Not many people outside Sacramento thought the Kings would begin the 2013-2014 NBA season there — earlier this year, a move to Seattle was seen as an almost-done deal. That was before Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson launched a full-scale offensive aimed at keeping the basketball team in town, and beforethe NBA surprised the sports world by backing a Sacramento ownership group, led by tech billionaire Vivek Ranadive.
Kings fans packed Sleep Train Arena Wednesday to celebrate the fact they kept their franchise. Johnson, Ranadive, minority owner Shaquille O’Neal and NBA Commissioner David Stern received ovation after ovation for their roles in keeping the team in California's capital city.
But something else was going on Wednesday — during timeouts, the scoreboard showed Kings players greeting fans in Hindi. The Kings’ dance team appeared in traditional Indian garb and danced to Hindi-pop music. And fans were waving Indian flags in the stands. Before the game, Shaq donned white pads and a sweater vest, and took some cricket swings in front of a wicket. (See video of Shaq’s swing at the bottom of this post.)
Most importantly for the team, the home opener was broadcast on an Indian sports network.
The not-so-subtle nods to the world’s second-most-populous country were part of a strategy launched by Mumbai-born Ranadive, who’s determined to make his team a household name in India. It’s part of a globalization strategy Ranadive calls “NBA 3.0.”
“We’ve started that process” of growing the team’s Indian brand, he told reporters before the game. “We’ve launched a Hindi-language website. The game tonight is being broadcast live in India. We had our cheerleading squad – we had them in India this summer."
Ranadive wants to bring the Kings to India for a barnstorming tour next season. He said the reason for the India strategy is simple: there are more than one billion potential fans there.
“People are talking about Kobe Bryant”
Can the India push work? The Times of India’s sports editor, Alok Sinha, traveled to Sacramento to check it out. He said the country’s basketball fan base is growing, but still relatively marginal. “It’s a very small audience because our sport is cricket,” he said. And after cricket, “football – which you call soccer here – has become very big in India."
But Sinha said more Indians are playing basketball in school, and he thinks the Kings can build an Indian brand over time. Still, the Kings are a small-market team, so it will take some time. “(The) Lakers, everyone knows in India. And people are talking about Kobe Bryant, or people are talking about LeBron James.”
“I think it’s measured in seasons,” said David Carter, the executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “And many seasons at that.” But Carter said the Kings’ approach makes sense, and added the team is simply following a growing trend for American pro sports teams. “The Dallas Cowboys have done a decent job penetrating into Mexico. I think historically some of the baseball teams – the Dodgers – have been involved in Asia for a very long time, from scouting to player development,” he added.
And in the NBA, the Houston Rockets have cultivated a broad fan base in China ever since they drafted Chinese superstar Yao Ming in 2002. The Rockets deepened that tie by signing Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin last year.
“Hey, as many fans as we can get in India, we love them”
So what do Kings fans think? Ronnie Garcia was excited enough that he waved an Indian flag during timeouts at Wednesday’s game. “Hey, as many fans as we can get in India, we love them,” he yelled while waving the flag. “They’re part of Sacramento now.”
“I think it’s genius,” said season ticket holder Michael Lucien. “You’ve got a billion people that are craving for a new sport. The fact that we can be the first team to really plant roots there? I think it’s fantastic.”
The team does have some other work to do, first: They lost 54 games last year, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2005-2006. Ranadive is keeping the on-court expectations low. “This season we did not want to be judged on wins and losses. …we didn’t want to be last in all defensive categories, and we just wanted to show forward progress.” But minority owner Shaquille O’Neal thinks the team can be a contender soon. “It’s going to take some time,” said Shaq. “We’re going to be looking at the free agency market to try and speed up the process. We’re committed to giving you guys a good product.”
The Kings are hoping they’ll have a fan base on the other side of the world by the time they’ve built a winning team.
Video of Shaq playing cricket before Wednesday's Kings game: