CALLING ALL FANS:  HELP BRING AN NBA PRESEASON GAME TO BUFFALO IN 2018/2019

After hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week, Buffalo once again showed its passion for basketball. We are the former home of the Braves (now LA Clippers), have plenty of Division I college action, and we are a potential market for five pro teams and their D-league affiliates: Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Boston & the New York Knicks/Nets.  MSG TV, TSN, NBA TV will all provide coverage of the upcoming playoffs with expected ratings to be among the highest across the major professional sports leagues.

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Always interested in developing a shrinking number of untapped markets, you would think the NBA would have come calling on Western New York long ago.  After all, the Bills draw fans from Rochester to the East, Northwest Pennsylvania and Southern Ontario. We have travel and tourism groups working to promote the area; a number of former NBA players still live in Buffalo; the hotel industry is booming thanks to the Governor’s Buffalo Billion program; and we have the kind of faithful sports fans that still pine for the glory days of Bob McAdoo, Ernie D, Bob Lanier and Adrian Dantley.

So I’ve been working for a while with Coach Jim Baron and Paul Stasiak (NFADA) to entice a couple of NBA teams to schedule a preseason game here in Buffalo. We learned from the League Office that the teams make their own preseason schedule.  We started by contacting Detroit and Toronto.

The Knicks are further away but a Buffalo ex-pat is heading up MSG TV and signed a deal with the Pegulas to broadcast Sabres games.  A Knicks game in Buffalo sure sounds like additional good content.

Detroit has the most connections to Buffalo.  Coach Stan VanGundy was an Assistant Coach at Canisius College; Lindsey Hunter played for the Pistons and is now an Assistant Coach for the UB Bulls Men’s basketball team.  Not to mention that UB Head Coach Nate Oats came to us from Romulus high school in Detroit.  Bob Lanier was a Piston first round draft choice from St. Bonaventure.  It’s a 4-1/2 hour drive through Canada to the historic Palace in Auburn Hills or next year to the new Little Caesar’s arena in downtown Detroit.

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Toronto is the closest team, about 2 hours to the north via the QEW to the Air Canada Center.  Mark Jones from ESPN is from Toronto and growing up was a big fan of the Buffalo Braves.  The voice of the Raptors, Jack Armstrong, has family in Western New York. TSN television broadcasts are handled by Leo Rautins who played basketball for Syracuse University.  The Raptors availability in the short term may be limited because in the last few years they’ve committed to playing in the NBA Canada series during the preseason.

There are a number of other challenges.  One is that the new NBA collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league reduced the number of preseason games from 8 to 6.

The next concern is financial.  One of the teams would have to be the “home” team; i.e. on the hook for expenses incurred by having the game here. Costs associated with the arena, advertising, etc. We have to find out what the “guarantee” is – how many tickets we have to “guarantee” we can sell and at what price.  That information will come from the team that considers Buffalo as a home game.

We made some very preliminary inquiries to Pistons management who expressed possible interest if they were the visiting team. We have also reached out to the Raptors management.  Obviously, they are coming down the stretch in the Eastern Conference and then looking ahead to playoffs in April and May; after which their attention will be focused on the NBA draft in June.  It will be tough to keep a discussion going with them now about a preseason game in Buffalo in the next year or two but we will try to stay on their radar.

Until we get a commitment from at least one team we can’t really go full steam ahead to solicit corporate sponsors. I’ve been doing my research and making some contacts with businesses and professionals in marketing.  The age-old problem in Buffalo is that we don’t have any Fortune 500 companies here.  But I have a few ideas about marketing the event that we can explore with local companies.  The teams also have their own personnel who have experience hosting games in different venues.  Over the next few months I’ll continue to mention the prospect of sponsorships to national companies during my networking on behalf of R1 Sports Mgnt clients.

Locally, Mayor Brown and Russ Brandon have publicly expressed support for getting the NBA to come to Buffalo.  Business leaders, the NCAA host committee and power brokers like the Pegulas and the Jacobs family will ultimately make this happen but we have to show them that there’s a demand for the event.

So if you’d like to see an NBA preseason game here this is what we need:  please forward this article to anyone you know who would be interested; “like” it on twitter, re-post it on your Facebook page or Instagram account.  Let’s create some social media buzz about this idea.

Our friends in traditional broadcast media and the Buffalo News, like interim Buffalo News sports editor Keith McShea, will be allies and advocates.  Lisa Wilson who ran the News’ sports department for the past six years just started March 13th as sports editor of ESPN’s The Undefeated.  Somebody must have her new email address.  There are Buffalonians all over the country, like Gail Hunter who is Vice President of Public Affairs and Event Management for the Golden State Warriors, that if called upon, would help.  Not to mention our local coaches and players who all have extensive lists of basketball contacts. Build support for the game and they will come.

So Let’s Go Buffalo – let the Raptors and Pistons know that “We the North” and “The Grind” were a way of life here long before becoming team slogans. That the “Home of the Braves” is still home to the NBA.

 

 

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith for President

Nelson Mandela famously said “I never lose. I either win or learn”. That’s an appropriate sentiment with which to begin reflection on the lessons of last week’s presidential election. With the noise and vitriol fading, now is the time to take stock of where we stand as a country in the days since my candidate lost. Lest you think my candidate was HRC, and at the risk of taking a page out of Jay Cutler’s playbook, I will tell you for whom I cast my vote. Like Inside the NBA’s Ernie Johnson, I too wrote-in my choice for President: Stephen A. Smith.

As a white, 50-year old woman living in Buffalo New York, I have been told that I am a statistical demographic whose vote could have gone either way last week. I live in an economically depressed sports and former steel town; in the once-upon-a-time tony suburbs of a traditionally left-leaning county in Western New York. Had any of the pundits or pollsters bothered to ask me, I would have told them my political views mirror my choices in sports teams—not blindly loyal to only one team, year after year; accustomed to heartbreaking losses (Bills “wide right” / Sabres “no goal”) and defining a “win”, at times, differently from the rest of the country.

Stephen A. has recognized for a while now the interrelation between sports and politics.   His commentaries have a depth of vision that make the recent well-intentioned protest efforts of some NBA players seem less like a moral and organic movement and more like an ordinary and temporary reaction. In speaking about politics and sports, Stephen A. is the voice of middle America—not “white America” or “black America”, but rather the America of the loyal but discouraged who, like himself,  still have a lot of fight left. I never feel like he is talking down to me on First Take; I feel he is talking to me, not about me. He doesn’t distinguish between college educated and non-college educated people like the professional politicos do. He knows what I know: that even though I had the privilege of going to college, while most in my family did not, they are smarter than me in a lot of ways and half of them make more money.  Smith is unique in how he gets his political message across to sports fans. He can talk about political topics in a way that makes it seem like we are sitting across the dinner table from each other with the rest of our family.

Smith, long before Trump made it a campaign slogan, has always “told it like it is”. He took heat for saying that he thought the elite media was biased toward HRC [1] But is there any doubt in hindsight that the New York Times and mainstream “news” channels could barely conceal their deep disappointment about the results last Tuesday? He called out San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick: not because Kaepernick cared enough about social justice to take a knee; but rather because he didn’t care enough to take the time to exercise our most important right as citizens in a democracy. Smith passionately excoriated him for not voting, then announcing it and setting the wrong example for the kids who look up to him as a professional athlete.[2]

Stephen A. also came under fire with some groups when he said the Democratic Party took the black vote for granted, to the detriment of blacks.[3] His point was that the Democrats can be your favorite team but if they are playing poorly, raising ticket prices and disrespecting your fan loyalty, you may want to check out what others have to offer, consider your options, show them respect runs both ways.

Smith pointed out that African Americans heard something different when Trump said “Make America Great Again”. He said they heard “Make America White Again”.[4] Just as many career women heard him say “Make America a Men’s Locker Room Again”. Trump donned a baseball hat and talked about HRC’s lack of stamina. Sports metaphors have always been an effective communication device. Politics as sport and Sports infused with politics is our reality in America today.

In contrast to Kaepernick’s silent, symbolic protest, Smith joined many NBA players, as an active and vocal critic of the injustice they see in America. While stars like Carmelo Anthony[5], Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade speak out on behalf of political causes and give their followers an outlet for their frustrations, Smith is their articulator-in-chief. Whitehouse press conferences would be relevant again if Stephen A. was the President, or even if he was the Whitehouse spokesperson (Mr. Trump are you listening?)

Events like Trayvon Martin’s murder, gang violence in Chicago, and racially inflammatory speech during the election all inspired NBA players and coaches[6] to DO something, to ACT[7]in the face of racism. I applaud these efforts but want to hold up a mirror for one second. Stephen A. why don’t we hear players asking why Becky Hammon (thanks Pop!) and Nancy Lieberman are the only women coaches in the NBA and demanding equality in that regard? You can hardly find a basketball blog that doesn’t have sponsored ads at the end depicting women in various states of undress. Players in recent memory have been guilty of tweeting pics of their girlfriend’s behinds. Many NBA dance teams put more emphasis on being sexually alluring than showcasing the quite obvious athleticism it takes to entertain crowds for two hours.  Thank heaven for Michelle Roberts. Like so many men, JR Smith wonders what to tell his daughters about the outcome of this election.[8] Its not what you tell her JR, its what you do to make sure she doesn’t experience prejudice the way you do. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to say to her, you should be asking yourself what you’re going to do so that she is never made to feel “less than”.

In this new politically aware age of the NBA, lets see some more white players don a hoodie. And lets not forget to protest discrimination in all its forms. While NBA Commissioner Adam Silver may be the choice of progressive liberals to run for president in 2020[9] I’m supporting a Stephen A. Smith candidacy. He’s a true independent. A man of the people; A voice for all of us out here in the heartland, united behind the NBA and our country even if it they aren’t always perfect.

[1] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2016/11/11/espns-stephen-a-media-literally-tried-to-win-election-for-hillary-sidekick-disputes/

[2] see Twitter @firsttake @stephenasmith November 10, 2016

[3] http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/03/18/espns-stephen-a-smith-for-one-election-every-black-person-should-vote-republican/

[4] http://defendernetwork.com/videos/trending/stephen-smith-reacts-trump-winning-election/

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/sports/basketball/carmelo-anthony-lebron-james-election.html?_r=0

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/sports/basketball/kerr-gundy-popovich-criticize-donald-j-trump.html

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/11/10/the-message-was-loud-and-clear-in-nba-and-nfl-a-struggle-to-accept-trumps-election/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/11/09/raw-emotions-surface-as-nba-player-asks-how-to-explain-trumps-election-to-his-daughter/?tid=a_inl

[9] http://paceandspacehoops.com/posts/29167112/why-nba-commissioner-adam-silver-should-run-for-president-in-2020.html

 

A Tribute to Coach Jim Baron

(by guest author Kyle Clarke; edited by Cheryl Meyers Buth)  

 Canisius College Basketball Coach Jim Baron walked away from a legendary career this past March to spend more time with his family.  He retired as he had always coached, with class; a noble warrior quietly heading home after battle.  He embodied Theodore Roosevelt’s famous description of the character of men, seemingly so rare these days, who humbly dedicate themselves to our mutual betterment:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

(Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910).

Having coached at two Division I schools in Western New York, St. Bonaventure and Canisius (and the University of Rhode Island in between), Coach Baron earned a special place in the hearts of local college basketball fans. On the occasion of his unexpected retirement, he offered fans a glimpse into his life beyond coaching: “I have given this decision a lot of thought and I just feel like it is time for me to step aside,” Baron said in a statement at his retirement press conference. “This profession demands a lot. I recently went overseas to see my boys play basketball professionally and there I realized, I have not been able to see them or my granddaughters much at all the last few years. I want to be a dad and I want to be a grandfather.”

Before becoming the patriarch of his own family, Coach Baron enjoyed a basketball life as both a player and coach himself. He was born in Brooklyn. His personality, style of play, and coaching mentality all reflect the toughness he learned growing up. He played for St. Bonaventure in the mid-70’s where he was known for his hard-nosed, defensive play. Baron was a talented scorer but he was typically tasked with the job of shutting down the opposing team’s best players. He played a key role in leading the Bonnies to the NIT Championship in 1977 and, notably, also earned “The Ideal Bonaventure Student” award. In later days he always held up the notion of the student-athlete as a worthy and necessary ideal to be achieved.

After graduating from college, Coach Baron went on to play professionally with the Rochester Zeniths of the Continental Basketball Association and won a championship in 1979. The Zeniths played in downtown Rochester, New York at what is now known as Blue Cross Arena.

Coach Baron’s first coaching position was as an assistant at Aquinas Institute in Rochester, New York. The following year, Baron became an assistant coach at NCAA Division III Rochester University. Baron quickly rose through the college coaching ranks, becoming an assistant at Division I Loyola College in Maryland.  In 1980, Coach Baron had an opportunity to return to his alma mater as assistant coach for St. Bonaventure University. Following a short stint with his former team, Baron joined the Notre Dame coaching staff, learning under the legendary Digger Phelps as an assistant coach from 1981 to 1987. There, Baron helped Notre Dame make the NCAA Tournament in 1985, ’86 & ’87. The Irish were ranked in the top 25 in both 1986 and 1987.  In 1988, Coach Baron received his first Division I coaching job at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania.

When Coach Baron set foot on the St. Francis (PA) campus, the basketball program was in rough shape. In the five years prior to Baron’s tenure, the Red Flash accumulated a record of 54-85, a win percentage of just 38.8%. From the time that he took over to when his tenure with the team had ended, Baron’s record was 74-71 with a win percentage of 51.0%. The highlight of his time with the Red Flash was the 1991 season which saw the team clinch their first and only NCAA Tournament berth in school history. Due to the success that he was able to achieve with St. Francis (PA) he was then afforded an opportunity that very few coaches receive in their careers.

In 1992, Coach Baron took over the basketball program at his alma mater of St. Bonaventure University. He lived up to his reputation of turning around struggling basketball programs. Similar to his experience at St. Francis, Coach Baron was dealt a bad team in a tough conference and was asked to make the Bonnies competitive. Prior to his arrival the Bonnies had just a 34.3% win percentage during the tenure of its last two head coaches. During his tenure Baron was able to revive the program, accumulating a 50.2% win percentage and leading the Bonnies to three NIT and one NCAA tournament appearances. The Bonnies came into their 2000 NCAA tournament game matched as the 12th seed playing Tubby Smith’s 5th seeded Kentucky Wildcats, that included eventual NBA players Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince, and Jamaal Magliore.  The Bonnies were able to mount a fierce second half come back and push Kentucky to double overtime before falling to the Wildcats by a score of 85-80.

I remember going to grammar school that day in my Bonaventure jersey and our teacher allowing us to watch the game and share in that experience with the team and the rest of the community. During his time as head coach, Baron left an unforgettable impression on the residents in Olean, New York; and to this day I still enjoy the “Baron Sausage Sandwich” at the local Angee’s Italian Restaurant. Bonnies’ fans will always compare teams to Coach Baron’s squads and the exciting way winning a basketball game can unify a small town and beyond.

After a nine year stint with his alma mater, Baron was hired away by in-conference rival University of Rhode Island. Baron’s longest coaching tenure was with the Rams where he spent eleven seasons. Coach Baron took what had been a mediocre team and turned them into consistent conference contenders, finishing in the top half of the conference standings in all but four of those eleven seasons.  Coach Baron led Rhode Island to five NIT appearances, in which the best season ended with an NIT semifinals appearance. The Rams pushed eventual champion University of North Carolina to within one point of elimination in an overtime thriller. The highlight of Baron’s time in Rhode Island however was coaching his oldest son, Jim Baron Jr., for four seasons. During his playing career Jimmy was a 3-point specialist. He holds many Atlantic 10 Conference records for both single season and career marks. Jimmy is still currently the all-time leader for the Rams in 3-pt Field Goals made, 7th in 3-pt Field Goals Attempted, 4th in 3-pt Field Goal Percentage, and 3rd in True Shooting Percentage.

In 1992, Coach Baron decided to accept a job that brought him back to Western New York, as head coach of the Canisius College Golden Griffins.  Canisius College had a proud basketball tradition. The legendary John Beilein had coached the team 15 years before.  In the interim, the Golden Griffs had just one winning season. Over the course of the previous five seasons before Baron showed up, they had a win percentage of just 33.7 %. And once again, as has been the common theme throughout Baron’s career, he made an instant impact. Following a season where the Golden Griffs won a mere 5 games, Coach Baron was able to win 20 games immediately upon taking the helm. In fact, in his four years with the team Coach Baron was able to accumulate a 55.3% win percentage and a post-season berth to the College Basketball Invitational in three of his four seasons. Similar to his experience at the University of Rhode Island, Coach Baron was afforded the opportunity to coach his youngest son, Billy Baron. Billy was able to shine for his team where he averaged 20.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 5.1 apg over the course of two seasons with the team. During the 2013-2014 season Billy earned MAAC Player of The Year honors behind a 24.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 5.3 apg effort to accompany a 20-win season for the team.  As Coach Baron referenced in his retirement press conference, both of his sons, Jimmy and Billy, are currently playing for successful European basketball teams.

Attorney Sal Martoche, former Appellate Division Judge and United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, is also a Canisius College graduate and basketball season ticket holder. I was able to talk to Judge Martoche about what Coach Baron meant to the program over his 4 years with the school and the praise was overwhelming: “Jim brought such a fire and passion to the sidelines. We have not seen a competitor like him since John Beilein”, Judge Martoche told me. He also recalls how adaptable Coach Baron’s teams were throughout the years stating that “if a team wanted to slow down and play in the half court, Jim could do it. If they wanted to get out and run and play at a quicker pace, Jim could do it.” We spoke of the great discipline that Coach Baron brought to the game and how he was able to get so much out of the players he recruited.

One thing Coach Baron was always good at is recruiting local talent. For example, at Canisius he was able to get players such as Phil Valentie (Aquinas Institue), Adam Weir (Canisius HS), and Jermaine Crumpton (Niagara Falls HS). Along with giving local players a chance to play at the Division 1 level, Coach Baron was able to help his players achieve something that can be easily forgotten in the world of collegiate sports — a college degree. “If his graduation rate isn’t at 100% than it is very, very close” said Judge Martoche.

While he had the privilege of teaching his players the invaluable lessons that all athletes learn through competition such as discipline, hard work, respect for each other, and teamwork, Coach Baron was able to give his players a chance at life after basketball. They can take off their jersey and put down the basketball, but nobody can take away the memories; intense games, road trips, the feeling of enjoying a good team win or busting your butt in practice following a loss. And most importantly, nobody can take away the education that was earned throughout the time they were fortunate enough to learn something about life from Coach Baron.

While in the coaching arena, before his eyes passed the shadows cast by other legends of the coaching world, great masters of the game; Coach Baron stood as tall as any of them in his love of the game, talent and leadership. His legacy is in the imprint he left on innumerable student-athletes for whom he was mentor, surrogate father and role model. As Theodore Roosevelt concluded his tribute to one of our greatest allies at the Sarbonne in 1910: “You have had a great past. I believe you will have a great future.”  We wish you all the best on the road ahead, Coach. You have set an example for all of us, no matter our walk of life. You have given us the gift of shared memories and taught us how to win in the face of adversity and how to lose with grace.  On behalf of a grateful community of basketball fans, we sincerely thank you.

 

Sources:

Wikipedia

St. Bonaventure“, College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com

http://www.sportsreference.com/schools/st-bonaventure/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

 

Canisius“, College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com.

Http://www.sports reference.com/cbb/schools/canisius/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

 

Saint Francis (PA)” College Basketball at Sports-Reference.com.

Http://www.sportsreference.com/cbb/schools/saint-francis-pa/, 1 Jan. 2000. Web. 19 Sept. 2016.

 

Player Bio: Jim Baron” Player Bio: Jim Baron. N.P., 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Underdog Narrative: A Brand Biography that fits Buffalo Businesses

In January 2016, I launched R1 Sports Mgnt, after being certified by the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) as an agent. I plan to continue working in my law firm but did not expect my partners to financially back a business idea with long odds of success; and, for many reasons, one in which I would be considered an underdog. I structured the company so the success or failure of R1 Sports Mgnt would not affect the profitability of our law practice.

Since founding our law firm in January 2013 and now with R1 Sports Mgnt, developing marketing and branding strategies have obviously been a priority. Thinking about attracting clients necessarily involves thinking about who we are and the identity of the company. Would the success I’ve had practicing law translate to being successful as an Agent? If I was an underdog, how would that translate into my company’s biography and marketing plan? After a lot of thought, for me it comes down to a simple question: Are we “Nike” (inspirational, elite and exceptional) or are we “Under Armour” (no expectation for success but beating the odds through hard work)?

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Last week the Boston Celtics played the Memphis Grizzlies at TD Garden. I was lucky enough to sit in the first row behind the media. When the players made their entrance, “IT4”, Isaiah Thomas, looked even shorter than he does on television. The height differential with other players is shocking when you see him up close. How could someone at such a disadvantage because of his size have achieved all-star status? Playing in a sport where lack of height is almost an insurmountable disability, Thomas must have been considered an “underdog” his entire career. Yet he was the one we were there to watch. He got the ball for Boston’s first possession and I rooted for him, this small man among giants to succeed against such odds. And he did. In fact, he took over the game because he is so fast—he gets out on the break and even when outsized moves so quickly its hard to see everything he’s doing.

A few days after the Celtics game, the University at Buffalo Men’s and Women’s basketball teams won the MAC Championship and earned bids in the NCAA Tournament. With simultaneous victories in the MAC championship by the men’s and women’s teams, local sportscasters were proclaiming a “historic day”, “the best day in Buffalo basketball since the Braves left town”, and on ESPN Sportscenter they were referred to as “Buffalo Buzzer beaters”. For the men, it was a back-to-back conference championship and national tourney appearance. The Women had never played in the NCAA tournament.

No one had high expectations for either team at the beginning of the season. The UB basketball program had suffered a black eye in 2015 when the MAC player of the year was suspended from school, former Coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State with another of the standout players, and Athletic Director Danny White left for a job in Florida. First year head coach Nate Oats and newly appointed Athletic Director Allen Greene were left trying to right the ship without any big name players. By any definition, UB would have earned the title “underdogs”.

In 2010, Harvard Business School researcher Anat Keinan published the results of a study[i] of how companies intentionally communicated their humble roots to consumers as part of their underdog brand biographies[ii]. These researchers wanted to see the application of such constructs specifically in the area of consumer marketing and product branding. The question was whether consumers would identify with the disadvantaged position of the company and its passion and determination to succeed. Not that those companies were never successful or met with less success than competitors; rather they highlight humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and struggles against adversity in terms of a disparity in resources; economic, educational or personal obstacles; or other external factors in the process of achieving success. In other words, their marketing highlights their journey toward their goal instead of the attainment of the goal itself.

We are familiar with numerous other iterations of this theme: David vs. Goliath, loser vs. winner, rags to riches. Underdogs show qualities of perserverence and resilience, determination and defying others’ expectations. Examples of underdog marketing run the gamut from Oprah Winfrey’s success after overcoming abuse, sexism and racism; to Apple, a company started by Steve Jobs in his garage; to Under Armour taking on Nike[iii].

Kevin Plank founded Under Armour in 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland (see http://www.ua.com). Less than twenty years later the company is second in market share to Nike, having displaced Adidas, and its products are sold worldwide. Plank was 23 years old and started the company in his grandmother’s basement. He maxed out his credit cards to get about $40,000 for start-up costs and had spent through nearly all of it in a year. He sold clothing out of the trunk of his car. His first team sale was for $17,000, took almost a year, and came right before his business was poised to go under.

Under Armour didn’t find success by imitating Nike, but rather by focusing on what differentiated them: “We work with athletes who most people wouldn’t or didn’t draft in the first round, or who they wouldn’t traditionally give a prima ballerina title to. We pick that athlete with a chip on their shoulder and their desire to win because it aligns with their own attitude”.[iv] For example, Steph Curry, someone who attained success by training every day to become a better shooter and keeps working at it even after a record-setting season (seemingly the incarnation of their slogan “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you I the light”).

Other examples that would fit Under Armour’s brand might be Herb Brooks and the US Olympic Hockey team. Closer to home, Randy Smith of the Buffalo Braves would seem to be an ambassador for Under Armour rather than Nike. Smith went to a Division III school, wasn’t drafted by Buffalo until the seventh round, 104th overall, and was a longshot to even make the team. Not only did he make it, he was the MVP of the 1978 All-Star game. He set the NBA iron man record playing in 906 games and it took 14 years for that record to be broken.

Nike partners with the most successful athletes and they urge consumers to “just do it” –there are no excuses for not reaching your potential. Under Armour looks at what happens after that initial effort, after “just do it” and partners with athletes who embody qualities of hard work, with a “things don’t come easy” attitude, to sustain success. Where Nike is inspirational, Under Armour is reality; its about the dirty, sweaty work that goes into actually being successful.

I think its an interesting dichotomy – why people find themselves aligned with the underdog who is expected to lose, when most people would say they want to associate themselves with winners. The Harvard team included researchers in marketing and psychology. They found that there were not many studies about the underdog narrative, especially consumer-related models. They theorized that these types of stories resonate with people more during difficult social, economic and political times, giving people hope when the outlook is otherwise bleak.

For the past thirty years, financial crises and income inequality have become mainstays in American life. People are working harder and more hours for less money and few find their jobs rewarding enough to justify the effort. Buffalo, a small city, has struggled – it has been economically depressed and faced an unequal playing field in business, leading to difficulty attracting companies and keeping younger members of the workforce from leaving. In Buffalo there is at least a perception of a lack of social mobility, blue-collar values are a strong undercurrent in the local culture. Buffalo may be particularly well situated for this type of marketing. In other words, the more a person perceives himself/herself as struggling against the odds, the more appeal for the underdog brand.

 

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Whether we are talking about a company finding the right athlete for its brand, or thinking about a marketing campaign for a university or our city, the underdog narrative is one that will continue to play well in Buffalo. One thing I’ve learned is that to be successful you have to know who you are and be authentic. I am a Buffalo gal through and through. For me, if its between “Just Do It” or “Protect this House”, I believe its not enough to “just do it”, you have to plan and prepare for how you’re going to be successful. It takes hard work and grit and determination; not just today but everyday. It takes perserverence and thick skin, your own under armor. I may be an underdog but at R1 Sports we know “opportunity doesn’t have an offseason”. You have to keep working. Just ask the members of the UB basketball team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] “The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography”, journal of Consumer Research——-

[ii] refers to the story of a brand’s origins, experiences and evolution

[iii] see “Under Armour’s underdog strategy to becoming the anti-Nike”, Mallory Schlossberg, Business Insider 9/8/15

[iv] Id.

Coming Soon to an Arena Near You…NBA Basketball back in Buffalo?

