THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Up In The Air

by Zeve Sanderson

published April 3, 2015


The court is its typical 94 feet long by 50 feet wide; the hoop stands ten feet tall; five from each team play at a time. Everything looks the same but the ball. Rather than eight leather panels of burnt orange, the basketball on the court tonight looks like Fourth of July paraphernalia—two panels of red, four of white, two of blue. When shot, the backspin blends the colors into an arcing blur of Americana.

On March 22, playing with the iconic multicolored ball of the American Basketball Association (ABA), the Providence Sky Chiefs beat the Baltimore Hawks in front of a mostly full crowd at Brown University’s Pizzitola Center. With the 107-100 overtime win, the Sky Chiefs claimed the Regional Championship, capping off a successful inaugural season.

Jamal Wilson, a 6’ 5” guard and former standout for the University of Rhode Island (URI), led the Sky Chiefs with 33 points. “It’s a great opportunity being on the team,” Wilson told the Independent before practice earlier that week. Although Wilson enjoyed his time playing professionally in four countries—Greece, Germany, Latvia, and China—he prefers to be back in the community in which he attended college. “There are a lot of familiar faces,” he said, smiling and looking up at the 6’10” center Jason Francis and 6’ 9” forward Orion Outerbridge, who stand on either side. Francis and Outerbridge, both teammates of Wilson’s at URI, echoed his enthusiasm about being able to play professionally in Providence. “I got hurt my junior year,” Francis said. “I needed to do physical therapy in the area. The Sky Chiefs are a great opportunity to continue my basketball career.”

This seems to be the word of choice for the Sky Chief’s first ABA season—opportunity. For players looking to play professionally over the past couple of decades, there have been three options: the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Basketball Development League (NBDL), and basketball leagues in countries scattered around the world. Given that there are only 720 available spots on NBA and NBDL rosters, most are forced to look internationally. But the network of hundreds of franchises across dozens of countries makes the process of finding a team difficult. Even if players make a roster, many complain of trouble adjusting to new cultures, of short-term contracts that don’t offer much job security, and of little legal recourse if teams renege on promises. The ABA offers a compelling alternative. As the Sky Chief’s General Manager Antonio Lopes explained to the Independent, the ABA allows players to stay close to family and friends while making money “doing what they love to do.”

Last summer, Giovanni Feroce—a former Rhode Island State Senator and ex-CEO of Alex and Ani—founded the Sky Chiefs. The announcement came shortly after the Providence Anchors, another local ABA franchise, folded without playing a single game; according to ABA CEO Ron Tilley, “[the team] didn’t get going because of its inability to follow the high level of standards I’ve set for the league.” Now the CEO of Benrus, a “lifestyle brand” headquartered in Fox Point, Feroce renamed the team after the company’s eponymous watch. In the October press conference announcing the start of the season, he held up the timepiece. “I’m going to be selling Sky Chief, Sky Chief, Sky Chief,” he said to the group of reporters gathered at the Benrus office, unclear whether he was referencing the watch, the basketball team, or both. A successful ABA franchise would not only offer Feroce potential revenue from ticket sales, merchandise, and broadcasting rights, but also 13 dribbling, shooting, and dunking advertisements in arenas across the country.

For the state, the team is peddling the usual buffet of promises that accompany the introduction of a sports franchise: civic pride, an influx of money, and job creation. Then-mayor Angel Taveras said at the Sky Chief’s October press conference, “We’re very excited for this opportunity. Not only is this good for the morale of our state, but it’ll also bring positive attention to our state. It will bring visitors to our state, and that’s something that we need.” Rhode Islanders have historically trekked north to Boston for professional basketball, but a successful run for the Sky Chiefs could keep their fandom and accompanying expenditures local. Feroce also has plans to bring ABA tournaments to Providence, which would hopefully fulfill Taveras’ prophecy of increased tourism, and is considering partially renovating the West Warwick Civic Center to use for practices and games. “Giovanni is building a business, which will add jobs to the community,” Lopes said. “Everything he does, he does big.”

It sounds great: an outlet for local talent to play professionally, national marketing for a Providence-based company, and the economic and social uplift of a successful sports team. But as the Sky Chiefs look to become an established franchise, their success may not depend on their on-court play, but rather on the dynamics of a league that has long been built on unfulfilled opportunity.

 

 

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Founded in 1967, the ABA sought to disrupt the NBA’s basketball monopoly. Drawing inspiration from the American Football League, which successfully challenged the established National Football League, the ABA’s model was innovative. For owners, a franchise could be bought for a mere $5,000. For players nearing the end of their careers, it offered higher paying contracts than those of the NBA; for young players, it assured them playing time. But, most importantly, the ABA provided fans with a unique spectating experience. It aimed to separate itself from the NBA with a faster style of play, the introduction of the three point line, the creation of the slam dunk competition well before the NBA’s own version, and, of course, the multicolored ball.

