The Sacramento Kings Send In the Drones

The Sacramento Kings Send In the Drones

By Nathan Siegel

Derrick Williams #13 of the Sacramento Kings signs autographs wearing Google Glass prior to the game against the Indiana Pacers at Sleep Train Arena on January 24, 2014 in Sacramento, California.
SourceRocky Widner/Getty


Because crowdsourcing the draft may save basketball: Even with a team-in-progress, the Kings have led the league in a digital branding revolution. 

By Nathan Siegel

The Sacramento Kings are second in the NBA — for the longest time without making it to the playoffs, that is. Last year, they finished another bottom-feeding season at 28-54, extending their postseason drought to eight long years. But for fans who weren’t turned off by painful-to-watch basketball, there were still plenty of reasons to come to games.

Drones, for one. In a matchup last April, where the team lost, a group of fans was treated to a picture with Kings legend Peja Stojakovic, courtesy of a flying robot. Postgame, the drone operator manipulated the machine over half-court and snapped one helluva memorable photo, later dubbed #droneselfie.

For years now, professional sports teams in the U.S. have been struggling with a fundamental problem: getting fans to come to games. The couch or local bar starts to look far more enticing with ticket prices on the rise, especially when the gizmo-laden TV experience of watching sports at home is so cool. But since being acquired by a Silicon Valley tech tycoon, one of the worst teams in pro basketball has come up with a variety of brazen attempts to pump up the fan experience in and out of the arena.

Drones are just the start: The Kings use 3-D printing and virtual reality to show off renderings of their new arena. Players sport Google Glass, which records first-person video, during pregame and practice to give fans the ultimate inside look. Even bitcoins are accepted as currency. Let’s see your home entertainment system do that. With construction of the “smartest arena in the world” set to finish in 2016 and an improved app to match, the Sacramento Kings are looking like the future of the league, and sports in general (their strong 6-4 start this season is enviable, too).  

Is being able to locate the bathroom with the shortest line using the team’s app really going to draw a couch potato out of the house? 

Their efforts are turning heads. “They are the most technologically forward-thinking organization there is,” says Mark Francis, a sports business professor at UCLA’s Anderson Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports. 

It’s still not clear whether the tech gimmicks actually help the franchise’s bottom line, though. Is being able to locate the bathroom with the shortest line using the team’s app really going to draw a couch potato out of the house? But the Kings aren’t necessarily worried about a short-term return on investment; they’re building invaluable brand engagement and fan loyalty, largely through social media, says Andrew Nicholson, the Kings’ director of new media.

basketball fans for an NBA team hug and surround the team's owner

Owner Vivek Ranadivé (center, wearing tie) of the Sacramento Kings poses for photos with fans.

Source Rocky Widner/Getty

They’re also playing in a more saturated field than ever. The Golden State Warriors were the first to install beacon technology, which pushes relevant ads (hot dog stand right around the corner!) to mobile fans. The Detroit Pistons give their most active supporters behind-the-scenes content and then reward the “superfans” by distributing it with cheap team goods. And the gold standard of smart arenas is the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, which has wired the court with more cameras than a high-security prison (to give fans in the rafters a better view). 

In a way, though, they’re all playing technological catch-up. The at-game experience struggles to compete with the at-home one: Live streaming, instant replay, access to Facebook and proximity to the fridge have resulted in fewer butts in stadium seats each year. NFL attendance fell for five straight seasons before recovering last year. The NBA has flatlined, despite a host of new arenas. Even college football, with the lure of debauchery and tailgates, has attracted 7 percent fewer students since 2009, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. “Teams are racing to solve the attendance crisis, but it’s the Wild West right now,” according to Francis, who says nobody has figured it out yet.

Who doesn’t want to know what it’s like to be 7 feet tall? 

Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé thinks he has some leads. The billionaire founder of TIBCO, the company credited with digitalizing Wall Street, envisions technology wrangling fans back into arenas and boosting their engagement outside of a weekly 90 minutes, Nicholson tells OZY. Picking up Google Glass was a breakthrough, he says. When it was slapped on the faces of players and announcers, fans got to experience what it was like to be Rudy Gay, sinking 3-pointers or throwing down a ferocious alley-oop. Fans ate it up — many of the videos have a solid 200,000-plus views online. “Who doesn’t want to know what it’s like to be 7 feet tall?” he asks, reading my mind.

When general manager Pete D’Alessandro announced that the Kings would be crowdsourcing their top draft pick, it was clear that they took “active participation” very literally. The move was christened “Draft 3.0.” Certainly, the team’s leaders didn’t hand over the reins to amateurs and hope for the best. But they did rally dozens of fans and eventually brought the best five to produce a 200-page report on draft options for the team’s head honchos. The lucky few also joined Kings executives at draft-day headquarters to lock down their pick, a sharpshooter from the University of Michigan named Nik Stauskas. 

A fan celebrates while wearing Google Glass during the game between the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings on January 24, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California.

A fan celebrates while wearing Google Glass during a game between the Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings.

For a team channeling its inner Silicon Valley, a state-of-the-art arena with unparalleled connectivity and cutting-edge design, which broke ground late last month, is a natural fit. Designed by renowned architecture firm AECOM, which boasts Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic Park and the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Center on its résumé, the arena will host one of the most robust Wi-Fi connections in the sports world. Its connectivity will be comparable to, if not better than, the 49ers’ lauded new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Running on hyperfast Internet, the Kings app will let fans share content, order an Uber and upgrade seats seamlessly. And with a loyalty system, sharing and interacting can get fans discounted tickets and merch, says Nicholson. 

But that’s been said before. With ticket prices rising, it’s still unclear whether fans will fork over the cash for the gimmicks — although attendance at Kings games has grown by 12 percent since 2013. While teams have made the jump to social media en masse, they still haven’t figured out how to monetize interactions beyond advertisements, says Pat Coyle, vice president of audience platforms at InStadium, a sports marketing company. Since Facebook has recently required brands to pay for full access to its users, making social media profitable “just got harder than it already was,” says Coyle.

Still, Sacramento is the ringleader. After a game versus the Pacers where the Kings used Google Glass, Indiana’s own players debuted it a month later. The same thing happened when Sacramento was the first on Twitter back in January 2007. And teams will soon pick up two other Sacramento firsts: incorporating Uber into their team apps and accepting bitcoin at games. Now to stay one step ahead …