Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Minor League Coverage from Thin Air

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on March 29, 2006.)

The NBA is attempting to do something very hard: create a minor league system out of thin air. Since 2001, the NBA Developmental League (stuck with the unfortunate nickname, “the D-League”) has acted as a training ground for NBA talent… sort of. Right now it’s more of a neo-minor league, with the potential to be an outright farm system in the future. But if there’s one thing that’s harder than creating a minor league out of thin air, it’s creating media coverage for a minor league out of thin air. If the D-League (can you bring your A-game to the D-League?) is going to succeed, it will need local media coverage.

First, some background on the D-League. Although initially it was just a straight up minor league run by the NBA, following the last collective bargaining agreement, the D-League adopted an interesting set up that mirrors minor league baseball in some ways. There are eight teams, and each team is affiliated with three or four NBA clubs. Any club may assign any player to play in the D-League as long as the player has zero or one year of service at the time of assignment. No player may be given more than three assignments during any season, but there is no minimum or maximum assignment length. No team can assign more than two players at one time.

Some, like George Karl, think the D-League is a great idea; rookies should get broken in to professional basketball by playing in 5,000-seat gyms and traveling by bus. Others worry about sending their young players to teams over which they exercise no control, which is a legitimate concern. Unlike minor league baseball, NBA teams do not have extensive control over D-League teams. Major League teams are able to exercise system wide control over their farm teams; players in the Red Sox’s system are taught with an eye on what it’s like to play with the Green Monster.

D-League coaches are sensitive to this. Sam Vincent, coach of the first place Fort Worth Flyers, said at the beginning of the season that he intended to visit each team the Flyers are affiliated with and learn their systems so that he can teach it to their players. That’s fine, but it’s not the same as controlling the strategy for an entire system of teams or even the playing time of particular players, as is done in Major League Baseball. That can only be accomplished if there is one D-League team for every NBA team, which NBA Commissioner David Stern foresees long term.

However, that’s an NBA strategy argument and this is a fringe media column. I’m more interested in how the D-League is received and covered in the small markets where teams are located.

Let’s take a look at the Flyers. The team is new this season, and when the Fort Worth Business Press announced its creation last August, it proudly trumpeted the fact that when play began, Fort Worth would be the home of three minor league teams in three different sports. The article also pointed out that tickets are as low as $8 a person, meaning that a family of four can go to a game for $60 with concessions, although that seems like a somewhat dishonestly low figure. Still it’s a lot cheaper than the comparable package at an NBA game.

However now, during the regular season, the newspaper coverage seems a little thin. The Star-Telegram, reporting on the Fort Worth area since 1906, doesn’t give the team much attention. True, this week they had a nice human interest story on a Dallas Mavericks player who had been sent down after not adjusting well after coming to the NBA from Russia. Also, a recent wire report noted that Flyers’ Ime Udoka had been named to the 2005-06 D-League first team. But beyond that the coverage is sparse. In contrast, the paper has an entire section devoted to the Brahmas, the local minor league hockey team. Welcome to Fort Worth, Texas – the only Canadian sports city in America.

In fairness to the Star-Telegram, the Flyers are new, and given the D-League’s volatility since its inception (teams have shifted around and folded, as the number of teams has hovered between 6 and 8) the paper may have decided to wait a season or two before investing in its coverage. That being said, the team would do better with more local coverage.

But Fort Worth is awfully close to Dallas (seventh largest media market in the nation, according to Nielsen), so maybe we should look at another market to see how fringe media really responds to the D-League. Let’s try Fayetteville, North Carolina, relatively close to Raleigh-Durham, the 29th largest media market, and home to the Fayetteville Patriots. The Patriots should make an interesting comparison to the Flyers because not only are they in a much smaller market, but they’re also on the opposite end of the standings: eighth and last in the D-League.

Despite that they receive much better coverage than the Flyers from local press. Fayetteville Online (an online version of the Fayetteville Observer) gives the team a lot of attention. Almost every game warrants a story, regardless of whether it’s a win or a loss. That’s the kind of coverage that fringe sports need from fringe media in order to grow.

Fringe sports also benefit from local ownership with ties to that area. Most minor league sports realize this to one degree or another, and that’s one way minor league teams are able to survive in the fringes. The Continental Basketball Association operated this way for decades. To its credit, the NBA seems to recognize this, as it owns only two of the eight teams and is trying to sell those as well.

