Being an NBA fan in Western New York takes dedication. If you’re lucky you can catch some basketball news when WGR 55 radio carries ESPN sports-talk programming which happens to include occasional NBA topics. The Buffalo News publishes the league standings but not much more. Even after Golden State’s record-breaking start this season, surpassing the previous best start in NBA history by the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls’ Jordan/Pippen glory team, barely a whisper about it was heard here. ESPN and NBAtv covered the story non-stop for days leading up to the record-tying game and showed complete game re-runs for days after. T-shirts being sold on NBA.com with “16-0” appearing under the Warriors’ logo are bestsellers nationally, just in time for Christmas. Team apps, the internet, ESPN/TNT and NBA League Pass are the only lifelines for local NBA fans. This begs the question…is the lack of NBA coverage in Western New York due to the fact there are no NBA fans here? Or is it that NBA fans don’t tune in when the media exclusively focuses on the built-in markets of football and hockey? It’s a “chicken and egg” problem that depends on your perspective.
I recently sent an email to Greg Ried, General Manager of Entercom which operates WGR sports radio. I wondered why there wasn’t more (some, any) NBA coverage. I volunteered to contribute content, provided some examples of local connections to pro basketball, and suggested starting with some well-advertised podcasts to gauge interest. He responded by saying Entercom’s research shows the Bills and Sabres are the most popular topics. Maybe so; but should they be the only topics? Especially when neither team is having a standout year? Does the media define the market for sports in Buffalo? Perhaps the “research” (and ratings information) shows few NBA fans amongst current listeners, true, because there is no basketball coverage on Buffalo’s premier sports radio station.
Everyone knows Buffalo was a former NBA city in the days of the Buffalo Braves, now Los Angeles Clippers. But Buffalo’s basketball ties are not just ancient history. Buffalo has hosted the NCAA tournament in 2000, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2014 with great success. Buffalo will again host the tournament in 2017. The attendance at each of the soldout games was a boon to the local economy. It has given the Pegula Sports family a chance to show off Harborcenter as a worldclass entertainment venue. Buffalo’s development of the canalside district and the waterfront have also been featured. Our own Division I college basketball teams, St. Bonaventure and the University of Buffalo, have both made recent tournament appearances.
I believe Buffalo is undergoing a resurgence of sorts and reemerging as a real basketball town. There are several former NBA players who are now coaching at the college level in Western New York. For example, Donyell Marshall is an assistant to Head Coach Nate Oats at UB. Marshall was a first round, fourth overall pick and played in the NBA from 1994-2009. Current NBA player Jonas Jerebko, whose family lives in Lancaster, is a forward for the Boston Celtics. Jerebko’s father, Pete, played for Depew High School and set scoring records at Lemoyne College. He is now the Athletic Director at Erie Community College. David Hart, class of 1983, is in the Buffalo State Athletics Hall of Fame. Hart’s son Matt is a junior guard for Division I George Washington, a team that upset No. 6 ranked Virginia earlier this year. At least one NBA scout that I know of still has a house in Clarence, New York. So there are plenty local basketball ties.
Growing up, our neighbor used to take his daughter and me to Buffalo Braves games[i]. NBA games are, in my opinion, the most family friendly of all professional sports. And the most inclusive. Like many young women in WNY I played basketball in high school. I never played hockey or football. Although I enjoy both, I do not have the love or appreciation for them that I do for basketball. Off-the-court the players union is represented for the first time in their history by a woman, Michele Roberts, a lawyer by profession. On-the-court there is a woman referee, Lauren Holtkamp, and two women assistant coaches, Becky Hammon (Spurs) and Nancy Lieberman (Kings). Not to mention that women have their own professional league, the WNBA, that was founded in 1996 with the full backing of the NBA.
Inspired by these changes, after 20 years of practicing law I decided earlier this year to apply for certification from the National Basketball Players’ Association to be a player-agent.[ii] I have represented my share of athletes on both civil and criminal matters but I wanted to get more involved in the overall sports life of the client. It’s been great getting the chance to talk basketball with other agents, local college coaches, scouts and execs from several NBA teams.
Over the past month, I’ve gone to three cities to see basketball games; Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto. These Great Lakes cities are all within easy driving distance for fans from Buffalo. Cleveland and Toronto are both about 2 hr. 20 mins and Detroit is just over a 4 hour drive through Canada. The games are affordable, fast-paced, exciting and the arena entertainment adds to the overall experience for fans. All three teams are competitive this year. The Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pairing in Detroit is reminiscent of the legendary Buffalo Brave combination of Ernie “D”[iii]-Bob McAdoo[iv] (McAdoo was an assistant coach for the Miami Heat for 18 seasons until last year; http://www.nba.com/coachfile/bob_mcadoo). Cleveland has Lebron James and is the 2015 Eastern Conference Champion.[v] Toronto has a dynamic trio in Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan and Demarre Carroll.
