” he said. “We will sell out of season tickets.”
Sleep Train Arena holds 17,317 people for Kings games. The capacity of the new arena will be 17,500.
Demand is also high for luxury seating in the new arena, Granger said. More than 90 percent of the 34 luxury suites in the new building are locked up in long-term contracts, and a majority of the specialty “lofts” – smaller premium suites targeted for small businesses and large families – have also been sold.
Current season-ticket holders should start hearing about their spots in the new arena in the coming weeks. The team also plans to begin selling courtside seats soon, Granger said.
In the meantime, the Kings are thinking of ways to commemorate the final season in Sleep Train Arena, known for years as one of the loudest arenas in the NBA. Kustin and Ferrell said they have fond memories of the arena but won’t be heartbroken when it comes time to watch games in the new building downtown.
“So many things have happened in that building,” Granger said of Sleep Train Arena. “Whether or not it’s state of the art, clearly that building has a special place in the heart of Sacramento.”
Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at www.sacbee.com/citybeat.
By the numbers
Sacramento Kings average home attendance
*Through 40 of 41 games