Q&A: Kings co-owner Chris Kelly on the new downtown arena

Photo courtesy of Sherry Fisher

Chris Kelly is one of the new Kings owners who is ready take the franchise to new levels both on the floor and in a new downtown arena.

Earlier this year, there was a never-ending cycle of news swirling around the future of the Kings franchise. Vivek Ranadive, Ron Burkle and Mark Mastrov had surfaced as the "whales" leading the effort to thwart Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer's attempt to relocate the team to Seattle.

But there were soon other big names who would surface. Chris Kelly was one of them. Kelly's addition, at least publicly, came late in the formation of the group (though he was a part of the discussions months in advance) and was the third big change within the ownership brass during one whirlwind of a week in April.

Ranadive has said Kelly is a "visionary leader in business and public policy," and that his "knowledge and experience in digital and social media" will be critical for the ownership group as they try to build a "21st Century global franchise."

Kelly, who grew up in San Jose, has an impressive background in everything from politics (he worked on President Bill Clinton's presidential campaign and was an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education) to law (he graduated from Harvard Law School and ran for California attorney general in 2009). But he just wouldn't fit in to this new ownership group unless he had a strong background in technology, and he earned his stripes in that industry reporting directly to Mark Zuckerberg when he served as the chief privacy officer for Facebook from 2005 to 2010. (For those keeping score at home, that makes a Kings owner who has reported directly Steve Jobs in Andy Miller and an owner who reported to Mark Zuckerberg.)

These days, Kelly is behind the company Organizer, a mobile product that integrates field and contact data management for political campaigns. His other focus is Loyal3, which streamlines the way the public can purchase stocks online.

He says that "transforming industries is one of the things" he likes to be "involved in." Now, Kelly is going to get a shot at transforming NBA basketball on a global level with the Kings.

He was kind enough to join me for the next installment of Sactown Royalty's Q&A series on the future of the Kings franchise and the effort to build a new arena in downtown Sacramento.

So you are an owner of a professional sports franchise now. How long had you been considering getting into that business?

Well, I've been very close with the 49ers organization for quite a number of years, both through the school [San Francisco 49ers Academy] and then with a good personal relationship with Jed York and John York ... I'm a huge sports fan, I've always been a huge sports fan and as the possibility of the move to Seattle came up, I was concerned that we would be losing a major sports team in California and the only major league franchise in Sacramento.

I've spent a great deal of time in Sacramento both through my job at Facebook and through my run for attorney general. I wanted to make sure that the community was well served. So I had conversations with Mayor [Kevin] Johnson and with Ron Burkle, who was involved in the deal at the time, and we sort of agreed that I would figure out a way to be part of the group. And then, unfortunately, when Ron couldn't take part in the final deal, he put me together with Vivek and we hammered out how things were going to work, and I was happy to be able to help out in putting together the deal and making sure it all worked.

All of these leading folks in the technology industry, including yourself, came together for this cause to keep the Kings in Sacramento. When you look around at the people you are in business with in this ownership group, what does that mean to you?

It's an unbelievable group, we managed to bring together people with unparalleled success and, obviously, most ownership groups end up with people who are very successful in their field. But we've got a real sort of ‘27 Yankees-type organization here with our skillset from Vivek to Paul Jacobs to Mark Mastrov to Andy [Miller]. I am stunned at what a great group we've ended up with and excited to assure that we deliver a great basketball experience, a great arena experience and a real revitalization of this franchise.

We've heard Vivek talk about the "secret sauce" in terms of using data to analyze and enhance the product on the floor. I just wanted to get your thoughts on how technology has changed sports, and specifically, basketball.

Well, I think people are expecting a lot more real-time data and real-time experience and they are expecting to have much greater control over it. Technology has changed the way the networks and the presentation of video content throughout cable systems, satellite systems, the Internet - how it all works. People are rightfully at the center of this and able to choose everything from the second screen experience that they are involved in through their phone or through a tablet or if they're sitting in front of a game. All of those things - we want to enable the fantasy sports addicts, we want to enable the person who just wants to sit back and experience the game from being able to see replays at different angles and different approaches. We want to make sure that we are serving all of our customers extraordinarily well with basketball and everything they want to know about.

The interesting shift that has happened in more traditional sports networks is that sports has become a lot more important in video networks because it's the only thing that people will consistently watch live now, now that they can pick when they watch Breaking Bad or Homeland or How I Met Your Mother or any of those other shows, which are increasingly available not on a schedule, but on demand. But sports still operate on a schedule and so I think that there is just great opportunity for us to make sure that experience is incredible for all of our in-arena and out-of-arena fans.

