Sacramento Kings Look To India To Attract New NBA Fans

fromKQED

Last year, Sacramento Kings fans were saying goodbye, expecting the NBA team to move to Seattle. But new ownership came together just in time, and the Kings stayed put. The new management plans to build the Kings into a contender, and a big part of that blueprint involves building up a fan base in — believe it or not — India.

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Sacramento Kings fans are thrilled the NBA season is underway and that they still have a team to cheer for. The Kings were set to move to Seattle last year until the NBA surprised the sports world and voted to keep the team in California. Now a new ownership group is injecting life into the Kings.

As Scott Detrow, of member station KQED reports, the franchise has unveiled a surprising strategy to grow its fan base.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yo, the Sacramento Kings' Dancers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: At the Kings' first home game, the dance team is decked out in Indian garb, doing a Bollywood number on the court. The video scoreboard plays clips of Kings' players greeting fans in Hindi. And outside the arena before the game...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

DETROW: Superstar co-owner Shaquille O'Neal is playing cricket.

What's going on here? It all comes back to the Kings' new majority owner, Vivek Ranadive. The Mumbai-born tech billionaire wants to make the Kings a household name - in India. He's convinced the Kings can grow their brand by tapping into the world's second most populated country.

VIVEK RANADIVE: We've started that process. We've launched a Hindi-language website. The game tonight is being broadcast live in India - it's being broadcast in companies, in schools. We had our cheerleading squad - we had them in India this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

DETROW: Ranadive calls his international strategy NBA 3.0 and Kings fans are on board. Some even brought Indian flags to last week's home opener. Season ticket holder Michael Lucien loves the idea.

MICHAEL LUCIEN: I think its genius. I mean, you know, who's looking at that? You've got a billion people that are craving for, you know, a new sport, and with the fact that we can be the first team to really plant roots there, I think it's fantastic.

DETROW: Can this work? The Times of India's sports editor, Alok Sinha, traveled to Sacramento to check it out. He says the country's basketball fan base is growing.

ALOK SINHA: It's a very small audience because our sport is cricket. And to tell you honestly, international football - what you call soccer here - has become very big in India.

DETROW: But Sinha says more Indians are playing basketball in school, and he thinks the Kings can build an Indian brand over time. Still, he says the Kings are a smaller market team without any famous players so it will take awhile.

SINHA: Lakers, everybody knows them in India. And people are talking about Kobe Bryant or people are talking about LeBron James.

DAVID CARTER: No, I think it's measured in seasons, and many seasons at that.

DETROW: David Carter is the executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. He says while the India focus may be new, the Kings are simply following a growing trend for American pro sports teams.

CARTER: I think the Dallas Cowboys have done a decent job penetrating into Mexico. I think historically some of the baseball teams, the Dodgers have been very involved in Asia for a very long time, from scouting to player development.

DETROW: And in the NBA, the Houston Rockets have cultivated a broad fan base in China ever since they drafted superstar Yao Ming in 2002. The Rockets deepened that tie by signing Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin last year.

The Kings' majority owner Vivek Ranadive's next step is to bring the team to India for a barnstorming tour. He's hoping that can happen next season. But the Kings have some other work to do too: they haven't made the playoffs since 2006. Still, they're hoping fans will be cheering on the other side of the world when the Kings are contending for a title.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Detrow in Sacramento.

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