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.

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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

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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)

What do a stingray, NBA legend Clifford Ray & the Orlando Magic have in common?

Although I usually blog about NBA legal/business topics, I’m going to veer from the normal path and write about my recent adventures in Florida.

On October 9th, while on vacation, I was swimming in the ocean at St. Pete’s Beach when I must have kicked a stingray. Its venomous bony tail snapped up and the ray punctured my left ankle. I felt a sudden sharp pain and when I looked down saw the head, of what I thought was a shark, swimming in front of me from left to right just under the surface. The stingray was a light tan color and appeared to be about 3 feet wide. I panicked and swam to shore barely able to hobble out of the water. The wound looked like someone had pounded a large nail into the side of my foot and it was bleeding profusely. My husband ran to the front desk of our hotel for help and they told him I’d have to go to the hospital. Since the hospital was only five minutes from our hotel down Gulf Blvd he told them to forget calling an ambulance. He said it would be faster not to wait. He grabbed me under the arm and more or less dragged me from the beach to the car.

The pain from the venom was excruciating. I began to shake uncontrollably and felt chilled. I later learned that the venom causes tissue damage and the necrotic tissue causes secondary infections and nerve damage. At the time, as the venom quickly spread, my foot, ankle and lower leg started to swell. The venom spread under the skin like spilled ink turning my foot gradually a mix of red and blue.

My husband ran into the hospital and came back with a wheelchair. He ran behind the wheelchair pushing me toward the emergency department. As soon as we came through the door the nurse skipped the routine questions about insurance and got up and retrieved a basin of steaming hot water. He poured in some betadine and forced my foot down into the water. It was counterintuitive, but the hot water actually helped combat the pain by breaking up the protein in the venom. Our intial instinct was to get ice to counteract the swelling, which would have been exactly the wrong thing to do. Several hours later, after x-rays to make sure no foreign objects were in my ankle and nothing was broken, I was given a prescription for antibiotics and told to keep my leg elevated.

Hospital personnel downplayed the seriousness of the injury. I’ve broken bones & not been in so much pain. For the next three days I was non-weightbearing. Gradually, as the swelling subsided and the infection healed I was able to begin limping around. It took about three weeks and another round of antibiotics before I totally healed.

In the meantime, still on vacation, we had tickets for the Magic/Heat preseason game on October 13th and there was no way I was missing it. We skipped all of our other planned activities but not this one. It took a while but I was able to limp from the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge to the arena. Any truly dedicated basketball fan, with tickets on the floor, would have dragged a disfigured foot behind him/her and withstood the pain rather than miss an opportunity to sit right behind the players.

On the street they blasted music with a Mexican or Spanish beat and there were a lot of European fans, talking in a multitude of languages, about the professional soccer stadium that was going to be built a couple blocks away. The only bars and restaurants were two blocks over from the arena and none of them were crowded. It was definitely a family atmosphere with kids lining up with their parents to get inside the souvenir store at the arena entrance.

When we walked into the arena, this was the view from our second row seats behind the visiting Heat bench next to the water cooler. The usher told us the only thing that could get us into trouble was putting our drinks on top of the cooler. There was a hallway parallel to the baseline that led under the stands to the locker room. A rope was all that separated fans from players. Veteran players Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosch & Chris Anderson made my husband look tiny despite being 6’7” tall. The difference is how wide these guys are which is something that you can’t appreciate on television. TV also gives you no real idea how fast the game is or how much ground they cover in just two or three strides. Rookie Justice Winslow from Duke was solid muscle and already has the build of a mature man.

I was surprised how much the players on the bench were into the game. They were focused, listened to the coaches. Clearly Chris Bosch is their leader. He was vocal, helping the young Heat players recognize picks and cuts, and taunting “rook…rook….make the free throw rook….” whenever one of the Magic rookies went to the foul line. He seemed to be getting to Magic PF Aaron Gordon who, after an impressive dunk, motioned to the Heat bench in a kind of “how do you like that?” way. Bosch laughed out loud and mocked him. But then actually sat down next to Dwayne Wade and quietly said “that was impressive”. It was hilarious to watch all of this up close.

Wade and especially Bosch seemed to mentor Justice Winslow. Bosch walked up to him at many of the stoppages of play and spoke to him. Winslow would nod. After one good drive to the basket, Bosch yelled “that’s it…that’s it” and I finally saw Winslow smile.

Victor Oladpio played some minutes in the game and the Heat players talked among themselves about him. Judging by the jerseys being sold in the fan store, he is definitely a crowd favorite. Elfrid Payton’s was the only other number I saw anyone wearing.

I was hoping to get a chance to see Magic PF Andrew Nicholson who went to St. Bonaventure University south of Buffalo in Olean, New York. Ever since the Buffalo Braves left in 1978 and eventually became the LosAngeles Clippers, we have rooted for the local players who end up making it to the NBA. Christian Laettner (Duke), Damone Brown (Syracuse), Andrew Nicholson, Jonas Jerebko (Depew), Clifford Robinson (Riverside) – Buffalonians don’t have one team that we root for; rather we cheer for any team that has a player who used to be one of us.

Looking over to the right of the players bench, near the basket, there was a man sitting in the front row that had legs as big as tree trunks. I am not exaggerating. Despite simply being dressed in a mint green polo and shorts his size alone caused him to stand apart from the crowd. He made the Heat players look skinny. We learned from a security guard it was former Chicago Bulls & Golden State Warriors 6’9” center Clifford Ray. He sat alone, didn’t really talk to anyone except a couple of Heat players that went over to shake his hand. Security told us he comes to a lot of the Magic games. After his playing career he was an assistant coach in the league including for the Magic from 2005-2010. He may have been helping with some scouting or he might have just been enjoying the game.

The Heat coach, Eric Spoelstra, looked like an honor student still in college because of a combination of his smaller stature and baby-faced, clean-shaven features. Despite appearances, he clearly had control of the bench and used quick hand signals to direct the players on the floor. When he wanted to make a substitution, he would say a player’s name in a normal tone of voice – “Rich” for Josh Richardson or “you wanna get in?” while looking at a training camp invitee-all downplayed and understated. Not at all what I expected – even during the timeouts when he grabbed a chair and clipboard, he spoke articulately and quickly but did not get overly excited or raise his voice.

There were three assistant coaches sitting on the other side of our water cooler – I couldn’t figure out what their role was except that a member of the Magic arena staff would deliver printed stats to one of them at the end of each quarter. Otherwise, they had no apparent role during the game.

The rest of the assistant coaches sat on the bench between coach Spoelstra and the players. Notably, among them was Juwan Howard, one of the legendary “Fab Five” at the University of Michigan. As he walked out at halftime and my husband yelled “Fab Five” Howard reached over and gave him a fist bump. Howard was very active on the bench, during timeouts talking to the players, and clearly was enjoying himself.

