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L.A. D-Fenders have SoCal stage to themselves, if anyone cares

There’s a little basketball team trying to emerge from the Southern California sports soup of six major pro teams and two Pac-12 universities.

The Los Angeles D-Fenders, virtually ignored by basketball fans the last five years, are trying to market minor league basketball in L.A. by tying themselves to the Lakers. That’s because both teams are owned by Jerry Buss.

The D-Fenders are the Lakers’ NBA Development League affiliate, though it’s rare for them to feature actual Lakers in their games. Jordan Farmar was sent down for three games in 2007 and Coby Karl logged some time there too.

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But anybody who shells out $1,800 for a season ticket to all 24 D-Fenders home games will receive several Lakers incentives. They can buy two tickets to a Lakers game every month and get first crack at Lakers individual playoff tickets before the public. They also get a tour of the Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo — the site of all D-Fenders home games. They can also attend the Lakers’ annual “open practice” for Lakers season-ticket holders and get a Lakers beach chair as a gift.

If there’s no NBA season in 2011-12 because of the owners’ lockout, the perks piled up by D-Fenders season-ticket holders will be rolled over to next season.

Granted, the D-Fenders’ attendance goals aren’t lofty: Capacity for their home games is 365 fans, with small bleachers and folding chairs around the Lakers’ training court in El Segundo. The D-Fenders’ home opener is Nov. 28 against the Reno Bighorns.

Can they make even the slightest impression in a sports-saturated market?

It’s like “selling ice to Eskimos,” but it might work, according to Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

“Kudos for them for thinking creatively,” he said. “I think there’s value in using whatever assets you have available to drive sales. . . . Are there 365 people in the Greater L.A. market who are big enough Laker fans and don’t have much access to Laker ticket inventory? This is a pretty good chance for those people.”

The D-Fenders haven’t registered on local radar since debuting in 2006, playing home games in front of extremely sparse crowds at Staples Center several hours before Lakers games. The only time the squeak of basketball shoes couldn’t be heard was when a few busloads of schoolkids were given free tickets.

The only real splash the D-Fenders ever made was when Farmar scored 18 points for them as a rookie in an April 2007 game and then had four points for the Lakers a few hours later, marking the first time someone played in the D-League and NBA the same day.

It wasn’t overly surprising when the D-Fenders shut down a year ago, taking time off to figure out how to attract committed fans. (Last season, two Lakers rookies, Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, played a few games for the D-League’s Bakersfield Jam.)

The Buss family considered moving the D-Fenders to Ontario this season to play in a relatively new 10,000-seat arena operated by AEG, the empire that also owns Staples Center and a minority share of the Lakers. San Diego was also considered before the Buss clan settled on El Segundo to cut costs.

So Lakers executives will merely have to walk down a staircase to see the D-Fenders’ home games.

“We’re trying to really marry the two teams in close regard,” said D-Fenders CEO Joey Buss, the 27-year-old son of Jerry Buss. “If you’re a D-Fenders season-ticket holder, you’ll be treated similar to a Lakers season-ticket holder. We’re trying to make it one big happy family.”

The D-Fenders are a hard sell because their team changes drastically from season to season like many minor league affiliates. They are typically a collection of little-known players whose rights are not even held by the Lakers, this season possibly more so than ever.

The Lakers didn’t have a first-round pick in last June’s NBA draft, and none of their three second-round picks would be allowed to play for the D-Fenders unless the NBA lockout were lifted.

It’s not simple being a little fish so close to the Pacific Ocean, but the D-Fenders are certainly trying to market the previously unmarketable.

“Without the NBA [playing], keeping the sport of basketball in the consideration set of consumers is a good idea,” said Stephen Ross, a sport management professor at the University of Minnesota. “While it might not be Lakers, it’s still basketball-affiliated with them and that would keep people interested.

“From the D-Fenders’ perspective, I don’t think it’s viable long-term. As soon as the NBA comes back, it’s kind of ‘kick you back to the curb.’ In all likelihood, that is what can happen, but if they can get 365 more fans just to pay attention to them and create a little bit of buzz around tickets and the game, they can capitalize on it for sure.”

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan


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