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Treating Fans Like Kings

Treating Fans Like Kings – basketball

Brett Ballantini

Far, friendly owners Joe and Gavin Maloof are looking to bring an NBA title to Sacramento–and have a ball doing it

LETS FACE IT: THERE WAS ONE free agent this summer. No offense, Allan Houston or David Robinson, but Chris Webber was it. And in what many observers found a monumental upset, the Sacramento Kings fended off all bidders, with nary a whiff of a sign-and-trade threat to contest.

While owners Joe and Gavin Maloof don’t deny that the first (and easiest) step toward making money in the sports business is winning, it’s the winning approach all their Kings employees take to the court that makes the franchise stand out. In a recent independent survey of 22 basketball cities done for the NBA, Sacramento finished first in 17 of 24 fan appreciation categories.

Thrust into NBA ownership after the death of their father, Joseph, the Maloofs led the Houston Rockets to their first NBA Finals appearance in the 1980-81 season (Gavin was appointed team president at age 24, making him the youngest owner in major professional sports history).

Twenty years later, on their second go-through in the NBA, the Maloofs not only are ready to win big, but are as eager as the rest of us to see how the new rules will affect NBA play this season. In fact, my argument that offense is the very best defense in this zone era [“From Courtside,” Summer 2001] convinced Joe that his team would thrive this season. (“I feel better now, I really do.”)

The Maloof Companies also have found success in a variety of other endeavors in the banking, hotel, liquor distribution, and casino industries. And ultimately, they measure success with the Kings the same way they do in those other businesses.

“Every year there’s progress,” Gavin Maloof says. “When we open a new business, we ask ourselves: `Are we doing better this year?’ You’re looking for improvement.”

With Webber back in the fold and the Kings fielding arguably the finest team in their 53-year history, Sacramento fans are due for even more improvement, perhaps to the tune of an NBA title.

BASKETBALL DIGEST: When I asked Chris Webber if he thought you two would lay in front of the moving vans if he decided to leave, he just laughed. [Joe Maloof laughs] Was there any contingency plan had Chris been leaning toward another team?

JOE MALOOF: We didn’t really have a plan. We had a 55-win season and really couldn’t enjoy it. There was always that cloud of uncertainty over the team, wondering what Chris was going to do. But we didn’t have a backup plan. There was never any thought of anything but keeping him.

GAVIN MALOOF: Some people made it out like he stayed with us because we could pay him the most, but there was always the possibility of a sign-and-trade. He never came to us and asked for that. It wasn’t really about the money. It was about his happiness, where he wanted to be for the rest of his career, and where he felt comfortable. And he felt comfortable with us.

BD: What does it mean to have Chris back, both on and off the court?

GM: You can’t believe the confidence booster it’s been for us personally, and for the franchise. To know that a person of his magnitude has picked us over a lot of great teams is a great boost. It was a confidence boost for the entire city: Here’s a world-class athlete, one of the most recognizable names in sports, who wants to stay in Sacramento.

BD: In the pit of your stomach, did you feel like Chris might ask for a trade?

GM: Sure, we were worried the whole year. It was trying on us, It was trying on Chris and his family. We wanted to give him space: “Whatever you decide, we’re behind you.” Everybody was giving him advice, and he needed to make up his own mind. And he made the right decision. [Laughs]

JM: There were ups and downs. We were never sure. It was the toughest decision Chris had to make in his life. We weren’t going to be calling him every two minutes, begging him: “Are you gonna stay?” He’s a grown man.

GM: He called us the Tuesday before the deadline. We told him he’s the reason the Kings are where they are, and we wanted him to end his career with us. He sounded relieved. Then he called back at 10 p.m. and said, “I want to be with you guys.” Joe and I thanked him, then we got off the phone quick. My dad taught us that when you make a sale, get off the phone quick. Don’t talk yourself out of it. [Laughs.] So when he said he was staying, we said, “Thank you very much. Bye.”

BD: Many NBA players, Chris included, have had some personal troubles in the past. Sacramento has provided some refuge for him. Jason Williams seemed to take less refuge in what you provided. Do you try to treat players no differently than your other employees?

JM: Maybe you have negative circumstances with some players. That’s going to take a higher priority with the media than the good things. But there are players who understand we’re all here for the fan. The fan pays our salaries. The fan allows us to keep the doors open in the arena. Before training camp starts, we always have a meeting, just me and Gavin and the players and coaching staff, and we talk about how you cater to a customer. You say hello, you sign an autograph. You thank fans for coming to a game–it doesn’t hurt to show them they’re appreciated.

BD: Something tells me there’s not a lot of teams that have customer-focus meetings with players.

GM: Right now it would be easy for us to take the fans for granted. We’re selling out games, sponsors are lining up, we’re on national TV. Everything’s moving in the right direction. A lot of teams take the fans for granted and don’t give back to the community. We have to try harder to please the fans now than when we were losing. If you’re not taking care of the customer when times are good, then when times are bad, they’re going to give you the finger. [Laughs]

BD:. How hard was it, then, to part with a fan favorite like Williams?

JM: I wasn’t too high on it, but I don’t know basketball.

Geoff [Petrie, the Kings’ GM] is the basketball architect–he puts together what’s on the floor. Gavin and I don’t deal with that part of it. Jason brought a lot of fame to this team. When Geoff came to us with the trade, it was hard. We were close to Jason. We hope we made the right derision. I hope Jason has a good year; I really want him to do well. But we sat with Geoff and Coach [Rick] Adelman, and they said this is what we want to do. You have to let them do it.

