Thursday, August 10, 2006

A minor sports league that is a blight on the entire sports industry

George Steinbrenner is to Major League Baseball what Mike Veeck is to the Northern League. Each man is a pillar in the league’s they own and operate baseball franchises in, the head of the ownership class in their respective leagues. Veeck operates in professional sports lower echelons, independent professional sports leagues, fighting out for every inch they can gain in an ever crowded sports market.

As challenging as Veeck finds each and every day he fights to move his brand of baseball forward, the plight of every minor league sports operator is made that much more challenging by the antics and business practices of a ‘professional’ basketball league that calls itself the -- American Basketball Association. Not to be confused with the basketball league that brought the world Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Connie Hawkins, this version of the ABA continues to be an embarrassment to the entire sports industry.

The latest disturbing news from the gang that never shoots straight – a very interesting report that made the front page of Wednesday’s Buffalo News. According to the report, the latest incarnation for professional basketball in Buffalo will be called the Buffalo Silverbacks. Members of Buffalo’s African-American community are concerned.

They say a silverback - an adult male gorilla - is an inappropriate nickname for a team with a large number of black players because bigots have referred to blacks as "gorillas," "apes" and "monkeys."

Those terms "have a history of being used to dehumanize African-Americans," said Betty Jean Grant, a Buffalo School Board member and former Common Council member. "That is a very derogatory term."

The team for its part made it clear to The Buffalo News’ Stephen T. Watson they have no intention of changing their teams’ nickname.

"No. We're excited with the nickname. We're excited for our season. This is pro basketball back in Buffalo," said Rich Jacob, the team's general manager and head coach.

The critics also did not like the logo, which shows an intense, red-skinned gorilla pointing at the viewer. "I did find it offensive. It looked like an angry black man," said Eva M. Doyle, a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper. "I think it's offensive to people who are looking at it from a historical perspective."

Buffalo’s ABA franchise is making front page news in the cities major daily sections for all the wrong reasons is yet another example of what the ABA has come to represent to the sports industry – a league with franchise built on a deck of cards.

The ABA (and we couldn’t make this up) offers a link on their league website where anyone, anyone can reserve a franchise in their market. A recent Los Angeles Times report, told the sad tale of how one person, Duane Hughes, a former New York City rapper plunked down $10,000 to secure a Charlotte franchise. The team started the 2005-06 season. Two months into his first experience in professional sports ownership, Hughes had lost $200,000 and folded the franchise.

Hughes told The Los Angeles Times after a member of this short-lived team tore an Achilles' tendon during a game, the league-endorsed insurance plan didn't cover the injury, Hughes said.

So he paid the medical bill from his own pocket.

Likely Hughes read Joe Newman, self proclaimed ‘king of all things ABA’ proclamation – “Owning a professional sports team should be a fun and profitable experience. With controlled expenses and divisional play, the ABA has found those keys to success. We're looking forward to hearing from you.”

Newman may believe what he’s selling, but it appears few others do. According to The Los Angeles Times report, since 2000 when Newman resurrected the ABA, called ABA2000 that year, more then 50 franchises have folded in the leagues first five seasons. The league lists more then 60 franchises for the 2006-07 season and has already announced expansion franchises for the 2007-08 season to ten more markets including Toronto and Boston. The Toronto franchise offers a website that links not to a basketball franchise but a modeling agency.

"There are only so many times that can happen" before the league loses all credibility, Hughes said. "I'd hate that because it's destroying the name of the original ABA."

Newman, for his part, like the carnival barker made it clear to The Los Angeles Times his goal is to have an ABA franchise in every nook of North America.

"I know I'll have some bad owners…. I allowed them to come in and take a chance," Newman said. "Initially, some of these owners [didn't] know how to separate business from the game. Now, as they're maturing, that's less of a problem."

It’s almost comical when Newman admits only 15 of the 60 franchises are well-run. Why anyone would give Joe Newman $20,000 when he believed 75% of the franchises he had awarded teams too weren’t being operated properly defies logic.

Last season according to The Los Angeles Times, only seven of the 32 ABA teams finished their full 32-game schedule. Some teams, such as the Inglewood Cobras and Las Vegas Rattlers, played fewer than five games before folding. Calgary was home to a franchise that never played a home game before it too folded.

Several ABA owners realize how the league is being managed and have defected to the CBA.

"People can buy a franchise with their credit card," said Florida Pit Bulls owner Demetrius Ford. His team defected to the CBA. The Pit Bulls left the league after qualifying for the league’s championship – imagine any sports franchise ending their season after they had made it to the league championship, but that’s exactly what Ford did.

The Pit Bulls played their home games at the Bank Atlantic Center, the home of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. After hosting the league’s all-star game, Ford who was told he would be reimbursed for all his expenses was forced to pay the bills himself when the league didn’t come through with the promised cash. The Pit Bulls marquee player during their short-lived tenure in the ABA -- Former NBA star Tim Hardaway.

"If one team leaves, [Newman] will get two new ones, just like he told me when I left" to join the CBA, Gary Grant, former Clippers guard and SoCal Legends owner told The Los Angeles Times.

It's everyone’s inherent right to spend their money however they wish and invest their money in whatever ventures they feel will be successful. A strong case can be made that the antics of Joe Newman’s ABA do damage and harm to the sports industry. The Steinbrenner’s of the sports industry have built their reputations on solid business principals (yes Darth Steinbrenner has slipped more then a few times). However they do not face the uphill battles those who don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in their sports dreams.

It’s not acceptable that a sports league operates with the commissioner telling The Los Angeles Times 75% of the league’s franchises aren’t being managed properly. A cavalier attitude and a belief system that allows anyone to own a franchise in your league is a receipt that hurts everyone else who has built their league on sound business principals. Its time this wart on the sports industry is removed now and forever more.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Buffalo News and The Los Angeles Times.