Ailene Voisin

Sacramento prepares for royal comeback into national spotlight

Golden 1 Center
Golden 1 Center Special to The Bee

The folks who were primarily responsible for the NCAA Tournament’s return next week have been sneaking peeks at ESPN’s bracket projections at least once a day – OK, several times a day – and trying to figure out which eight teams will visit Golden 1 Center in the opening rounds of college basketball’s annual celebration.

UCLA? Oregon? Saint Mary’s? Any chance for regional hopefuls Cal, UC Davis or Nevada?

The guessing game is a blast, but only the beginning. After a decades-long snub, primarily because Sleep Train was a nightmare and a modern arena was merely a vision, the NCAA’s first event in the area since 2007 is Sacramento’s version of Showtime. But this is also a test. The size and enthusiasm of the crowds, the atmosphere and accessibility of downtown, the degree of cooperation among area restaurants and hotels will determine whether this is merely a one-time reboot or the resumption of a dynamic, long-term relationship.

“This is the first event we announced for the Golden 1 Center, back in August 2014,” Kings president Chris Granger reminded Friday. “It’s no secret. The NCAAs are such a big deal, such a slice of Americana, that it was really important for us to come out strong and attempt to get the tournament to come back again. It’s critical that we have a good week because we want so much more.”

The new arena adventure thus continues. What began in October with two memorable performances by Paul McCartney, continued with concerts by Bruno Mars, Maroon 5 and Kanye West (sort of), and most recently, a rousing effort Thursday night by Blake Shelton.G1C also has hosted Disney on Ice, bull-riding competition, a holiday college basketball doubleheader, numerous corporate and nonprofitevents, along with the regular-season NBA schedule featuring the anchor tenant. That is not a pun. Those enduring Kings are once again rebuilding.

In terms of scheduled events, expectations are being exceeded. Granger, who initially estimated that the $557 million facility would host 150 events in its inaugural year, said the building already has been used on 125 occasions, and that pencils out to 200 or more dates before its first anniversary.

That doesn’t mean all is resolved, of course. The limited number of hotel rooms is a continuing issue. According to the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, approximately 3,300 rooms are available within three miles of the arena and a total of 16,000 within the region – numbers that are particularly bruising when compared with, say, the well over 100,000 rooms to be had in the Disney hotbed of small-market Orlando.

And, at least for now, those creative plans to house guests on cruise ships docked in the Sacramento River probably are not going to fly. The river’s depth and height of the bridges between here and the Bay Area remain major obstacles. The more immediate significance is this: Though the number of hotel rooms is inadequate for the teams, journalists and visitors who routinely attend Final Fours and NBA All-Star Games, there are plenty to accommodate the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and perhaps even a regional final.

So baby steps it is. Elementary school. High school. College. There is a method to the madness. Ticket sales have been brisk, with sellouts for next Friday and Sunday’s games anticipated once the brackets are announced during today’s televised selection show. An unofficial economic impact projection also will be available after the field is set.

“We will have about the same number of fans as we have for the Kings games,” Granger said. “Interest has been high since the moment we announced. And, obviously, the building was the cornerstone, sort of the perfect model with all the amenities, the locker rooms, spaces, when we made our bid back in August 2014.”

For those three folks who collaborated most closely on the successful bid, the nearly three-year endeavor was both professional and personal.

Granger is the David Stern disciple who was dispatched to Sacramento for months in an attempt to salvage the Kings’ business and marketing departments during the Maloofs’ threatened relocation to Anaheim and Seattle. After Vivek Ranadive headed the ownership group that purchased the franchise in May 2013, Granger was named team president and permanently relocated. Long before that, he was a Hoosier hoops fanatic from Highland, Ind., a town of 23,000 in the northeastern corner of the state.

Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission, capitalized on his previous experience with NCAA officials as tournament manager of opening rounds in Miami in 2009. As a youngster, the Virginia native was so obsessed with the Cavaliers, the ACC and March Madness, his parents allowed him to skip school when classes conflicted with the tournament.

Juan Rodriguez, the Kings’ vice president of arena operations – and the main procurer of G1C talent – lobbied the NCAA contacts he developed while managing professional facilities in Houston that hosted several tournament events. He spent his boyhood in Miami, rooting for the Hurricanes’ basketball team while most of his friends were more interested in football. Interestingly, his career arc led him to Houston shortly before Sophia arrived in Miami.

Together, they crafted and revised the bid, and after plans were completed for the Sawyer Hotel under construction near the arena, they submitted bids to host the first and second rounds, Sweet 16 and Elite 8 of NCAA Tournaments in 2018-22; the sites will be announced April 18.

“We look at this as an opportunity to reintroduce the U.S. to Sacramento, just like we did with Paul McCartney, the UFC and the other high-end events,” Granger added. “We know what a great basketball city this is. Welcoming (visitors, teams and NCAA officials) and showing what a first-class city we are for the future bids is really important. It’s about us going forward.”

In the meantime, the trio will continue crooning like a spinoff of the Jackson 5, hoping the community provides a lusty chorus that convinces NCAA power brokers that “We Want You Back.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin