NBA: Do Something With the D-League

I don’t get what the NBA is doing with the D-League.

Putatively, it’s minor league where unpolished talent can go to “develop” (hence the name, ‘D’ League). There’s also veterans looking for a way back to the NBA. The D-League says well over 30% of current NBA players have had a stop in the D-League.

But no matter how you cut it doesn’t remote resemble the premier minor league, Major League Baseball’s (the NHL’s relationship with the various hockey minor leagues is also well-developed). The NFL has preferred not to have a minor league, depending exclusively on college football for talent.

And one can’t argue that it’s a question of money because the NBA spins much more money than the NHL.

One could argue that there is a question of tradition. Minor league baseball is well over a century old and deeply ingrained in parts of America. For instance, the South didn’t have a professional big league baseball team (Washington D.C. wasn’t really a Southern town) until the 1960s, despite the fact that it produced hundreds/thousands of players. It did, however, have a number of long-standing minor league teams and famous leagues — e.g. the Texas League, the Carolina League.

Minor league hockey shares a similar story throughout Canada. For decades many professional hockey players were often more remembered for the minor league careers than their pro careers. Minor league games in less urban areas of Canada can still draw thousands.

Perhaps some explanation can be found in the fact that both college level baseball and hockey has never really taken off. It’s becoming more popular but is nowhere near the establishment of college basketball and football.

The NBA seems to have a schizo relationship with the 19-team league. Many of the NBA teams own D-League teams or have an exclusive relationship with one. One team, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, is affiliated with all the other NBA teams. The teams are based in a variety of differently-sized cities.

Some of the teams are run like miniature NBA teams, with professional staff, decent-sized arenas and attempts to bond with their community. Others, notably the Lakers’ D-Fenders and Suns’ Bakersfield Jam play in gyms barely big enough to cover the entourages of the players. Clearly earning a decent gate isn’t on the mind of some teams.

I think the NBA should actually turn the D-League into a real minor league, closer to what Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League do. I’m not expecting multiple levels of teams but a serious effort at one level.

I actually think that with some thought, the NBA could turn the D-League not only into a money maker but it would help both leagues themselves by promoting the brand.

The first thing to note that is many of the teams are in smaller markets. As much as I love my native Texas, the Rockets’ Rio Grande Valley Vipers in Hidalgo, Texas, with an arena holding 5,500 isn’t a serious effort but typical of the D-League efforts. Don’t get me wrong, the franchise is one of the best-run and draws well. It might be a question of getting a better arena in the fairly populous Rio Grande Valley, a popular retirement area. But the McAllen/Harlingen market is just 86 in the U.S.

In fact with the exception of Oklahoma City (44), Los Angeles (2) and some outer suburban locations of big markets (Canton [Cleveland/Akron 19], Frisco/Texas [Dallas 5], Newark, Del. [Philadelphia 4]), the D-League teams are in the lesser markets. The best of the lot is Austin at 40. The rest: Bakersfield (127), Boise (110), Des Moines (72), Erie (149), Ft. Wayne (109), McAllen/Harlingen (86), Portland, Maine (80), Reno (107), Santa Cruz (Monterey/Salinas 125), Sioux Falls, S.D. (111) and Springfield, Mass. (114).

If you are media savvy, looking at possible TV exposure and generating ad revenues, that’s not a prime lot.

Compounding the problem, only three D-League teams play in arenas that hold more than 7,500 fans. Most arenas are in the 4,000-7,000 range with two being nothing more than practice gyms holding 500 or less. These are not serious efforts.

I understand that the gestation of the D-League makes it a little more complicated to simply “create” a bunch of new teams or force current ownership of the non-NBA team-owned franchises to move but the opportunity that is available to upgrade the league should motivate them. NBA ownership would also bring needed ownership/management stability to these teams – many of which have had multiple owners and locations on the last decade.

So what if the NBA required every team to outfit a D-League team? That would generate 30 teams. And what if it placed the teams in better markets. (I think it’s important than the NBA teams own the franchises or, at least maintain majority ownership in the teams. In some markets it might be advantageous to have solid local ownership but ultimately the team needs the final vote.)

Thirty pro teams and four are doubled up in two markets, so in reality there are a lot of decent markets that don’t have a professional basketball team. Many of these basketball-missing markets support a professional team in some other sport, a major college team or, at one time, had an NBA or ABA franchise. Some of these towns, and I’m thinking Pittsburgh and St. Louis especially, have reputations as great sports towns.

Imagine putting a D-League team in Pittsburgh or St. Louis, cities that support other pro sports teams to the tune of tens of thousands of fans on game day. You could attract 10,000 fans a night. Since a D-League team is cheap and the players do not travel first class, there could be some solid money made.

Besides the gate money, putting D-League teams in major markets would help the NBA brand by spreading it around. More fans attending, more coverage in secondary markets would drive TV ratings and revenue and merchandise sales.

And don’t forget to put D-League games onto the various teams’ cable TV networks for additional exposure (and they’d be better that reruns of ‘World Series of Poker’) along with filling the daytime and overnight hours of the NBA Network.

One last point, the NBA has taken to heavily promoting and showing the games of its Summer Leagues (Orlando and Las Vegas). It understand that besides the glamour rookies, it is promoting the players of the future, most of who will be in the D-League (or on their way to a foreign league) immediately after the Summer League ends in another week.

So why not the same effort for the D-League?

Looking at my handy-dandy D-League Prospective Market list there are some enticing locations for teams. Who wouldn’t want to have some of the action on teams in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Seattle, Tampa-St. Pete, Baltimore, Buffalo, etc.? And there other up and coming cities that could warrant an experiment with a D-League. A D-League team doesn’t carry the baggage or footprint of an NBA. If the team doesn’t draw it can be moved elsewhere.

You could park almost all 30 D-League teams in the top 50 markets. That adds up to impressive demographics.

Cities that have hosted NBA or ABA franchises in the past (and any current professional sports franchises or major college basketball program) [Nielsen DMA]
Baltimore (NBA, NFL, MLB, ABA) [27]
Buffalo (NBA, NFL, NHL) [52]
Cincinnati (NBA, NFL, MLB, college) [35]
Jacksonville (NFL, ABA) [48]
Kansas City (NBA, NFL, MLB) [31]
Louisville (ABA, college) [49]
Norfolk/Virginia Beach/Hampton Road/Newport News/Portsmouth   (ABA) [45]
Omaha (NBA) [74]
Pittsburgh (NFL, MLB, NHL, ABA, college) [23]
Raleigh/Durham/Fayetteville [24], Greensboro [46] (ABA, college)
Rochester (NBA) [78]
St. Louis (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, ABA) [21]
San Diego (NBA, NFL, MLB, ABA, college) [28]
Seattle (NBA, NFL, MLB) [13]
Syracuse (NBA, college) [85]
Tampa/St. Petersburg (NFL, MLB, NHL, ABA) [14]
Vancouver (NBA, NHL, CFL)
West Palm/Ft. Pierce, Fla. (ABA) [38]

Large cities that currently support a professional sports franchise (and any major college basketball program)
Columbus (NHL, college) [32]
Nashville (NFL, NHL) [29]
San Jose (NHL) [San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose 6]

Others – under 100 Nielsen DMA
Albany/Schenectady/Troy, N.Y. [58]
Albuquerque/Santa Fe, N.M. [47]
Baton Rouge, La. [93]
Birmingham, Ala. [44]
Bristol, Va./Kingsport/Johnson City, Tenn. [97]
Burlington, Vt./Plattsburgh, N.Y. [98]
Cedar Rapids/Dubuque/Waterloo/Iowa City, Iowa [90]
Charleston, S.C. [95]
Charleston/Huntington W.V. (college) [65]
Chattanooga, Tenn. [87]
Colorado Springs/Pueblo, Colo. [89]
Columbia, S.C. [77]
Davenport, Iowa/Rock Island /Moline, Ill. [100]
Dayton, Ohio [64]
El Paso, Texas/Las Cruces, N.M.  [91]
Flint/Saginaw/Bay City, Mich. [68]
Fort Myers/Naples, Fla. [62]
Fresno/Visalia, Calif. [55]
Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, Mich. [39]
Green Bay/Appleton, Wisc. [70]
Greenville/New Bern/Washington, N.C. [99]
Greenville/Spartanburg/Anderson, S.C./Asheville, N.C. [37]
Harrisburg/Lancaster/Lebanon/York, Pa. [43]
Hartford/New Haven, Ct. (college) [30]
Honolulu [69]
Huntsville/Decatur/Florence, Ala. [79]
Jackson, Miss. (college) [94]
Knoxville, Tenn. (college) [61]
Las Vegas (college) [42]
Lexington, Ky. (college) [63]
Little Rock, Ark. [56]
Madison, Wisc. [83]
Mobile, Ala./Pensacola, Fla. [59]
Paducah, Ky./Cape Girardeau Mo. [81]
Providence/New Bedford, R.I. [53]
Richmond, Va. (college) [57]
Roanoke/Lynchburg, Va. (ABA) [66]
Savannah, Ga. [92]
Shreveport, La. [82]
South Bend/Elkhart, Ind. [96]
Spokane, Wash. (college) [73]
Springfield, Mo. [75]
Tacoma, Wash. [Seattle 13]
Toledo, Ohio [76]
Tucson, Ariz. (college) [71]
Tulsa, Okla. [60]
Waco/Temple/Brian, Texas [88]
Wichita/Hutchinson, Kan. [67]
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa. [54]

That’s my pitch for the moment.

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