CBA Tries Adding Some Hoopla to Minor League Basketball

On a really good night, more than 8,000 fans will jam Van Andel Arena to cheer the Grand Rapids Hoops on against their Continental Basketball Assn. competition.

Big spenders will sit in $60 Nicholsons--court-side seats named for the Los Angeles Lakers' main fan--while spendthrifts will make due with distant $3 Three Point seats. The new arena also offers live music, cheerleaders, promotional giveaways, sky boxes and a play area for bored youngsters.

The only commodity the CBA can't deliver is big-name basketball players. As the official developmental circuit for the National Basketball Assn., the CBA regularly loses nascent stars to the senior league. The dulling effect of constantly losing players on the cusp of stardom has made it tough to market the 52-year-old league.

But as the CBA plots a planned expansion and considers a possible television contract, the league is borrowing liberally from a game plan that minor league baseball has used to drive increased attendance and healthy gains from sponsorship and licensing deals.

The nine-team league hopes to add seven franchises in coming years by settling into arenas such as the facility proposed near Ontario Airport.

And, like baseball, the CBA hopes to turn once-sleepy havens for hard-core sports fans into affordable, family-oriented entertainment destinations.

"What you've seen is a fundamental philosophical shift," said Bob Przybysz, chief executive of the Grand Rapids Hoops.

"We're in the entertainment business. And, while part of the entertainment happens to be a basketball component, the rest of it is . . . fun."

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The new thrust is overdue, according to observers. "It's no accident that our company has the word 'entertainment' in its name," said Ken Stickney, managing partner for Marina del Rey-based Mandalay Sports Entertainment, which owns three minor league baseball teams in Southern California and Las Vegas.

The merger of hoops and hoopla will make hard-core basketball fans cringe. Ideas being bounced around include multicolored basketballs, cutting-edge uniforms and up-tempo team songs. But former UCLA basketball star Steve Patterson, now in his third year as CBA commissioner, says the new moves are necessary.

"The league used to try and mirror the NBA, which built its reputation on star appeal," said Patterson, a former NBA player and onetime head coach of Arizona State University. "But with a percentage of your best players moving up each year, you can't afford to take that approach."

There's no shortage of talented, hungry players in the CBA, where player salaries average $30,000. More than 100 former CBA players--including New York Knicks star John Starks and the Charlotte Hornets' Anthony Mason--wore NBA uniforms last season.

But few basketball fans are likely to know where the CBA's Fury, Bobcat and Lightning play their games. (Fort Wayne, Ind., La Crosse, Wis., and Rockford, Ill., respectively.)

The league's identity crisis has been fueled by an ill-fated expansion bid that was supposed to push the league from its stronghold in Midwestern states. But instead of strengthening itself, the league sold franchises to owners with little more than a desire to play the minor league game.

After the 1996-97 championship series, for example, three franchises--including the league champion Kansas City Cavalry--ran out of money and closed their doors. The league struck a sour note during the 1989 season, when the Santa Barbara Islanders franchise imploded during its initial season.

In all, more than 100 franchises--with names such as the Ohio Mixers, the Bay State Bombardiers and the Toronto Tornadoes--failed during the last 20 years.

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William K. Ilett, managing investor of the year-old Idaho Stampede franchise, ties past failures to "businessmen who made very foolish decisions when they put on their basketball hat. They got caught up in the mystique of the game."

The league lost $6 million during the 1996-97 season but cut its loss to $1 million during the last season. Patterson said a few franchises are still shaky but that the league expects to turn a profit during the season that starts in November.

The CBA's best opportunity to return to Southern California could be at a 10,000- to 12,000-seat arena proposed by the Ontario Convention Center Corp. The arena would be built and operated by private parties.

"There's a market out there for affordable, family-oriented entertainment," said Kanellos Astor, chief executive of the Ontario Convention Center Corp.

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Mandalay Sports Entertainment, which owns the Lake Elsinore Storm, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and Las Vegas Stars minor league baseball clubs, has "an interest" in pursuing a CBA franchise, Stickney said. But the company that's co-owned by former Sony Corp. Chairman Peter Guber "has been around minor league sports long enough to have a healthy skepticism about the CBA," Stickney said.

"The CBA fills a niche," he said. "But they face the same challenge that all sports franchises face at that level. People have a whole lot of options for entertainment."

And as it scouts out homes in modern arenas, the league also must begin to make inroads in licensed merchandise sales and corporate sponsorships.

The CBA's most important hoop dream involves broadening its exposure through a proposed television alliance with New Line Cinema. But sports industry observers say the league will be hard-pressed to match programming now broadcast by the NBA, powerful NCAA Division I programs and women's basketball.

The CBA is betting that New Line, which produced the gritty film "Hoop Dreams," can craft a different look for its television programming--something that will draw young, hip viewers that sponsors crave. Crews have been experimenting with different camera angles during games and have been shooting during sideline huddles and in CBA locker rooms.

Since it can't pitch premier players, the CBA hopes to lure viewers with behind-the-scenes stories about hungry players who use the CBA as a springboard to NBA careers. New Line executives are betting that the league's blue-collar image will click with fans who've grown weary of highly paid, distant professionals.

The CBA also is trying to remedy what some sports marketing industry observers describe as a critical marketing deficit--the inability to tie CBA franchises to specific NBA teams. Minor league baseball teams enjoy the added edge of being able to affiliate with nearby big league teams.

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So while the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes feed players to the San Diego Padres, the CBA's Rockford Lightning can't, for example, reap the marketing benefits afforded by being affiliated with the nearby Chicago Bulls.

The NBA has agreed to study the issue, but the league's players union has steadfastly opposed it in the past.

"The NBA team affiliation is one of the biggest pluses we could ever achieve," Przybysz said. "If we could ever get that direct link to an NBA team, it would have a significant impact on the CBA."

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Getting More Out of Less

Overall league attendance for the Continental Basketball Assn. has fallen in recent years as some franchises failed. But average attendance per game at remaining franchises has continued to rise.

CBA Attendance by Franchise

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Team Total Avg. per game Sioux Falls Skyforce 145,794 5,206 Fort Wayne Fury 135,076 4,824 Grand Rapids Hoops 133,305 4,761 Idaho Stampede 127,465 4,552 La Crosse Bobcats 100,085 3,574 Quad City Thunder 97,076 3,467 Yakima Sun Kings 82,744 2,955 Rockford Lightning 71,782 2,564 Connecticut Pride 60,294 2,153

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Total CBA Attendance

(In millions)

1997-98*: 953,619

Average Attendance Per Game

1997-98*: 3,784

*Total attendance for 1997-98 regular season and post-season tournament through March 22 only. Final figures not available. The number of teams and total number of games played varies from season to season.

Source: Continental Basketball Assn.

The Ones That Got Away

Some former CBA players who played in the NBA during 1997-98 season

Los Angeles Lakers: Mario Bennett

Los Angeles Clippers: Isaac Austin, Darrick Martin

Chicago Bulls: Rusty LaRue

Utah Jazz: Howard Elsley

Charlotte Hornets: Corey Beck, Anthony Mason, Bobby Phills, Donald Royal, David Wesley, Travis Williams.

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