I propose that one time per year, two of the Great Lakes teams play a regular season game in Buffalo. An annual NBA game in the First Niagara Center: Cleveland-Toronto, Cleveland-Detroit, Toronto-Detroit. Alternate teams every year. A sure sellout. It is a very different experience being at a game in person than watching it on tv. Fans quickly become personally invested. Even if they only go to one game a year, they still may be consumers of NBA products; whether NBA League Pass, NBA.com clothing/gear, videogames, or other memorabilia. And the payoff may last for more than one season even if they don’t go back to another game. The easiest way to create more fans is to have them attend a game.
My husband attended games with me last month. From a marketing point of view, that meant two people spending money on tickets, food, drinks, and souvenirs at each arena (we are now the proud owners of a 3-1/2 foot
LeBron James bobblehead). We also went out to a couple of local establishments (Ciccarelli’s, Gretzky’s & Pannini’s) in each city. We stayed at a hotel in Cleveland and Detroit. I have tickets to several more games in 2015-16. Now multiply the amount we spent by “X” number of people, like us, who decide to adopt the Cavs, Pistons or Raptors as their “home” team. Now multiply that number for every year that the NBA plays here. Finding a new market and growing the popularity of the NBA would be a win-win prospect.
Professional sports teams playing in alternate venues is not a new concept. For example, under previous ownership, the Buffalo Bills played once a year in the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The team also began to hold training camp at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, just under 2 hours from their stadium in Orchard Park. Geographically southern Ontario fans have always made up a small but steady share of ticket revenue for Bills games. This was a chance to test the demand for an NFL team in Toronto’s large sports market if the Bills were sold to a Canadian buyer when former owner Ralph Wilson died. In my opinion the main purpose wasn’t simply to increase the popularity of the sport in an untapped market; it was to entice potential buyers and drive up the purchase price of the team. But the point is, it is possible for a professional sports team and their fans to adjust to one game during the season being played at a foreign venue.
The NBA game has changed dramatically since the early ‘80s and has really exploded in popularity in the last 10 years. Playing a game in Buffalo would allow some older fans who haven’t followed the pro game in a while to re-familiarize themselves with the League’s more professional on-court product and cleaned-up image. Younger fans, or those who can’t afford to travel out of town to attend a game, would be thrilled to see players they’ve only previously had the chance to watch on tv or stream on their computer. As an NCAA host city Buffalo’s arena has proven easily converted from hockey to basketball. There are adequate media facilities, parking and other amenities. Buffalo would be showcased in other NBA cities and the event could be a talking point for officials at the Buffalo-Niagara convention and tourism bureau (www.visitbuffaloniagara.com). The NBA doesn’t need to commit to more than one year at a time. If I’m wrong and the game doesn’t generate interest or cross-marketing opportunities or have a measurable economic benefit, then they end the experiment.
I think the idea of playing a pro game in Buffalo is good for basketball fans, good for Western New York and good for the NBA. The logistics can be worked out. For example, the host committee for the NCAA tournament that has experience promoting basketball games here could be a key partner in the effort along with Pegula Sports and the Snyder Corporation. Other local businesses would surely step up to participate. President and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, could bring government resources to the table with the help of our elected officials. I would volunteer to serve on a committee to study the feasibility of hosting the event or to resolve any legal issues. Together we can bring the NBA back to Buffalo.
[i] Paul Snyder had purchased the team and ultimately sold it in a deal involving SanDiego and Boston. Mr. Snyder, CEO & President of Snyder Corporation went on to develop Darien Lake Amusement Park and the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Buffalo. ( www.snydercorp.com)
[ii] certification by the NBPA allows me to act as agent for players in the NBA, WNBA and D-League players. As a lawyer I do not need separate certification to serve as an agent in the International League (FIBA).
[iii] On October 26,2015, Milt Northrup of the Buffalo News wrote an article about Ernie “D” DiGregorio, former Braves Rookie of the Year and third pick in the 1973 NBA draft, joining the Buffalo 716ers team of the American Basketball Association as director of community relations. The 716ers played last season in the Premier Basketball League, the same league as the Rochester Razor Sharks, whose owner also is the league chairman. Buffalo’s first home game on a 14-game league schedule will be Dec. 12 against the Northern Indiana Monarchs at the ECC Flickinger Athletics Center.
[iv] For more on McAdoo who left North Carolina before his senior year and signed with the Braves in 1972, went on to lead the League in scoring three straight years and was League MVP See Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald Journal, November 25, 1976 (news.google.com); www.nba.com/history/players/mcadoo_bio.html;
[v] Ironically, the Buffalo Braves were an expansion team in 1970 along with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They beat Cleveland in their first game and Cleveland went on to have the worst record in the League that year. The Braves were in Buffalo for a total of 8 years, making the playoffs in 1974, 1975 & 1976. The team was subsequently moved to SanDiego and became known as the Clippers. See NBA.com (official Buffalo Braves page)