Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Own Your Own Team. Seriously.

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on December 16, 2005.)

Major disclaimer for this article: Vermont sucks. I understand they have Ben and Jerry's, which is fine. You should go on the tour and then get the hell out of the state. Everything Vermont has, New Hampshire has, and New Hampshire has it better. Having gotten that out of my system, the Green Mountain state is getting professional basketball, and I’m a big fan.

The American Basketball Association should be well known to many a basketball follower, legitimate or passing. Julius “Dr. J” Irving and the red, white and blue ball are known to even casual fans. The league played an up-tempo game from 1967 to 1976, eventually being folded into the NBA. The New York Nets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs were absorbed into the league.

Fast forward to 1999, when a new American Basketball Association formed. This ABA was not trying to compete with the NBA like the old league. This ABA was a minor league with a business model so innovative it was almost quaint: create a league with a low entry fee and controlled costs so that team owners can run their franchises with as less than 2,000 people a game.

You know what areas this type of pro league appeals to? That’s right, boys and girls, this league appeals to the fringes of sports and media. And this gives me a great idea: you and me, we're going to be co-owners of a basketball team.

Hold on. I'll get there.

So this Sports Illustrated writer, Alexander Wolff, has bought the rights to the Vermont ABA franchise, according to the Boston Globe and his own article in SI, and is going to be running a team in Barre, Vermont and writing about it for SI. Cool idea. And he’s got a cool name: the Vermont Frost Heaves. Even better, he seems to really understand the potential for greatness within the new modeled ABA. He talks of running the team and then turning it over to its community as a public trust after a few years. He even wants to sell locally-grown Vermont food at the games.

The Time Argus is the paper of record for Montpelier and Barre, Vermont. Not surprisingly, it was pretty enthusiastic about the team. Between the Time Argus and Sports Illustrated, the Frost Heaves are going to get more media attention than any minor league franchise since Michael Jordan struck out in front of TV cameras from 22 countries. It should also make for an interesting dynamic: the tension of a small newspaper writing favorably objective articles about the team confronting the critically partisan articles of a national sports magazine. I’m curious to see how this plays out in the woodlands of Vermont.

I’m ignoring the impulse to write that every time you buy a product from Vermont an angel dies, or that you are better off buying maple syrup from New Hampshire and cheese from Wisconsin or New York because those observations aren’t relevant to the column. And anyway, you all know this.

Wolff mentions that the idea behind the ABA is to get a team in every market that will support a team and then cluster those teams together geographically in divisions in order to cut down on transportation costs. So far, there are eight divisions, with as many as seven and as few as three teams in them.

To look at the standings, you’d think that teams spring up from nowhere and begin play just like any team that was around at the beginning of the season. That seems to be the only way to explain how the Inglewood Cobras could lead the Spencer Haywood Division at 1-0 while the SoCal Legends are in second place at 10-1. There’s a wide diversity of teams, though, with clubs ranging from Montreal, to Tijuana, to Beijing.

How you can be based out of Beijing and still keep travel costs down, I don’t know. (Actually, I do – you play your games in Maywood, CA… but that’s neither here nor there) But the idea is great – theoretically, the ABA could have 20 different divisions with four or six or however many teams in each. The possibilities are endless. The only goal is to make travel for games reasonable for owners’ expenses.

The entry fee isn’t that bad: $10,000. Granted, Wolff got fleeced by paying $10K for the rights to the Vermont market, and I don’t have that kind of money lying in the change jar on my desk. But if I had some co-owners to help me out...

Here's the pitch: I want a team. Obviously, I don’t have $10,000. We, though, have way more than $10,000. I want everyone reading this column to write me at john@sportsmediawatch.com or write in at the Sports Media Watch forum and pledge some money. Pledge a lot. Seriously – if we get 100 people pledging $100, we’ve got the $10,000 entry fee; 50 people at $200… well, you get the idea. We’ve bought ourselves a market. Wolff writes that labor costs are capped at $120,000, which is still more money than I’ve ever seen, but if we choose our venue and marketing correctly, we should be able to cover that and more. We’ll make a small profit and split it fairly.

I don’t even have to be the general manager. If one of you really, really wants the job, it’s yours. I want to own a team, if only partially. But I also want to see how media interacts with teams it owns and is connected to. We all know that small local papers cover small local teams favorably. I’m sure the Time Argus is no exception.

But what about media outlets that own the team? In some ways, this is what SI is testing, and at least they’re up front about it. Other such relationships try to stay in smoky backrooms (Boston Globe, Red Sox, I’m looking in your direction). How would Sports Media Watch cover our team? How would I? One hundred to two hundred bucks could buy each of us access to a side of sports we don’t see or read much about. And we can even make a little money on the side.

And if we can’t, oh well, each of us has lost $100-200 for something that is far cooler than what we would have done with it otherwise. If I don’t buy this team, I’ll blow it on women and booze, despite my grandfather’s best warnings. Think of the stories years from now: “I remember back in aught-six, I owned a minor league basketball team…” Or put it on your resume: “Minority Owner, Professional Basketball team.” This is worth your investment.

As a prudent investor, I’m sure you have a few questions. First and foremost, I bet you want to know what market we’ll be scooping up. If you’ve read this column faithfully, you know there can only be one answer from me: New Hampshire. I want to play in the same division as the Vermont Frost Heaves and beat them hard. I want to be the Yankees to their Red Sox, the Cowboys to their Bills, the Bulls to their Knicks. Plus, as the Fishercats, Monarchs and Wolves prove, New Hampshire can support minor league teams like no one’s business. We’ll call ourselves the Granite State Livefreeordies.

Alright, that’s just my first choice. Make me a better offer. Look at the team listings; there are plenty of other markets available. Atlantic City is free. So is DC. Glendive, Montana can be had for $10K, as can Bemidji, Minnesota. Where are you from? I bet there isn’t a team there. Why don’t we work together to put one there.

Having said that, New Hampshire is still my first choice. It’ll be like printing our own money in very small denominations. And I can guarantee that we’ll get great coverage from the Manchester Union Leader.

But if you don’t like my pitch and you’ve got the money, buy your own team. I would if I could. This is a great opportunity. The ABA and your fringe market need you to provide professional, community-based sports entertainment. Help the league put a team on every corner, and live the fantasy of having your own franchise. And while you're doing it, write a blog about the experience. It'd be a great read. You know you want to. All you have to do is fill out the form... and pony up the money.

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