Ranadivé talked with Boardroom about his road to Kings ownership, the team’s technological work, and what it means to be a winning franchise.
The Sacramento Kings‘ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers cemented the franchise’s first NBA playoff birth since 2006.
The Kings have been making significant strides on and off the court in recent years, especially in the tech realm. The team’s owner Vivek Ranadivé deemed the Kings the most technologically advanced franchise in the NBA. While many people have correlated the Kings’ tech improvements with installing a purple beam that shoots in the sky when the team gets a W, Ranadivé said he’s building way more than that.
“We have a platform, we have a brand, we have access, and we have to use that for making the world better for everyone,” Ranadivé told Boardroom in an exclusive interview during All-Star Weekend 2023.
Boardroom caught up with Ranadivé about his road to Kings ownership, the team’s technological work, and what it means to be a winning franchise.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MICHELAI GRAHAM: Firstly, let’s take it back a bit. Talk to me about your experience in the educational system in India before relocating to the US.
Vivek Ranadivé: So when you get to be my age, you look back at your life and ask, was there a defining moment in your life? For me, it happened when I was a little boy in Bombay, which is where I grew up. One day, I heard these magical words on the radio: “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I was listening to the Voice of America Podcast live broadcast of the moon landing all the way through my hometown. I was like, wow, who were these people able to take a man, put him in a box, and send him 250,000 miles away to land on a rock flawlessly the first time? How brilliant is that?
I wanted to be one of them, so I said I was going to take my studies seriously, I was going to study science and technology, and somehow, I was going to go to America. That was the defining moment for me. I studied hard, and I applied to MIT. They made a mistake in the admissions process and admitted me. In those days, the rupee was not a convertible currency, so you really couldn’t get a lot of money converted from rupees to dollars. I literally had to camp outside the office of the head of the Reserve Bank of India, which is like the Federal Reserve, to convince him to give me some foreign exchange. I eventually showed up in Boston with $50 in my pocket and a lot of big dreams in my head.
That was the start of my journey, and I was very lucky to go to MIT. Then, I went to Harvard and became an entrepreneur quickly thereafter.
MG: What type of career did you envision for yourself after finishing up at Harvard? Did you see yourself working in sports?
VR: No, I just saw myself working in tech. I like to build things; I’m a builder. I am always looking at something and asking, is there a better way to do this? I love data and information, and I’ve always believed that if you could get the right information to the right place at the right time, then you could make the world better. I invented middleware technology, and what my tech did is what I called a software bus. It was a way for things to connect. If you could connect information to the right people at the right time, you could do amazing things.
MG: When did tech entrepreneurship take off for you, and why did you get into it?
VR: I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I was even starting companies when I was at MIT. I didn’t think anyone would ever hire me, so I felt like I had to start my own company and create my own kind of culture and team. I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I was actually a hardware engineer, and when you do hardware, it always seems to be on time and on budget, and everything seems to work. On the other hand, software was always out of control. It was over budget, and deadlines were never met. So I thought, why not find a better way of doing software like you do hardware?
For example, if you take an iPhone apart, then you see that the problem that needs solving is broken into pieces, and the pieces are tied together. Through a single interface, you connect everything. The first place I applied this way of thinking was with my first company, Teknekron Software Systems, where I automated trading floors. I became the guy that digitized Wall Street…and pretty soon became the nervous system for trading floors and banks worldwide.
After that, I started to think, this shouldn’t just be for banks; every company needs this nervous system. Ultimately, I invented this layer of software that allows you to connect things in real time at very high speeds.
MG: What made you want to transition into sports team ownership, and why the Sacramento Kings?
VR: I actually fell into sports accidentally. I was a single dad, and I was trying to find ways to stay close to my daughter when she was 12 years old, so I foolishly volunteered to coach her basketball team after never having touched a basketball in my life. I showed up to the first practice, and I just made the girls run. And then I said, I have to figure this game out; I can’t keep making them run.
