Sunday Musings: The Organic Rebuild of the Sacramento Kings

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Tuesday marked another tremendous day for the Sacramento Kings.  A battered Vivek Ranadivé addressed the Sacramento media, joked about how new general manager Pete D’Alessandro had smacked him around and then introduced Chris Mullin as his new advisor.

We have become accustomed to press conferences this summer.  A steady stream of new faces have come to town, each with an impressive resume.  An investment is being made in the new Kings franchise.  A plan has been developed by people smarter than you or I, and it is being implemented at lightning speed.

This is what happens when an NBA team is sold.  Change ensues.  And the fanbase better be ready for a wild ride.

There was a quote from Edmund Burke that used to hang on the wall of my U.S. history class in high school – “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Ranadivé is the Kings’ fourth owner in just 29 years in Sacramento.  He is energetic and filled with incredible ideas about how to make his new franchise a global brand, but he needs to understand the history of the market he has bought in to.

The NBA is a tough business.  It is not for the faint of heart or the fiscally challenged.  It is a business with incredible long-term benefits, but success is never guaranteed.  Especially in a small market like Sacramento.

The original owners who moved the team from Kansas City to Sacramento understood that one of the few ways to make money in a market of this size was to control every aspect of the business.  From concessions to parking, they owned and operated everything.

It’s an old model that probably won’t work in today’s NBA, but it is telling.  You have to think outside the box to become successful in a small market.  And even that might not do it in 2013.  The plan has to be bigger.  And by bigger, I’m not saying the ticket prices should go through the roof.

Co-owner Andy Miller talked to us this week on the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast about why he has been crowd sourcing fans on social media sites to get the pulse of the Sacramento community.  He is developing the new Kings app, which is being billed as a next generation tool that will improve the fan experience.

A lot of the ideas he received via twitter had to do with fixing basic maintenance issues within Sleep Train Arena, something I have brought up myself on countless occasions.  But that is not the type of input Mr. Miller was looking for.

He wants to create a new fan experience that goes beyond the old, rundown walls of Sleep Train Arena.  He wants to reach the people in a new way, with the hope that fans will keep coming back for the unique experience.

This is the new generation of out of the box thinking.  It is reaching the fan through a mobile device or digital boards.  Giving them options that they have never had before.  It’s not a quick fix plan.  With something like this, you have to continuously evolve the product.  It is customer service Jetsons style and it is only going to get more interactive.

I like the idea, but I have another way to make the game experience distinctly Sacramento – fill up Sleep Train Arena with Kings fans and their families.

Going back to the original owners, they had an advantage that the new group doesn’t have.  When they announced the team would be coming to Sacramento, they took deposits for new season ticket holders.  In a matter of days, they had received deposits from more than 20,000 interested fans for a makeshift arena that sat slightly over 10,000 people.

When they sold season tickets, they capped the number to make sure that they didn’t completely close off the general public from being part of the new team.  It’s hard to grow a brand when you are selling to the same 10,333 people 41 nights a year.

This plan worked to perfection.  The Kings were the hottest ticket in town for the first 12 seasons they were in Sacramento, defying all of the NBA’s projections, while selling out every single game.

Fans didn’t care that the product on the floor was horrible.  They loved to watch Spud Webb and Antoine Carr run up and down the court in baby blue short-shorts.  Wins and losses were secondary.

The team became a regional brand.  It was affordable, good, clean family entertainment and because the original owners capped the number of season ticket holders, thousands of different people filled the arena each and every night.  People with children, who would one day bring their families to games as well.

This model worked, until the team improved.  When the Sacramento Kings became a perennial championship contender, the Maloof family capitalized at the gate.  They went away from a business model that catered to the family and instead, they chased corporate dollars.

I’m sure they made a killing during that era.  As luxury boxes filled, corporate Sacramento bought in to the lower bowl of Arco.  The fan dynamic changed, but the owners didn’t care.  They were making a mint and by working a television deal to show all 82 games, those fans getting left behind were still able to watch the game at home if that is what they chose to do.

But then the worm turned.  The economy went in the tank and the first thing businesses did was drop their entertainment budget.  The financial collapse coincided with a downturn in the team.  Chris Webber and Vlade Divac were gone and so was the faucet of cash pouring in.

By the time the Maloof family adjusted ticket prices to bring back the common fan, the damage was already done.  The product was bad, the experience was bad and an entire generation of Kings fans had been skipped over and lost.

So my advice to the new ownership group is this – bring back the families.  Make the Sacramento Kings a regional brand that can cater to the family of four and the corporate community at the same time.

Ignore your first instinct to capitalize off the excitement fans feel from saving the Kings.  Don’t jump at the opportunity to recoup a portion of your initial investment in year number two or three.  Open the doors and let the community come back to the product that they supported through thick and thin.

Chase national and global marketing deals to off-set the price lost at the gate, but rebuild the fanbase the right way and watch the support grow organically.

When the new arena opens, have a quality product on the floor to sell, but also have an affordable experience that looks beyond smart phone apps.

Ranadivé and his group of owners are now the stewards of an incredible business opportunity, but also a community asset.  If there is excitement in Sacramento for the product, that can only have a positive impact when selling abroad.

The Sacramento fanbase is an incredible asset, but one that has played this game before.  The Kings can become a global player, but they need to rebuild the regional relationship between fan and team first or risk history repeating itself.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary film "Small Market, Big Heart".