BD: What does the team of Petrie and Adelman give the Kings?

GM: Professionalism is the first word that comes to mind. They’re pros at what they do. Geoff has a great eye for talent. He’s like Picasso; he paints a picture. He doesn’t add talented players just to add them.

Coach Adelman is a players’ coach. He lets the players play, but on the other hand, they listen to him. He gives them freedom, and in today’s world, that’s the kind of coach you need. You need someone willing to listen to players, to treat them as human beings, someone who cares about them–not just on the court but off the court as well.

BD: You could own any team in sports. Why the Kings?

QM: It was the only team available. [Laughs] We’d been looking for years, but you just can’t go to the corner store and purchase and NBA franchise.

BD: It’s easy to assume that the fans have always been there for you, but what was the situation in Sacramento when you took over the team?

GM: When we came in three years ago, the team had lost 2,000 season tickets, down to 6,000. The estimates were that we’d average 10,500 fans. I didn’t care if I had to get rid of everybody, I wasn’t putting up with that. And we ended up selling out almost every game. People say we’re the only show in town, but fans don’t have to spend money with the Kings. You can’t take fans for granted. Now we’re up to 14,000 season tickets, with a long waiting list.

JM: When we bought the team it was before the collective bargaining agreement, which also made a big difference. And the team had been so bad, we’d lost some fans. These fans have been great, but they were starting to abandon the ship a little bit–and after 15 years, you don’t blame them. [Laughs]

BD: You are both very accessible to fans. What are the typical things they say to you?

JM: If they’re going to spend hard-earned dollars, they want to win. They don’t want to support a loser. They saw a commitment with me and Gavin. We doubled our payroll right away. They saw we would make a commitment to keep the product fresh and exciting.

GM: Fans aren’t shy. They won’t tell you what you want to hear. That’s why it’s important to be on the floor, to listen to their concerns, because they come up with great suggestions. We don’t take anything they say lightly. Without the fans, we can’t exist.

BD: Is there one piece of advice you’d suggest other NBA teams follow?

QM: Take care of the fan. Our people hear it 1,000 times. Our dad used to preach it to us. We’d say, “Dad, you’re giving us the same speech 1,000 times,” and he’d say, “You’re going to hear it 1,000 times more.” It was always the same thing.

JM: Pay more attention to detail. For instance, if you’re a fan walking into the arena–these arenas can get confusing–you come up to a security guard and ask where a particular concession stand is. I don’t want the security guard pointing, saying, “It’s over there, go left, go right.” I want the security guard to say, “Let me take you there.” All of us have to get back to that. We have a long way to go, believe me. We’re nowhere near where we want to be.

BD: Were those the types of things you noticed in those 20 years between ownerships, when you were going to games as a fan?

JM: You notice it everywhere you go in life. With the computer age, you know what people forget to do? They forget to cater. On our business cards, we have our home numbers. We have our cell numbers. If anybody wants to get hold of me. they can call me, I don’t care. I’m here for the customer. That’s the way we were brought up. We’re fanatical about it. There’s no magic wand; it’s compete dedication to the customer.

Catering is a forgotten art. Not returning phone calls, screening phone calls, all that stuff drives us nuts. We take customer complaints very seriously. Some are good, some are bad, but I try to answer every letter. The worst thing you can do is not respond.

We’re here watching the team; we’re not absentee owners. Good or bad, at least the fans have confidence that you’re here with them. You’re going to make bad decisions–we’ve made plenty of them–but at least we’re here to take it, good or bad.

BD: Do you take losses hard?

GM: [Laughs] Losing’s not easy. When we first took over the team, we’d live and die with every single loss. I mean, there’s 82 games! You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. To be a professional owner, you have to take everything in stride.

JM: You hate to lose. [Laughs] You’re competitive. These fans are so starved, 14, 15 years of losing, losing, losing. It’s more fun for us when we see fans enjoying themselves. We don’t want them coming to the game to see the other team, the other players.

BD: What have been your biggest thrills since taking over the Kings?

GM: Every year we’ve produced a milestone. We’ve broken a lot of Kings records. Each year is an achievement in itself. And there’s no doubt that this year we have the best team we’ve ever had.

JM: Finally getting to own them. These teams are hard to get. There’s 29 in the world and owners don’t want to give them up. We overpaid, believe me–but you have to get the vehicle.

BD: Was there a time that you doubted you’d ever be NBA owners again?

JM: Yeah, we doubted it every day. We sold the Rockets and regretted it the day after. My mother didn’t watch an NBA game for 15 or 16 years, until we bought the Kings. She was so heartbroken.

GM: That’s true. [Laughs] Not only did she not go to a game, she didn’t even watch one. There was a period of 10 years where I didn’t watch any NBA. So when I watch older games these days and see Utah and Chicago in the Finals, it’s new for me. [Laughs]

JM: We didn’t have to sell. We were all very young, my dad had passed on, we were a little overwhelmed by all our other businesses, and financially the NBA wasn’t as big a part of our companies. But emotionally, we found out it was. After we sold, we tried to get another team pretty quickly. But they just don’t come along.

BD: What are your expectations for the Kings heading into the season?

GM: We have high expectations. This is the best team that’s been fielded in the 50 or so years the Kings have been in existence. We don’t have a weak spot on our roster. We’ve got power inside, great shooters, and Mike Bibby, one of the great point guards in the league. We’re trying to create something similar to what Utah has done throughout the years, a level of consistency and continuity. Not to go in and change a coach, change a GM, change a player–you make so many changes, you never get into a flow. We’re really excited about this coming year.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group