SBJ/November 21-27, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

D-League’s 11th season unfazed by lockout

Under the shadow of the five-month lockout comes the NBA Development League’s 11th season, which this year adds to its number of teams owned by NBA clubs, a key step to building financial stability in the 16-team league.

The D-League season tips off Friday with a total of five teams now owned by NBA ownership groups, compared with three last season. The Cleveland Cavaliers this offseason bought the New Mexico Thunderbirds, relocated the franchise to Canton, and renamed the team the Charge. The Cavs join the Golden State Warriors as new D-League owners after the Warriors bought the Dakota Wizards in June. The purchase price of the teams was not disclosed, but last year D-League teams were selling for more than $2 million.

The Canton (Ohio) Charge is one of five D-League teams owned by an NBA club. The Cavs moved the team from New Mexico.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
Other NBA teams owning D-League franchises are the Oklahoma City Thunder, which owns the Tulsa 66ers; the San Antonio Spurs, which own the Austin Toros; and Los Angeles Lakers, which own the Los Angeles D-Fenders.

“The biggest change for us this year is the number of teams directly having ownership of D-League teams,” said D-League President Dan Reed. “We also have nine NBA teams having direct affiliations with our D-League teams compared to four last season.”

The overall plan for the league is to continue serving as a training ground for NBA teams in developing not only players but also executives and referees. In addition, the D-League serves as a product and rules laboratory for the NBA. In the past, the D-League has tried out a new synthetic ball, new lightweight jerseys and new basket stanchions. This year, the D-League for the first time partnered with Cisco to conduct its 2011 draft using the company’s WebEx technology connecting teams via video conference throughout the draft. In addition, the league will continue to test a three-minute overtime period compared with the five-minute overtime used in the NBA.

On the metrics front, Reed would not disclose the league’s season-ticket renewal rate or new full-season ticket sales but said that the NBA lockout has had little effect on the D-League’s offseason business.

“It has largely been business as usual for our teams, and our projections are up for this season,” Reed said.

Last season, the D-League averaged 2,931 fans a game, up from 2,898 a game from the previous season. Total attendance last season was 1.1 million, up 8 percent from the previous year.

The Rio Grande Valley Vipers led the league at the gate last season with an average of 4,849 fans a game.

Cavaliers executives hope that the Charge, despite only last month rolling out its name and logo, can leverage its connection to its NBA parent to drive its overall business.

“Canton is part of our regional footprint and we are breeding fans while creating a deeper connection to our team,” said Cavs President Len Komoroski. “We have control of not just the basketball operations but also from the business end.”

Broad television exposure remains a challenge for the league. The league this year has a new one-year deal with Comcast Sports Group, which will televise 80 games over seven Comcast regional sports networks . The deal replaces a two-year agreement with Versus, which last year showed 17 regular-season games.

The D-League also will have 34 regular-season games televised on NBA TV, up from 32 last season.

“We are integrating much more deeply into NBA TV with a D-League segment on our ‘NBA GameTime’ [studio] program on NBA TV,” Reed said. “The Comcast deal is a great addition to our national games on NBA TV.”

Like last season, the D-League will stream all games live via NBA.com under the name NBA Futurecast.

The D-League this offseason added Boost Mobile as a league partner for a total of 13 league sponsors. The company sponsors a national tryout program for fans looking to make D-League teams.

No new team jersey sponsorship deals have been signed this year. Three D-League teams have jersey deals: the Vipers, Erie BayHawks and Iowa Energy.

“Several teams are in discussions and there is interest in that inventory,” Reed said.

The D-League has no plans for expansion any time soon, but Reed said he will continue to target NBA teams to buy individual franchises.

“We think the value of our teams will continue to rise, and the best reflection of that is having NBA teams purchasing D-League teams,” he said. “We are building a lot of value into the [ownership] model.”

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