I never would have guessed that someone would look at the NBA's D-League and think, "Hey, we DEFINITELY need a second one of these." As it turns out, at least one successful rap executive does see a need for a new-and-improved basketball minor league.
Yahoo Sports reports that that Steve Rifkind, the founder of Loud Records who helped launch the Wu-Tange Caln and Three 6 Mafia, among others, is helping to launch the American Basketball League, a minor league set to open its inaugural season in January 2013. Former NBA player Kenny Anderson is also on board as the ABL's Director of Player Development.
The ABL is expected to include 12 franchises across Florida and Texas, with team names like the Emerald Coast Knights, the Fort Lauderdale Sharks, the Corpus Christi Clutch and the Texas Surge. Tryouts for the league begin in October, according to the league's website.
Here's the league's pitch.
The American Basketball League will commence its inaugural 24-game season in January 2013 and will field a 12-team league set to challenge the recent economic and rather public failings of current minor-league basketball organizations. Initial ABL markets include; Miami, San Antonio, San Marcos, Sugarland, College Station, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Sebring and Corpus Christi. Future expansion is scheduled for California and New York.
By providing certified referees, uniforms and a carefully coordinated regional inter-conference schedule, participating teams will enjoy a substantial decrease in operating costs currently realized by teams in other minor basketball leagues. “Playing a road game eight hours from your home base and incurring the costs associated with lodging, food, gas and ground transportation is a recipe for certain economic disaster” says ABL CEO Steven A. Haney. “Our business model would reduce operating costs of current organizations upwards of 50 percent a season, making otherwise bankrupt teams operationally successful and profitable. At the end of the season, we will have divisional playoffs where teams from around the country can compete with one another without bearing the risk of bankruptcy”.
In addition to each team playing a regionally structured guaranteed schedule, an ABL Final Four will be held at the conclusion of the regular season in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a winner-take-all $10,000 purse for the inaugural league champion. “To see two ABL teams playing a single winner-take-all game would add to the excitement of the league,” says league representative Marlon Minifee. “No other league in minor-league basketball has ever offered such an opportunity to its member teams and players.”
It goes without saying: best of luck to the ABL. Their goals seem fairly modest, the regional plan makes sense from the standpoint of limiting unnecessary costs, and basketball, as a global sport, benefits from any new successful league, whether in the United States or abroad.
There are obvious challenges here that could prove difficult to overcome in the long haul.
Let's start with demand. Tickets are the economic driver of any pro sports league. If the ABL is to last, it will need to generate real revenues; slashing expenses doesn't guarantee a profit or worthwhile business model by itself.
In Florida, where the ABL plans to launch, the NBA champion Miami Heat can't get their fans to show up on time and the Orlando Magic will struggle to fill up the new Amway Center now that Dwight Howard is gone. League-wide, more than one-third of the NBA's teams drew less than 16,000 fans per game last season, even with rampant inflation of turnstile numbers. This, mind you, as television ratings continue to increase and the league has more marketable stars than it knows what to do with.
D-League teams aren't exactly playing to sellouts, either. Not even with significantly lower (practically free) ticket prices. Not even while playing in significantly smaller venues. Not even with the benefit of the NBA's promotion skills, affiliations with "parent clubs," and the possibility of first-round talent and former NBA players taking the court. Not even with the annual D-League Showcase to help lure fringe talent with the promise of plenty of scouts and executives on hand, and not even with NBA-TV and online streaming of D-League games.
If the ABL is true to its word about topping D-League salaries (something that wouldn't be particularly difficult in theory, given that American minor leaguers play for a fraction of what they would get playing professionally overseas), it will need to pay off somehow. Expecting two states to support 12 teams at the turnstile is asking a lot, especially in some of the smaller markets. Could sponsorships help? Sure. But what's in it for them? Sponsorships and endorsements need to be a win-win. The ABL will surely be renting gym space, so you can kiss naming rights goodbye. Real television visibility would seem totally out of the question, especially at the beginning. What else would make a meaningful difference for big-dollar sponsors?
The supply-side isn't much prettier. The ABL will be competing for talent with foreign leagues that already scout heavily. The vast majority of second-tier talent already finds itself in Europe. The best non-NBA guys get situated overseas without all that much trouble, thanks in part to the Las Vegas and Orlando Summer Leagues. There are horror stories about some clubs failing to live up to their financial obligations to players, certainly, but the checks over there are substantial and the professional infrastructure and distribution are already in place.
Also, it's worth mentioning: the talent base here isn't endlessly deep and any new league would likely see huge turnover among its players. The player pool isn't likely to have name talent to generate excitement on its own. Outside of, perhaps, a few former college stars with local ties, who could you reasonably expect to market around? And, if the call-up to the big leagues doesn't come quickly, real world obligations are always calling players, too. Can fans be reasonably expected to keep up with, and stay loyal to a franchise, in an environment of rosters that are constantly in flux?
The D-League has been on a self-improvement quest for years now and a little competition is a good thing. Indeed, the ABL could be a great thing if it succeeds in its goal of raising the salary floor for non-NBA players. A fresh, outside approach to American professional basketball could produce genuine innovations and we all know that the NBA -- savvy and comprehensive marketer that it is -- will be keeping an eye on the new kid on the block. But, unless the ABL resorts to outlandish gimmicks, will fans care? And if they do go way outside the box with publicity stunts, will players with legit talent be willing to sign on for the promise of a slightly bigger paycheck?
One hard lesson learned during the NBA's lockout applies here: the league's top 10 or 15 superstars are disproportionately more popular, recognizable and marketable than the rest of the league's players. Once you get outside that elite group , a vast majority of professional basketball fans in America are cheering for teams rather than players. When dozens of very talented pros -- including the likes of John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Tony Allen and others -- attempted to put on a short showcase league in Las Vegas, attendance and interest were abysmal. You couldn't blame the fans for not showing up. With so many other pro sports options, why should consumers care about anything other than a premier product? And, with the NBA back in full swing, is there enough room in the domestic marketplace for this type of league to meet its stated economic goals?
Perhaps the ABL isn't even dreaming this big. Perhaps it's just hoping to exist in a smaller, regional niche that helps players who have devoted their lives to a sport reach their dreams. If so, great. More power to them. But the minor leagues are a road well-travelled, with far more failures than successes.
To its credit, the ABL seems aware of these challenges going in. The league notes on its website that "over 200" minor-league basketball franchises have gone bankrupt in the last decade.