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Volume 24 No. 177

Franchises

     The next issue of THE HOCKEY NEWS, which hits the stands in
a few days, reports that Wayne Gretzky might buy the L.A. Kings
from Jeffrey Sudikoff and Joe Cohen.  The pair, which purchased
the team from Bruce McNall, who is presently facing charges of
bank fraud, could be facing their own criminal charges.  Counting
endorsement income, Gretzky earns between $20-30M per year
(William Houston, Toronto GLOBE & MAIL, 12/13).

     The dispute in Orlando over a proposed tax to support the
construction of a stadium for a possible baseball expansion bid
is close to settlement.  The Ornage County Commission votes today
to approve the tourism tax increase and how it will be allocated.
The prospective owners of an Orlando baseball franchise want the
revenue to be put toward stadium maintenance, while county
officials "were reluctant to promise additional dollars for the
project."  On Monday, the county agreed to put a minimum amount
of the revenue into a reserve account to pay for maintenance and
improvements, with more funds available later.  Both votes today
are expected to pass, a day before Orlando officials make their
presentation to the MLB expansion committee in Chicago (Marc
Topkin, ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, 12/13).

     In an apparent contradiction, Rams President John Shaw said
the team is "closer than ever" to signing a lease to play in St.
Louis, but that "does not mean the team is ready to bolt from
Orange County."  Shaw said Monday most details for a move "are in
place," including selling a stake of the team to MO-based
businessman Stan Kroenke, but that any move would signal the
beginning to a long process.  Shaw mentioned  possible litigation
after the team goes to the league for approval that would seek to
force the team to stay in Southern CA.  To avoid that, Shaw said
he is keeping open the option of signing a short-term deal to
stay in Anaheim and wait to see if the league comes through on
its proposal to build a football-only stadium in the area.
County help in building a stadium remains highly unlikely, as the
bankruptcy of Orange County has led to their inability to issue
bonds for a new facility (Mouchard & Himmelberg, ORANGE COUNTY
REGISTER, 12/13).
     PLEASE STAY:  Frank Bryant, President of the Rams Booster
Club, met with Shaw and team owner Georgia Frontiere to discuss
keeping the team in the L.A. area.  Bryant: "When I left, I was
no happier about our chances of being able to keep the team."
Frontiere told the group she needs to increase her income, and
Shaw reiterated the team had "written" financial guarantees from
St. Louis, something they don't have locally (ORANGE COUNTY
REGISTER, 12/13).

     The Raptors put 1,200 club seats in the SkyDome's 200 level
on sale yesterday with the hope that would boost the team's
season-ticket drive.  The seats "represent options not taken by
the SkyDome's licensed club seatholders."  They are on sale for
$58 without a license fee, and "if and when the Raptors' new
building is constructed," 220-level ticket holders will be put on
a waiting list for seats behind the basket within the lower bowl
in the proposed new facility  (Chris Young, TORONTO STAR, 12/13).

     Last year the NBA awarded the league's 27th franchise to
Professional Basketball Franchise, Inc. of Toronto led by John
Bitove, Jr.  It was the first franchise granted outside the U.S.,
as the NBA planned this venture into Canada as the stepping stone
to a more ambitious international expansion.  But it hasn't been
easy for the expansion Raptors.  The NBA imposed an unprecedented
sales mark -- 12,500 season-tickets to be sold by December 31 or
the NBA will revoke franchise rights.  This steep number, along
with questionable moves by team management, has left many in the
Toronto area skeptical that the new franchise has the ability to
meet the deadline.  Over the past week, THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY
spoke with members of the Toronto media and a team official on
the job facing the franchise in the coming weeks.
     THE NUMBER: The Raptors need more than 3,000 ticket sales in
the next 19 days to meet the goal.  A major reason the team has
struggled is the lack of an arena.  The Raptors will play their
first two years at SkyDome, but they do not have a site on which
to build a new facility for '97-98.  Raptors Dir of Communication
Tom Mayenknecht admitted the lack of an arena stadium has hurt
sales, "the real question is how much, and that has been
difficult to gauge."  The TORONTO STAR's Jim Byers said the
Raptors have "scared away buyers of lower-end tickets because
people are afraid of the SkyDome."  Byers also believes the team
got off to a "bad start" by implementing a seat-licensing plan,
that they have since dropped.  Byers: "They still have that
stigma on the seats.  Ironically, they sold out their most
expensive seats, but the cheaper ones have not been selling."
Mayenknecht agreed: "Our biggest challenge has been to draw
attention to the least expensive seats in the house, we have had
no problem selling the high-end seats."
     THE MARKET:  Did the Raptors misread their market?  The
TORONTO STAR's Jim Proudfoot said the team "couldn't have
imagined that it would be such an ordeal" to create a fan base.
Proudfoot:  "There is undoubtably enormous interest in basketball
among young people in Toronto, whether that translates into
ticket sales is another matter.  A 14-year old kid wearing a
Shaquille O'Neal sweatshirt isn't necessarily a prospective
customer for the season-tickets they need to sell."  Mayenknecht
notes the challenge:  "Here we are nine months before opening
tipoff and it is a new market to NBA basketball, not to
basketball, but to the NBA.  We have the challenge of not having
as much high level basketball background to sell our fans on."
     WHERE'S ISIAH?  The role of Isiah Thomas remains a point of
controversy.  Originally thought of as the front man in the
operation, his focus has been on scouting and basketball
operations and he has not taken a high profile during the ticket
drive.  Thomas is now on TV and radio, and the club last week
unveiled a campaign featuring his plea to the fans to help bring
a winner to Toronto.  The TORONTO SUN's Craig Daniels said Thomas
has "been taking some heat for being somewhat inconspicuous and
that may in part account for why he has been more visible of
late."  But Mayenknecht counters that Thomas has been a key part
of the process: "I would describe his role as multi-faceted."
     IS IT FAIR?  When asked if the 12,500 mandate by the NBA was
fair, Mayenknecht said the team is "going into arguably the most
successful sports league on the planet, and we understand there
is an initiation fee involved as a entry requirement."  Stressing
that the league will divide up its marketing and TV revenue to
the Raptors, Mayenknecht said "the league needs to know that new
franchises in a brand new business market have a strong core and
one of the most important cores is the season-ticket base.  And
we understand that is our part of the deal" (THE DAILY).
     For today's update on the Raptors.