Those numbers are a little suspect, though. Four of those teams – Fort Worth, Albuquerque, Austin and Tulsa – are owned by David Kahn, former general manager of the Indiana Pacers, and his Southwest Basketball, LLC. Granted, the company is based in Austin and seems well rooted in that area (although Albuquerque sticks out), but it doesn’t seem healthy for the sport if one company owns half the league. That doesn’t promote the fans in each area to feel more connected to its team and management.

But if you’re looking for a public face to Southwest Basketball, LLC, look no further than Andre Agassi, who joined the ownership group last August. Of course, he lives in Las Vegas, so I don’t think that helps fans in Texas or New Mexico.

Perhaps partly because of the ownership issues, the online community’s attention has been duly noted but not even close to passionate. There are some blogs and discussion boards related to the league, usually related to how the D-League affects universities and NBA teams. But the writing is perfunctory; there’s none of the passion that you find in college hockey fan forums or lacrosse fan blogs.

That doesn’t bother me that much right now. The league is still pretty young and definitely still settling in. It will take several years of being in the same place for D-League teams to develop fan followings willing to devote hours of passion to watching, detailing and bemoaning the status of their teams. In the mean time, though, the league has at least been getting some decent attention from national publications like the New York Times, which it wouldn’t have gotten had it not been affiliated with the NBA.

The success of the D-League, however, will not depend on media outlets like the Times paying attention to it. Local media outfits like the Fort Worth Business Press, Star-Telegram and Fayatteville Online will have to cover the teams in their cities, and fans will have to feel connected to the institutions, players, and management of those teams. The D-League is like any other minor league – it needs to be truly connected to the fringes where it plays in order to be successful. When that happens, minor league teams thrive and sports fans in the fringes reap the benefits.

And right now, the D-League and other basketball minor leagues like the CBA, USBL and ABA are providing a quality product to sports fans away from media centers. Look at the D-League scoreboard and the points-per-game that D-League teams are putting up. These guys break 100 points regularly. The NBA frequently isn’t that entertaining.

There’s talent too, as evidenced by the number of first round picks that have played or are playing there, like Marcus Fizer (selected by the Bulls) and Julius Hodge (selected by Denver). Players are moving back and forth between the D-League and the NBA regularly now, which the NBA charts religiously in order to push its promotional vision for the D-League that “The NBA Dream starts here.” To a certain degree that’s true. Some of the guys you watch at a D-League game could be playing with the big boys in a couple weeks… or at least keeping the 12th seat on the bench warm for a NBA team in a couple weeks. So it’s an NBA dream of sorts.

Admittedly, this relationship with the NBA gives the D-League a leg up on its minor league competitors. But in general, D-League teams aren’t in the same cities as teams from the other minor leagues and so don’t compete with them directly. Some may argue that money is an issue, as the D-League can rely on the NBA to bail it out of financial trouble. But remember, these teams are privately owned or will be soon, even if en masse. Andre Agassi is a smart guy. If his four D-League teams are losing him money he’ll dump them faster than Brooke Shields. D-League teams still have to respect the fact that they’re in smaller markets and must connect with those fans. That some of their players may go to a team 1,000 miles away tomorrow doesn’t change that. Just ask any successful minor league basketball team.

For a moment, though, let’s appreciate the brilliance of David Stern. The NBA is a solid national sports commodity; it’s not the NFL, but it does well. However, Stern stopped focusing on that level years ago. He’s thinking bigger, globally, where basketball is topped only by soccer for international popularity. He openly talks about expansion into Europe and possibly beyond, while at the same time slowly expanding into smaller fringe markets in the United States. In twenty years, the NBA could have a larger international presence than the United Nations, but we’d be able to plug into that network by walking down the street to our local 5,000 seat gym for a D-League game.

Fringe media that covers a local team in that network, by extension, could potentially cover the entire network, linking fringe media with national and international media in a way that’s never happened before. That would give fringe media a lot to write about and hopefully inspire some passionate D-League fans. Hopefully, though, by that point some writer in Fayatteville or Fort Worth or somewhere will have come up with a better name than the D-League. Seriously, David, for a smart guy, you get an F for naming.

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