Passion for the Game

Posted on December 6, 2016

Chris Granger has a background in critical care- for basketball teams

Photography by Kevin Fiscus

Chris Granger has a reedy, friendly voice, but let’s be clear: To do what he’s done in his career—and what he’s doing now as the Sacramento Kings’ president and chief operating officer—he’s also had to have tough skin.

The Chicago-born Granger, who’s 45, spent nearly a decade and a half as a critical-care consultant for the National Basketball Association before landing his permanent post with the Kings. “I ran a group within the NBA called Team Marketing and Business Operations,” he says, “and the Kings were actually my first account. So 15 years ago, or thereabouts, I already knew a lot of the people here.”

Granger’s work as executive vice president of the group involved investigating and uncovering a team’s “systemic issues or challenges,” he says. In his role, he advised teams of the NBA (both major league and development) and the WNBA on everything from customer retention and marketing to sponsorship development and the sales of tickets, suites and digital activities.

When Granger left the NBA to begin his job in Sacramento, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver released a glowing statement: “Chris has done an extraordinary job for us, including developing a group of executives that is industry-renowned for assisting teams in growing their businesses.” NBA Commissioner David Stern, known for being somewhat taciturn, nonetheless piled on: “The Kings will benefit greatly from Chris’s extensive experience in all facets of team business as well as his passion for our game—a passion he shares with the Sacramento business community and the great fans of the Kings.”

It’s early afternoon and Granger’s wearing a dark suit but no tie as he sits in his fourth-floor conference room a short hike from Golden 1 Center and the site of the evolving Downtown Commons, a public square with novelty restaurants, bars and retail. The center will officially open on Oct. 4 with the first of two night-after-night concerts by music legend Paul McCartney; the Commons project, or DOCO, is set for an early spring debut. While this must be the 100th time, possibly this month, he’s talked about his background and the collective vision for the reanimation of downtown Sacramento, he displays neither boredom nor glibness. His enthusiasm for his job—as well as Sacramento itself, which plays a major role in the epic he’s helping to produce—is tangible.

“Let me just jump ahead for a moment and tell you why this job is so personal to me,” he says. “It’s because Sacramento is personal to me. I spent six months here after the Kings almost left for Anaheim, then three months after the bid from Seattle fell through. I came to realize how incredibly special this community is—its spirit. When I clicked with Vivek (Ranadivé, the team’s owner), I knew that coming to work for the organization would be an easy decision to make.”

During Granger’s nearly 15 years on the road—he lived in Bronxville for four years and Manhattan for 10—he says he was “building up my library of what works when a team isn’t cohering and what doesn’t. You find out about each team’s Best Practices”—the popular term for a management methodology that’s proven to be a pathway to success for a particular business—“and you start to see if it’ll work on other teams. It’s never one-size-fits-all in this field but there are certain challenges most teams have in common.” In Sacramento, Granger says there were a number of concerns (which he declines to itemize in detail) but the chief problem was, until the past three years, a lack of community will.

“I think the battle to keep the Kings in Sacramento created a momentum that just finally brought people together,” he says. “It set off a spark and pretty soon, the whole notion that we can do this, we can actually do this, caught fire. The moment now is so dynamic, so—” His voice trails off for a brief moment. He seems to want to find just the right word to express what he senses in the community.

He finds it: “We’re so aspirational,” he says. “The people of Sacramento are aspiring to greatness.”

Through the window behind Granger, the skeleton of one of the DOCO buildings is already taking its place in downtown Sacramento’s skyline. In and around Golden 1 Center, workers move with a choreographed precision and, when viewed later up close and at ground level, a sense of urgency but not tension. “Oh, we have no hesitation that everything will be done on time,” Granger says. “Think of it, though: We’re going from zero to open in just three years. That’s determination.”

Granger says owner Ranadivé and his partners “put a billion dollars into this development, and we were greatly assisted by the economy’s improving.” He says that “everyone realized from the beginning that this is about more than basketball. We’re creating 12,000 jobs here and that’s just to build the arena.” He says that 80 percent of the work has gone to Sacramento-area contractors and 75 percent to Sacramento workers. The 20 and 25 percentages going elsewhere, he says, “are just a matter of needing special work done that couldn’t be done here”—like building the 94-foot-long, 4K resolution, four-sided, ultra high-def TV monitor, whose height, he says playfully, “is like stacking three semi-trailers on top of each other.” It will be, he adds, “the largest indoor video board in the world and the most technically advanced arena in the world.”

Golden 1 Center will also be “the greenest arena in the country,” Granger says. “We’re very serious about how we’re approaching sustainability.” (For some of the breakthrough technological and ecological triumphs planned for the arena, please see the box on page 35.)

Granger says (and a private tour later confirms) that Golden 1 Center will be “uniquely Sacramento. This is not going to be Staples 2.0. You’ll walk into and outside of this building and know you’re in Sacramento.” The six-story structure—which recalls but doesn’t duplicate the mother ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—features gigantic hangar doors that, when opened, will allow passersby a glimpse into the arena while allowing those inside to glance outdoors and always be aware of their surroundings.

“Our job in building Golden 1 Center has been to create such a spectacle, such a great time for people, regardless of what happens down on the court,” Granger says. He’s asked if hiring Paul McCartney to open the place is a budget buster, given the long-ago Beatle’s continued international fame. “Well, we certainly are doing this to make a splash,” he says, “but we don’t do anything in this organization to lose money. We spend our money very intentionally.” He pauses, grins and says, “We don’t do loss leaders.”

When the subject of parking comes up—as well as the perhaps over-feared traffic snarls—Granger gets one of those smiles on his face that seems to say, Why, this is the first time I’ve ever heard that question!

“There are 13,000 parking spaces that exist within a half-mile radius of Golden 1 Center, and another 11,500 spaces a half-a-mile away,” he says. “I’m guessing that some season-ticket holders will sell their spots in the garages, based on where they live and work.”

A major effort is also afoot at Sacramento Regional Transit to address the traffic flow and public transportation solutions, he says. (It is, in fact, a top priority of RT’s new general manager and CEO, Henry Li, according to stories in both the Sacramento Business Journal and The Sacramento Bee in early June—including an effort to attract corporate sponsors to fund free light rail service for arena events during the first year of Golden 1 Center’s existence.)

However people get there, Granger knows the black-tie opening gala his staff is planning ought to be, itself, a game changer. While he won’t provide details as yet, he confirms that the event will feature special guest stars from the worlds of sports and entertainment. Asked if it also might include presidential candidates, he deadpans, “This much I can be very specific about. No, it won’t.”

Since arriving in Sacramento three years ago, Granger and his wife, Jennifer, have immersed themselves in the community. Chris Granger is a member of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council, the economic expansion group led by Barry Broome (see the story on page 84) as well as on the board of Sacramento Country Day School, which their daughters, Zoe, 10, and Megan, 8, attend. Jennifer Granger is on the board of Make-A-Wish and chaired the American Cancer Society Hope Gala on Sept. 10. She previously served on the board of Saint John’s Program for Real Change.

As the interview draws to a close, Granger mentions how grateful the organization is to President and CEO Donna Bland and her team at Golden 1 Credit Union “for taking this journey with us. We are super-lucky they stepped up when they did. Their members are our fans. And frankly, we’re fans of them.”