Another day, another new professional sports league.
The Los Angeles Stars of the ABA 2000 will start playing basketball in December at the Great Western Forum, a venture its owners think can be financially successful in a city that already has the Lakers, Clippers and Sparks, not to mention the UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans.
The new eight-team league hopes to emulate the spirit if not the success of the long-defunct American Basketball Association by presenting a game more exciting and less expensive than the NBA's.
Given that the average cost for a family of four to attend a Lakers game at Staples Center is more than $400, attaining that second goal seems assured. Whether it is possible to create enough enthusiasm for a minor league team, even at discount prices, remains to be seen.
While acknowledging the inherent challenges, team management is confident it can turn a profit.
"The Lakers have a great fan base. I know because I helped build it," said Steve Chase, Stars vice president for business operations and a former Lakers marketing executive. "But there are 12 million people in (Los Angeles). Ninety-nine percent of the people in this market cannot afford to go to see the Lakers. Those 99 percent belong to us."
The Stars are owned by Bobby Roberts, a Hollywood producer behind such films as "Death Wish," who put up $55,000 to secure his team's place in the league. Day-to-day operations will be run by his son, Todd Roberts, his business partner Mike Selsman, and Chase.
Selsman and the two Roberts may be unknown in the world of basketball, but the team gained some credibility by hiring former Lakers star Jamaal Wilkes as vice president of basketball operations, and former Lakers and Loyola Marymount University head coach Paul Westhead as coach of the Stars. Westhead coached and Wilkes played on the 1980 Lakers championship team, lead by Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A new game
The 10-man roster will be staffed mostly by players cut from NBA teams and former college players; a draft will determine each team's rights to available players. The rules will be slightly different than those of the NBA. Zone defense will be allowed and fouling out eliminated. In an effort to speed up the game and increase scoring, teams that steal the ball in their opponents' backcourt and score will get three points instead of two, or four points if shooting behind the three-point line.
"Paul Westhead practically guaranteed that the Stars will become the first team in pro basketball history to score 200 points in a game," Chase said.
And yes, the ball will be red, white and blue, just like the ones used in the old American Basketball Association.
The team will play a 60-game season, with 30 home dates kicking off on Dec. 26. Tickets to the games at the Forum will range in price from $6 to $25. Chase said the Stars need to draw between 4,000 and 5,000 fans per game.
"We want to be the second-most popular basketball team in Los Angeles," he said.
That is a less-than-subtle swipe at the Clippers, recently labeled "the worst franchise in professional sports" by Sports Illustrated. The Clippers averaged more than 13,000 fans per game last year, their inaugural season at Staples Center. But positioning the Stars as an alternative to the Clippers just might work, even though the ABA season will start with the NBA season already in high gear.
"That is, I think, not an unreasonable marketing approach," said David Carter, principal at The Sports Business Group, an L.A. consulting firm. "They're firing a shot over the bow, saying we can compete, but we know our place. They might be able to make a run at making themselves an alternative to the Clippers if the Clippers' season isn't going well into the holidays."
The league will have access to the hundreds of talented basketball players who can't make it in the NBA. Although every team's salary budget is limited to $900,000, the average player salary of $90,000 far exceeds that of the other existing minor league basketball organizations, including the two most prominent: the Continental Basketball Association at around $25,000 per player, and the optimistically titled International Basketball Association, which started last year and pays an average of $50,000.
Moreover, both those leagues play for the most part in distinctly smaller markets places like Sioux Falls, S.D.; Trenton, N.J.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. not the somewhat more glamorous homes of other ABA 2000 teams like Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City.
Almost NBA quality
The combination of more money and a large media market should help the Stars get the best available talent, although players still could make more money playing overseas in Europe.
"We will have players who are within an eyelash from being an NBA player," Chase said.
In effect, the ABA is hoping to replace the CBA as the NBA's developmental league. As in the CBA, an ABA player will be able to jump mid-season to an NBA team if called upon. But that speaks to an inherent flaw with such leagues. How can fans develop an affinity for their home team if the best players are gone mid-season? Developing a fan base means building relationships with players.
"You're going to need impact players," said Irv Kaze, general manager of the Clippers in San Diego before the team moved to L.A., and a former CBA commissioner. "How about Dennis Rodman?"
That is unlikely, but the Stars are negotiating with A.C. Green, who started last season on the Lakers' championship team but was cut this summer. He has yet to sign with another NBA team, and the Stars hope the 37-year-old Green, who also played for the Pat Riley-coached Lakers of the 1980s, will accept a player/assistant coach role, helping to develop younger players while providing a link to the Forum's glorious past.
In an age in which many fans are priced out of attending professional sports, the prospect of affordable pro basketball could be an attractive one. But if the new league can't secure some sort of a national television contract, there is no way it can survive, Carter said. Stars executives said the league is negotiating such a deal right now, and the team is trying to get local radio and cable TV contracts as well.
Getting the word out isn't going to be easy, either. For marketing, the Stars have budgeted about $450,000 of the team's total first-year budget of $5.5 million. Most of that marketing budget will go to newspaper ads. Radio spots are likely as well, but don't expect the kind of high-profile billboard ads that the L.A. Avengers of the Arena Football League put up around town early in the year to draw attention to its debut season at Staples Center.
"I'm not going to have the budget to do what (Avengers owner) Casey Wasserman did," Chase said.
There is one more roadblock: the NBA's plans for a developmental league of its own, despite a 15-year relationship with the CBA. Still in the planning stages, the NBA minor league could kick off in November 2001, although NBA Commissioner David Stern hasn't given the final go-ahead yet.
If that were to happen, the chances of the Stars getting the best available players, generating fan enthusiasm and securing television deals would be in serious jeopardy.
"A developmental league created and financed by the NBA will eliminate the other leagues as a path to the NBA," Carter said.
In the meantime, the Stars plan on winning a fan base already subject to all the basketball now available in Los Angeles, to say nothing of other entertainment alternatives.
"The first season probably won't be the most successful in team history, but we should be profitable by the second," Chase said. "If we get a TV contract, we could be profitable the first year."
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