My favorite moment, captured in the attached photo, was when Dwayne Wade let me take a picture of him. He didn’t play in the game but any disappointment at not seeing him play was made up for by getting to sit close enough that I pretended I was a member of the team.

So the moral of the story is… when you go through a very painful experience, keep going…it just may lead to something amazing. Think about what happened to me:  Sting…Heat…Ray…Magic!

Why the Conversation about Increasing Investment in the Developmental League has to Include Resolution of the CBA’s Minimum Age Restriction

The NBA Developmental League, known as the NBADL or “D-League”, is professional basketball’s minor league. Its inaugural season was 2001-02. It barely got a mention in the two CBA negotiations that followed its creation. Over the past 15 years it has often been neglected in favor of debate over trending topics such as the age minimum restriction of 19 which the NBA insisted on in the 2005 CBA. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts have both identified adjusting the age minimum as a potential issue for CBA negotiations this time around. However, neither Silver or Roberts has commented to a significant degree on the interconnectedness of the age minimum and the future of the D-League. Perhaps there are strategic reasons for keeping the two subjects separate in their public discourse; beyond that there is common ground. Recognizing their mutual interests in player development, the League and the Players’ Union should approach these discussions as equal partners; both sides can demonstrate leadership in the way they choose to create opportunities for individual players that define the future structure of professional basketball.

Other professional sports leagues have a longer history of dealing with the issues of minor league systems and age restrictions. For example, both the NHL and MLB, which draw from a pool of international, NCAA and minor league players, have well established “farm systems” in the American Hockey League and Minor League Baseball. Both professional hockey and baseball allow 18 year olds to be drafted.

By contrast, the NFL relies primarily, but not exclusively, on college football to supply its player stream. The NFL has had some sort of age limit in place since 1921. The biggest change came in 1990, when the NFL made college juniors or those who had been out of high school for three years draft eligible. (see NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement Article 6 Section 2(b)). The rationale underlying this rule is that it prevents players who are not fully physically developed from being injured.  Other professional sports that are arguably at least as dangerous as football, such as hockey or boxing, allow young athletes to compete at 18, as do professional golf, tennis and baseball. The counter-argument to the NFL injury concern is that college players risk career ending injuries without receiving a salary.

Generally speaking at 21, the NFL has the highest age minimum of all professional sports leagues in America, but it does not have the only one.  The National Basketball Association requires that players be at least 19 years old and 1 year removed from high school.  While Major League Baseball allows players to be drafted right out of high school it does require players attending 4-year colleges to complete their junior year or be 21 years old, while allowing Junior College players to enter the draft without restriction.

The NFL age restriction was challenged in the highly publicized case of Clarett v. National Football League. In 2003, Ohio State University running back, Maurice Clarett, was suspended for the season after a string of off field incidences.  Clarett was only a sophomore but decided to attempt to enter the NFL Draft.  Clarett filed suit in federal court in the Southern District of New York, claiming that the NFL’s age restriction was a violation of antitrust laws.  Clarett was initially successful forcing the NFL to appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and determined that the NFL’s age minimum was enforceable. The Court held that since the provision had been the subject of collective bargaining between a union and employer it was beyond the reach of antitrust legislation. Further, the Court rejected Clarett’s argument that the restriction places a hardship on prospective employees who were not part of the collective bargaining process. See “Why the NFL Age Minimum is Likely Here to Stay, Chuck Haven, February 24, 2013 (http://lawweb2009.law.villanova.edu/sportslaw/)

Based on legal precedents, as long as age restrictions are the product of collective bargaining they will likely continue to be upheld.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has gone on-the-record as favoring three related but potentially conflicting goals of (1) raising the NBA age minimum from 19 to 20 years old, (2) expanding the D-League, and (3) working with the NCAA on draft eligibility issues.

Right now expanding the D-League doesn’t cost the owners much at all so there is little reason Commissioner Silver would not be in favor of it. The D-League provides the benefit of being able to test some younger players without having to make any real financial commitment to them. Some D-League teams are owned directly by the parent club. Some are hybrids with the D-League team being owned separately but the affiliated parent team paying for basketball expenses. The salary cap is $173,000 per D-League team compared to the NBA salary cap of $70 million dollars for the 2015-16 season and almost $90 million dollars in 2016-17.

Commissioner Silver has also been vocal about his desire to see the age minimum restriction increased to 20 years of age. Currently, the age minimum for the NBA draft is 19 but the age minimum for the NBADL is only 18. So for those players who forego college they are eligible for the D-League draft right out of high school. It doesn’t make any sense that a player can be drafted by a league with teams affiliated with NBA teams but the same player cannot play in the NBA. One explanation for Silver’s position is that at 19 the owners have the benefit of seeing how a prospect performs for a year in college before making a decision about whether to draft him.

The rationale for the NFL’s minimum age restriction is at least colorable in light of the serious life-threatening injuries, including head injuries, that have been the subject of intense scrutiny of late. The NBA’s minimum age rule and the rationale for it are a little less clear. At the time of the 2005 NBA CBA negotiation, the popularity of professional basketball was declining. As discussed in my post comparing player discipline provisions in the NBA and NFL CBA’s (www.courtsidelawyer.com, Sept.2015) on November 19, 2004 the Detroit Pistons played the Indiana Pacers and the game ended in a melee where players on the Indiana Pacers (notably Ron Artest) rushed into the stands of the arena to fight fans. The NBA handed out some of the harshest penalties in league history.

In further response to this incident, the NBA adopted Article X into the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. That section addressed the issue of high school graduates foregoing college by restricting eligible NBA draftees to those at least nineteen years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held [Section 1(b)(i)] and any player who is not an “international player”, as defined in the CBA, must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class [Section 1(b)(ii)]. See “Article X of 2005 NBA CBA”, Kyle Shneider April 21, 2011 (http://prezi.com/user/yjqrdb5hptpu/) It was widely reported at the time that then-Commissioner David Stern insisted on the inclusion of this provision or threatened to walk away from negotiations.

The apparent rationale for Article X was the League’s belief that these incidents hurt the League’s image and were directly related to the players’ lack of maturity and college experience.  However, since the formation of the NBA in 1949 and prior to the 2005 CBA effective date, there were 45 players that skipped college and entered the NBA draft right out of high school; some have failed, but notable success stories include Moses Malone , Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudemire, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard.