Andy Miller is the head of the technology committee for the ownership group, I am assuming that you are on that committee as well.

I am. I am working with Andy, and then I am also working very closely with Mark Friedman and with our arena committee to make sure that we are all ready. We have been touring facilities and we have been involved in the selection of the architects and the builders. That's a procedure that proceeds apace right now. We're excited about some of the political stuff that we had to do in the past few weeks, getting that through, and given my background in politics, I have been involved in that as well. And now, we have a clear shot to stay on schedule and get the arena done for 2016.

You are talking about Senator Steinberg's bill, SB 743, correct?

Yes.

I know enhanced Wi-Fi is a priority right now next season in the current facility. Modern sports facilities are just sort of getting up to speed on having adequate Wi-Fi to facilitate a decent in-game fan experience on social media and mobile. What are your goals in this area both in the current facility and at the new arena in 2016?

With the new facility, obviously, you can start to promote best practice areas in terms of the upgrades that are going on. We've been in close touch with the 49ers and with other folks who are doing serious upgrades and learning from them so that we are confident that in the new facility you will be able to have a huge amount of simultaneous connections and to really sort of realize the promise of having a robust network and people communicating through their devices consistently. When you are retrofitting an older arena it's always a challenge. We're going to do our best for the next couple of years and try to assure a better experience, so that is one of the things we have been working on in the offseason.

You mentioned that you have spent a lot of time in Sacramento up until now, so you know the downtown core pretty well. In your opinion, what is the new arena going to do for this area?

If you look at the history of downtown arenas and ballparks, you look at AT&T Park in San Francisco, you look at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, you look at all the possibilities for, even what's happening with the Barclays Center in Brooklyn right now. The revitalization possibilities when an arena comes in and has maybe as many as 100-120 nights a year of events, it's an incredible shot in the arm to the economy around the arena and to the experience, and it just brings in a great crowd from around the region. So I am excited about what is going to happen in downtown Sacramento as we get the arena built and operating.

There have been challenges both from the mall side and in other areas of downtown Sacramento, but the city has been making progress over the years, so I think this will be a huge step up in success in building downtown Sacramento into a fully revitalized area.

Is there anything specific that you want to make sure is included in the new downtown arena?

We're doing a lot of public outreach right now to hear from fans about what they want in the arena and we have a bunch of ideas on our own, but I definitely want to see the results of the focus groups that we are doing right now before we talk too much publicly about everything we are going to plan for. But we've had great conversations so far with the architects and the builders about delivering an arena experience that people will think is exceptional. But a significant part of that is listening, and that's what we're doing right now.

The team is in training camp right now. How keyed in are you on the basketball operations side of things?

I had the chance to go the Summer League for a couple of days and, obviously, we have had a number of good conversations with Coach [Michael] Malone and with Chris Mullin coming in and Pete [D'Alessandro]. I've had a chance to meet Ben McLemore and DeMarcus [Cousins] and a number of the other players. I'm looking forward to meeting the rest of them as we go to the preseason games. I am going to attend a few of the preseason games.

So obviously, Pete and Coach Malone, Chris Mullin and Shaq - those guys know a lot more about basketball than I do, but I like to stay very involved and I am watching the team very closely. Coach Malone is focusing a lot on defense this year, which is going to be, I think, an exciting upgrade for the team.

What are your thoughts on the current roster?

We got the draft that we wanted, exciting additions in Ben [McLemore] and Ray McCallum, and the extension of DeMarcus is a fantastic move for us and I think it is a fantastic move for him ... We had a very good offseason ... and now it's about getting to training camp and making sure it all gels.

Are there any particular games you are most excited about attending this season?

Opening night is going to be unbelievable. It will be a chance to celebrate the fact that they kept the team in Sacramento. The Kings fans have always been legendary in the league and I expect that that experience is going to be an amazing one. I think that there have been a lot of changes in the Western Conference with the rise of the Warriors and more of the challenge with the Lakers, you know, they are likely going to have a challenging year.

With us coming off a less than stellar campaign in an ... environment about whether or not we're staying, I think there is an opportunity to have a great celebration of keeping the team and of building a new path forward. And hopefully we'll live up to Shaq's slogan of "Sacramento - woo-wee."

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