I’m kind of a math geek, so I went and created a math equation for the game. I taught them the math equation at the next practice, and they bought into it. The team ended up going to the national championship, and I fell in love with basketball. A few years later, my friend and neighbor, Joe Lacob, was buying the Warriors, and he asked me to join him in that effort, and so I did, along with Peter Guber. I was the co-owner and vice chairman, and we got booed, and then we got better.
Just as we started getting better, David Stern called me up and said the Kings were going to be sold and moved to Seattle, and that would be a pity because Sacramento is a great basketball town. I loved the Warriors, but then I thought about it and have been very blessed. The state of California has done everything for me. Everything I have, I owe to this state, and Sacramento is our capital. The Kings are a team that is beloved by the city, so I jumped in and decided to buy the team.
It was a labor of love, but it has been a privilege and an honor.
MG: You’ve expanded into minor-league baseball ownership with a majority stake in the Sacramento River Cats. How did this deal come about?
VR: I’m interested in all sports, and the value of sports teams just keeps going up. There is nothing more important than sports in the world today. In 10 years now, will I still be using my iPhone? I don’t know, but will I still be watching NBA basketball or the River Cats? For sure.
Sports have a much bigger footprint now. In the old days, people would gather around communal fireplaces; after that, you had the great European cities with town squares and the cathedral. That’s where you went to be seen. It was the gathering spot. We don’t build cathedrals anymore, but we build arenas and stadiums. The modern arena and stadium have become the 21st Century cathedral. These forces are a lot bigger than the sports themselves. These places are often found in the middle of town and drive robust economies, with real estate, technology, entertainment, and more around them.
When there was an opportunity to buy the River Cats right in our backyard, I knew we had to take advantage of it. We have a very loyal fanbase, it’s an incredible franchise, and we’re privileged to be the owners of it.
MG: The Kings are positioned to have their first winning season in a long time. What have you done to steer the organization in this positive direction?
VR: Our journey is to make the playoffs and be a winning team all the time. We’ve excelled on the business and social sides and used our platform to do a lot of good at local, national, and global levels. It takes all of that to build a winning franchise.
We use technology often, and we believe data drives everything. One example is that we’re number one in terms of losing games to injuries. So we’ve lost the least number of games to injuries and used technology and data to do that. Rather than trying to do load management, which everyone else does, we’re using data and technology to manage training so that players can meet the load.
We’ve been using extensive data across the board, and I think it’s paying big dividends.
MG: People are identifying with the infamous purple beam. How did this technological advancement come about?
VR: The beam has been great, and in many ways, it’s just a beacon of hope for the city. We all have struggles in our lives and try to do better every day. The beam is a metaphor for real life, and it’s about creating a track record of celebrating victories.
MG: Let’s talk about what goes into opening up a new arena. What was the transition like from Arco Arena to Golden 1 Center?
VR: I had a design contest with the world’s top architects, and I said, give me something iconic. They kept coming back with designs, and I would say no. So they asked, what is iconic? And I said I’d know when I saw it. Now we have the world’s first indoor and outdoor arena. Iconic. We also wanted to have a fan experience like no other that eliminates all the friction.
We went through and identified every single friction point, and we used technology to eliminate that.
MG: In what ways do you want to see the NBA and its franchises innovate for the future using emerging technologies?
VR: On average, only 18,000 people can go into an NBA arena. I think we’re going to see immersive fan experiences where, no matter where you are, you’re going to feel like you’re sitting courtside. These experiences will obviously leverage AR and VR and continue to evolve. I can see sports betting across the country continuing to explode using technology.
I think that in 10 years, there will be 200-point games because games are getting better, players are getting better and more skilled, and the pace is moving up. Sorry, Lebron, but someone will break your record because players are scoring more points and playing longer because of technology.
The referee experience will also change. If you go to the US Open now, there’s no lines person. It’s all technology driven. Most NBA game decisions will be computer-generated. In the short term, out-of-bounds and goaltending calls will all be determined by computer systems. I think it will be one big evolving experience that will be more immersive and interactive to bring consumers closer to the game.
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