“LeBron James could have gone to Ohio State for one season. He could have brought in millions of dollars in revenue for The Ohio State University (OSU) Athletic Department, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), television networks, and OSU sponsors. However, LeBron presumably would not have seen a single penny of the profits he produced. After one year as a Buckeye, having grown from an immature eighteen-year-old child to a nineteen-year-old man, equipped with one year of college education under his belt, he would have been allowed to enter the National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft. This, of course, was not the fate of LeBron James. Instead, in 2003, he went straight from high school to the NBA, where he signed a lucrative contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the youthful age of eighteen. In 2005, the NBA began barring high school players from participating in its draft. Had LeBron been born just two years later, he likely would have spent his first year after high school in a dorm room in Columbus rather than a mansion in Cleveland”. “CAN I SEE SOME ID?: AN ANTITRUST ANALYSIS OF NBA AND NFL DRAFT ELIGIBILITY RULES”, Steve E. Cavezza, 2009 University of Denver Sports and Entertainment Law Journal (https://www.law.du.edu/documents/sports-and-entertainment-law-journal/issues/09/Article2.pdf)

With very few alternatives available other than attending college, Article X has essentially forced many players to continue their education for at least a year. Many of the players who choose to go to college view it as an unnecessary step needed to gain access into the NBA. Some are not academically inclined. Poor classroom performance may discourage or disqualify them from ever obtaining a degree. Some may engage in conduct that hurts their university’s basketball program or jeopardizes its funding or future with the NCAA (for example, by committing recruiting violations or engaging in serious criminal conduct). Some may want to maximize the economic opportunities presented by the NBA draft at a young age. Some may not want to risk injury before they can start their pro careers. A “one-and-done” (one year in college until the player turns 19 and then entry into the NBA draft) player may scare away other valuable prospects at the same position that intend to spend more than one year in school.

By advocating raising the age minimum for the NBA draft, the Commissioner is trying to address “one and done” by forcing players to spend two years in college before they are eligible to play in the NBA. However, there is an inherent bias in Commissioner Silver’s paternalistic plan to raise the age minimum in favor of forcing players to attend college. A belief that the players are an interchangeable product that will all benefit from the seasoning college offers; that the League will be strengthened by a more mature and wholesome family image (one need only recall how the NBA media fell over itself during the 2015 playoffs to catch the ever-cuter chronicles of Riley Curry); not to mention the financial benefit to the owners by starting older players at base level compensation and, presumably, paying them for shorter periods of time (by at least two years).

Since the adoption of Article X in the 2005 CBA the NBA has enacted other regulations governing player conduct. These efforts to improve the League’s image have helped to increase the popularity of professional basketball. For example, the League imposed a Dress Code at the start of the 2005-06 season. The incorporation of tighter technical foul rules have caused the players to cut down on demonstrative, offensive and immature behavior on the court helping to clean-up the NBA’s image. [i]

The relationship between the D-League and the age minimum was summed up in an article penned by famous NBA player agent Arn Tellem. Tellem, who recently took a job as Vice Chairman of Palace Sports and Entertainment which owns the Detroit Pistons, wrote “D-League Deconstruction: The Necessary Plan to Fix the NBA’s Farm System” (http://grantland.com/the-triangle/d-league-deconstruction-the-necessary-plan-to-fix-the-nbas-farm-system/) In the March 2015 article, Tellem identified the problem and interrelationship of D-League neglect and the League age minimum as follows:

“The D-League rebranded itself and made its first major expansion in 2005, the same year the NBA and the players’ union agreed upon an age minimum of 19 years and one year removed from high school graduation. Any player who skips college is eligible to sign wih a D-League team. But the league’s salaries range from $13,000 to $25,500 – barely a liveable wage – which partly explains why no prospect would ever voluntarily choose the D-League over college.”

Commissioner Silver has stated one of his goals is to strengthen college basketball. He has been quoted as saying that the NBA bears some responsibility for the continued health of college basketball.[ii] By raising the age minimum he presumes players will stay in college. But it could also mean playing in the D-League or Europe for 2 years. He presumes by staying in college both the player and the college team will benefit. As discussed above, forcing players to stay in college along with the pressures of meeting eligibility requirements might actually hurt college basketball as a whole.[iii] The other option is to send these presumably “too immature for prime time” players across the ocean to play in foreign countries without family or other support. Or they can stay at home and play for the D-League[iv] at unreasonably low wages, assuming players could afford to do so and still be around for the NBA draft when they turn 20.

As one author has interpreted both Commissioner Silver’s remarks and those of his predecessor David Stern

“The true motivation behind the age rule is likely the use of the NCAA as a free farm system. The NBA does not have a minor league system like Major League Baseball because the NCAA acts as the NBA’s minor league. Best of all for the NBA, this farm system comes at no cost to the league. The NBA tries to hide this under the guise of “enhancing college basketball.”The NFL made a similar argument in Clarett when it argued that, by excluding the most talented college players from the NFL, it was sustaining “the NCAA’s ability to compete in the entertainment market.” This justification did not succeed because it was simply sacrificing competition in one market, the NFL, for the sake of increased competition in another market, the NCAA. The current NBA age restriction merely allows the league’s teams to watch a player and see how he competes at the college level and develops over his freshman season. This is to the detriment of the player who is not eligible to make a living and is essentially forced to work for nothing, all while risking injury and a drop in draft stock”. “CAN I SEE SOME ID?: AN ANTITRUST ANALYSIS OF NBA AND NFL DRAFT ELIGIBILITY RULES”, Steve E. Cavezza, 2009 University of Denver Sports and Entertainment Law Journal (https://www.law.du.edu/documents/sports-and-entertainment-law-journal/issues/09/Article2.pdf)

Michele Roberts, Executive Director of the NBPA, and the union’s chief CBA negotiator have both spoken out against raising the age minimum. In the next round of CBA negotiations they may advocate in favor of lowering the age minimum to 18. “It offends me that there should be some artificial limits set on seomeone’s ability to make a living. It doesn’t make sense to me that you’re suddenly eligible and ready to make money when you’re 20, but not when you’re 19, not when you’re 18. In my opinion—and we have yet to get official word from the players association—but I suspect that the association will agree that this is not going to be one that they will agree to easily.” See “The Woman who will Change Sports”, Pablo Torre, 11/16/14 (http://espn.go.com/nba/story/_/id/11874609/woman-change-sports)

Beyond the age minimum rule the parties to the CBA have to define the purpose of the D-League. If the age restriction continues and prevents players from being drafted into the NBA until age 19 or 20, but they can be drafted by the NBADL at age 18, in theory this could present a viable option for players who want to forego college. Except that the maximum D-League salary is $25,500 (plus room and food allowance during the season) so it is in effect financially preclusive.

The D-League began as a place where NBA caliber players who were too green to see regular play could grow and develop. Many would say it has evolved into a league of last resort for aspiring NBA players. If it is truly a system to develop future NBA players then the NBA would presumably want to exercise more control over the players they are investing in. Right now the NBA teams don’t make a big investment in the D-League but that situation is changing.

