SBJ/June 1 - 7, 1998/No Topic Name

Rookie league fights doubts and long odds

Despite long odds and an even longer list of skeptics, Bruce Stern is pressing ahead to build a new professional basketball league stockpiled with teen-agers.

Stern, a 34-year-old Washington attorney, is the architect of the National Rookie League, an unaffiliated developmental league limited to players under the age of 24.

Six teams based on the East Coast apparently will make up the upstart NRL with play scheduled to begin in the summer of 1999. Each team will play a 30-game schedule from June through August, with player compensation to be around $35,000, including a $7,500 academic stipend.

NRL officials said they have secured franchises in Washington, New York, Norfolk, Va., Baltimore, Phila-delphia and Boston.

"Our blueprint is that we will deal in minor-league economics," Stern said. "All the teams will be on the East Coast with bus rides to all the games. We are marketing ourselves as a minor league of the NBA."

But the NBA already has the Continental Basketball Association — not to mention the NCAA — to act as a feeder system. Then there's the United States Basketball League and the Women's National Basketball Association, both of which play in the summer.

So what makes Stern so sure he can sell the NRL — and, more specifically, the local public stock offerings he's relying on to fund the teams?

"The real return comes from appreciation," said Stern, who wouldn't disclose how much capital the league has raised or who is investing in the venture. "Look at the East Coast Hockey League where nine years ago, franchises sold for $25,000 and now they are worth $1.5 million."

He said he and his investors "expect to have losses in the first three years."

The NRL initially wanted to play during the winter but switched its schedule to avoid the NBA — and to better its chances of attracting cable television deals from companies looking to fill programming time in the slow summer season.

But can the NRL attract enough top talent to draw fans in the dead of summer? NBA scouting guru Marty Blake isn't so sure.

"I don't see the need for it because there are enough avenues for players now," Blake said. "I don't know how they'll get players. The talent level isn't there."

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