The Stern truth
Even if former NBA executive Jeff David works at the behest of the commissioner, can he save the Kings from a season of worst-case scenarios?
On a gloomy Tuesday evening, an elite crew gathers in Sacramento’s Land Park with a special mission. Consisting of young professionals, business leaders, former professional athletes and even a giraffe or two, the team’s goal is quite specific: Keep professional basketball in Sacramento.
Leading the charge is Jeff David, a former National Basketball Association executive who’s now spearheading efforts to keep the Kings in town, perhaps, at the behest of NBA commissioner David Stern.
At this point—with uncertainty about a new arena, a down economy, concerns about market viability, dire talks of contraction, canceled games and now possibly a canceled season—hope for basketball in Sacramento is on its last legs. Basically, for a team that packed its high-tops for Anaheim less than a year ago only to stay in the city, this is a worst-case scenario.
But for Kings fans hoping the team sticks around, for the moment the franchise’s most valuable player might be Jeff David, who, while a Kings employee, has also become a man on Sacramento ground for the league, which is closely monitoring the team’s performance.
“I am a link right to the NBA and update them regularly on our business operations,” David says, while adding he speaks often with commissioner Stern himself and deputy commissioner Adam Silver.
Despite some initial success, though, with season-ticket-sale revenue so far among the top in the league, the Kings’ business operations continue to face significant challenges. The team has already lost eight games, after the NBA canceled the first two weeks of the season. Four of those games were at home, including likely sell-outs against the Los Angeles Lakers and Oakland’s Golden State Warriors, with an expected loss of between $500,000 and $1.5 million per game, according to the Sports Business Journal. The team was also scheduled to open the season at home next week for the first time in years.
And more canceled games, and possibly the season, are certainly on the way, since talks between the NBA and players are currently stalled.
At the same time, with the 2011-12 season up in the air, those who have bought season tickets could opt out, and businesses interested in partnering with the team may hold off. Additionally, the lack of games may dampen enthusiasm for pro basketball and could also set back efforts to build a new arena for the Kings downtown near the rail yards.
The team is also a poster child for the heated dispute between the NBA and the players’ union. At the heart of the dispute is revenue sharing and whether there should be a hard salary cap. In recent times, teams with higher payrolls have also had more success than teams with smaller payrolls. Exhibit A is the difference between small-market Kings, with a payroll of about $45 million, and the Los Angeles Lakers, with a payroll about $115 million.
David concedes that all is not ideal. (The Kings are also one of 19 teams to borrow from a league low-interest credit line.)
“We are doing much better [than last season], but we aren’t sold out yet,” he explains, adding, “we knew with the economy we weren’t going to have hundreds of sell-outs.”
Instead, David points to more positive developments for the franchise remaining in town, such as the league’s renewed interest in the Sacramento market. He notes that Stern encouraged him to take the Kings job and move his family from Manhattan to Sacramento in August.
Since April, the NBA has also sent personnel, including David before he changed organizations, to Sacramento weekly from New York to help jump-start the franchise.
In another example, David points to the NBA borrowing from some of the Kings’ more successful sales strategies such as the “influencer” event held that at the zoo.
“The NBA has taken that model to cities across the NBA,” Chris Clark, a team spokesman, says.
At the rainy zoo gathering in, appropriately enough, the Tall Wonders giraffe pavilion, Kings personnel including General Manager Geoff Petrie met supporters of the zoo. In exchange, 10 percent of the proceeds from ticket sales that evening went back to the zoo.
Similar events have also helped the Kings generate 35 new corporate partners since June.
“We are adding to those partnerships every week,” Clark says. “We also exceeded last year’s season-ticket totals in only eight weeks of selling.”
But still, some of this success may be in part because of a fear the team might leave, and a low-bar for ticket sales due to a disengaged fan base frustrated by years of losing. At the zoo gathering, asked how they sold the team to prospective ticket buyers, sales staff said the possibility of the Kings relocating played an important role in their pitch.
But that card can be played for only so long.
While Clark says that is too soon to tell what impact the delayed season will have, at some point fans will want to see games played, community partners will want to see their logos highlighted, and other cities with deeper pockets, more lucrative television markets and newer, downtown arenas will continue to beckon. (Sacramento is one of just three NBA teams without a downtown arena, along with the Pistons, who are trying to move to downtown Detroit, and the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.)
And the while the NBA has both encouraged and been encouraged by Sacramento’s latest efforts to hold on to the team, with the lockout and arena uncertainty, the future is still up in the air. (The league confirmed the information in this article but did not want to go on the record.)
Even so, David is confident that future will include the Kings in Sacramento.
“We know with this economy it isn’t going to be easy,” David says. “But Sacramento is a unique market and has become important to league because of their passionate fan base,” he adds, pointing to last spring’s Here We Stay rally in Cesar Chavez Plaza as an event that got the league’s attention.
“It’s clear Sacramento loves their team and wants them to stay.”