NBADL President Malcolm Turner and some D-League team owners have predicted D-League expansion in 2016-17. Charlotte and New Jersey are two teams who are actively searching for a D-League team. The League’s new television deal with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting will accelerate growth. Previously, direct streaming on youtube or special tv coverage of some games was the primary way of watching D-League teams. Some commentators have predicted that the 11 NBA teams without an affiliated D-League squad would create demand for new D-League teams so that in the next 7-8 years there would be a one-to-one affiliation between each NBA team and its D-League counterpart.[v]

Once investment in the D-League increases, the teams will want control over how players are developed. The NBA does not have control over college players, or the systems they play in, or their workout regimens, on-court playing habits, diet, etc. Playing against sub-par competition for too long may also hurt a prospect’s chances. The NBA likewise does not control development of a player who is shipped off to Europe. “Over the last two years, 40 percent of the NBA’s second round draft picks never actually signed NBA rookie contracts. Thirty-eight percent of those 60 players went overseas; only 8 percent wound up in the D-League. [vi]

In an excellent article recently published by NBA expert Chris Reichert, he offers a statistical study to show the correlation between a team’s success and its use of player assignments to its D-League affiliate. (See “Does D-League usage translate into more wins for NBA teams”, Reichert, July 28, 2015, http://upsidemotor.com/2015/07/28/d-league-assignments-call-ups-translate-success-nba/) Reichert’s findings are significant in two areas: First, for teams that rarely use the D-League there is no provable relation to on-court success; however, for teams that make frequent assignments, there is a real correlation between assignments and wins.[vii] Second, teams that frequently use their D-League affiliate are more successful on average than those teams that do not use the D-League. Based on these numbers, Reichert forecasts that there will be an accelerated trend toward evolving the D-League into a true minor league system where each parent club has a farm team.

If its purpose is truly developmental, keep the players home and pay them on a more fair scale, something more commensurate with what they could expect in the NBA. NBA team owners might not like the increased costs associated with higher salaries but the return on investment would, in theory, make it worthwhile. Make up for higher salaries with better basketball product, higher ticket sales and joint marketing efforts. Fans could see future NBA stars at the beginning of their careers, or those already established stars who need rehab time. Either way there is a potential to expand the pro basketball market. With the farm teams adopting the names of the parent team, there is a merchandising opportunity; by re-locating minor league teams closer to the parent the geographic market drives interest in both the parent and farm club and makes travel between the two easier for fans and players. Strengthening the D-League could help develop players, create or increase basketball markets in smaller cities where the D-League clubs play and ultimately strengthen interest in the NBA.

In his article, Tellem advocates for what he calls a “reorganization” of the D-League ; others might say all that is needed is a re-prioritization and re-commitment to the D-League. He suggests six main changes to the current system: (1) roll back the age minimum to 18 with prospects being “asked to sign a ‘memorandum of understanding’ as a condition for consideration, whereby they would agree to forgo college if drafted. If they declined to sign, they would effectively be choosing college over pro ball and could not be drafted for two more years. If they declare but never get drafted, they should be allowed to retain their elgibility and attend school.”; (2) All early entry players, both American and foreign prospects, should have the same declaration date instead of giving foreign players two extra months as is the case under the current system; (3) All first round picks should get rookie scale regardless of whether they play for the parent or farm team. The parent team should get 1 year of cap relief if they assign the player to the farm team (rather than having the player sign a D-League contract with the current lower pay scale); (4) Currently NBA teams are only required to offer minimum non-guaranteed contracts. Teams can decline to sign second round picks but still retain their draft rights so they are not guaranteed a salary. There should be a requirement that the parent team offer second round picks a guaranteed split contract ($253,500) or forfeit the player’s draft rights. Teams could send a player to the minors without the salary counting against the cap for two years. The theory being teams would pick the best available players in round 2 and have a real incentive to develop them in the U.S. ; (5) For players who have been released or for free agents the minimum salary in the D-League should be raised to a more respectable $50,000. (6) cap management should be treated separately from player development. The salary cap for D-League teams should be increased to $2 million (not counting salary for first rounders) but not count against the cap so that teams are more likely to take a chance on player development.

These seem like common sense changes. Perhaps this “reorganization” scheme will seem less radical now that Tellem is on the management side of things. Nevertheless, the NBA and NBPA should both acknowledge the importance of making the D-League the subject of negotiation in the next round of CBA talks. This is an issue that potentially benefits both the owners and players. Its not just an expansion issue, or an age restriction issue or a question of whether to give priority to the NCAA as a recruitment vehicle over the D-League; rather, it is an issue of how to structurally support the NBA and give players the best opportunity to succeed in the long run.

ENDNOTES

  [i] “According to a 2005 study, of the eighty-four total NBA players who had ever been arrested, forty-eight had gone to college for four years, while only four of those arrests were of players who had not gone to college. In other words, over forty- one percent of NBA players went to college for four years, and over fifty-seven percent of those players were arrested.”See Michael McCann, NBA Players That Get In Trouble With the Law: Do Age and Education Level Matter?, SPORTS LAW BLOG (July, 20, 2005), http://sports-law.blogspot.com/2005/07/nba-players-that-get- in-trouble-with_20.html.

[ii] See “Ball Don’t Lie”, Dan Devine, 3/1/14

[iii] Associated Press, Knight rips NBA’s minimum-age rule, NBC SPORTS (Feb. 19, 2007), http://nbcsports. msnbc.com /id/17231772/. Indiana Coach Bob Knight opines that the minimum age rule is the “worst thing that’s ever happened to college basketball” in that a player can remain eligible for a full year of basketball without attending a single class in his second semester.

[iv] D-League salaries are in 3 tiers. $25,500, $19,000 and $13,000. Team salary cap is $173,000. Although they get room and board paid for by the team as well as a $40/day travel per diem.

[v] See “Where will NBA D-League expansion Head Next?”, Adam Johnson 5/4/2015 http://dleaguedigest.com/2015/05/04/where-will-nba-d-league-expansion-head-next/ Cf. The American Hockey League (AHL) has been in existence in one form or another since the 1930’s. It is a 30-team professional hockey league based in the United States and Canada that serves as the primary developmental league for the NHL. Since the 2010–11 season, every team in the AHL has an affiliation agreement with an NHL team; before then, one or two NHL teams would not have an AHL affiliate and so assigned players to AHL teams affiliated with other NHL teams. In 2015 there was a relocation of several AHL teams so they were closer to their NHL affiliate to facilitate bringing players up from the minor leagues. www.wikipedia.com

[vi] Since 2005, only four players have spent time in the D-League before their draft class became eligible: Mike Taylor, PJ Hairston, Latavious Williams, and Glenn Rice Jr – all of whom were either stripped of their NCAA eligibility or kicked off their college teams.” [tellem supra] In 2008, Mike Taylor of the Idaho Stampede became the first player to be drafted by an NBA team (Portland Trailblazers). Taylor had attended junior college and one year at Iowa State before entering the DLeague. [check 6/26/08 nbadl.com]

[vii] 2014-15 saw a record number of assignments with 195 assignments made in a single season. Each team can have 3 NBA players assigned at one time under the current rules.