The narrator of the HBO Documentary “Longshots–The Life & Times of the American Basketball Association” described the league’s early years as “Glorified street ball. The red, white, and blue ball was viewed as a joke. The three point shot was viewed as a gimmick.” With many basketball fans considering the renegade league as mere spectacle, the first seasons were met with tepid response. Photographs of games show more people at the scorer’s table and on the benches than in the stands. In his contract with the Memphis Pros, Johnny Newman received 5,000 tickets a game and complained of being unable to give them away.

The league, however, continued spending more money to lure players away from the NBA—like Julius Erving, Connie Hawkins, and George Gervin—and ABA teams began beating their more established brethren in exhibition games. They even persuaded the NBA’s four best referees to jump leagues by offering higher salaries and more benefits. With talented rosters and flashy gameplay, the ABA started filling arenas. But the league’s real success came from its expansion into untapped markets. Franchises were founded in smaller cities like Salt Lake City and San Antonio and in cities south of Washington D.C., places in which the NBA had shown little interest.

Even with an enlarged fan base and a growing network of teams, though, ABA franchises remained unprofitable because of their inability to attract television networks and radio stations. “The ABA was…the invisible league. If you didn’t buy a ticket, chances are you didn’t see us play,” said one former player in the documentary. With increasing popularity but without financial stability, the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976.

In 1999, Dick Tinkham (one of the ABA’s founders in 1967) and Joe Newman (an advertising executive) re-founded the ABA, though without any formal relationship to its namesake organization. Central to the league’s rebirth has been its focus on a “fan-pleasing entertainment experience.” Like the introduction of the three point shot, the new league’s emphasis on gameplay has resulted in a number of new rules aimed at increasing scoring and showcasing star players. Under a rule ambiguously named “3-D,” if an offensive team loses possession before crossing half court, the defensive team gets one extra point for a made basket on its next possession. Another rule allows a player to remain in the game after his sixth foul, though each additional foul by that player gives the opposing team an extra free throw. The former encourages risky defense, which results in increased scoring; the latter prevents star players from fouling out.

Like the ABA of the 70s, this new iteration is attempting to carve out a niche in the basketball landscape by offering faster gameplay, by expanding into markets without NBA teams, and by offering talented players an opportunity to play professionally. Today, 76 teams are broken up into 11 geographic regions, but according to Jamal Wilson, there is little parity, with “only 25 competitive teams.” “The others are really just out there to play,” he said, recalling games that were played in front of near-empty gyms.

Lopes said this talent disparity is the result of unequal resources among ownership groups. “To avoid the lack of profitability of the ABA in the past,” the league’s website reads, “[Tinkham and Newman] decided to improve the business model by making it more affordable to own a team by reducing the operating costs, cost of travel and venues.” Many owners have treated their franchises as amateur side projects, refusing to invest in personnel, training, and facilities; others, like Feroce, have spent significant resources offering higher salaries, hiring professional coaching staffs, and constructing arenas. The outcome has been a number of games almost unwatchable in their one-sidedness. In December, the Sky Chiefs beat the San Diego Surf by 33 points. The Shreveport Mavericks, who have won 88 straight games and the last three ABA championships, had a stretch in which their average margin of victory was more than 50 points.

According to Lopes, “in order to enhance the brand, integrity, and loyalty of the league, there needs to be financially strong teams.” Although the league was founded on an affordable ownership model, Lopes said that the vetting process for potential owners should be more stringent, which would inevitably decrease the number of teams “to a more sustainable level.” With more financial resources, the remaining teams would be able to recruit more talented players. So the logic goes: better players mean higher quality basketball, which attracts more fans; more fans give organizations more money, and the cycle starts again.

But even if this causal sequence unfolds as planned, the league may be plagued by the same problem as its ancestor: invisibility. Most professional sports franchises rely on television contracts to turn a profit, and as Feroce made clear at the October press conference, “We’re here to make money, don’t ever get confused. This team, this product, the players, this is a livelihood for a lot of people. That’s ultimately what’s driving this.” But where will this money come from? The thirty NBA teams, for example, collectively earn nearly $2 billion a year from their local and national broadcasting deals. This year, ESPN3—the network’s online station—has streamed a few ABA games, although the Sky Chiefs games have yet to be aired. It’s unlikely that national networks would be interested in regularly broadcasting games from Shreveport and Providence, and even local television contracts may be difficult to acquire, as the schedule is already oversaturated with regional NBA and college basketball games.

Deb Weinreich, vice president of communications for the Sky Chiefs, told the Independent that attracting better players will be integral to the league’s success. “Our main goal is to fill the arena by putting the best product out on the floor,” she said. It makes sense. The past ABA has provided a blueprint for how an upstart league can sell tickets: bring top players to regions without professional basketball teams. Currently, most ABA franchises—even ones with strong financial backers—can’t offer contracts competitive with established international leagues, and many players are forced to work in order to supplement their basketball income. The Sky Chiefs schedule their four or five weekly practices at night so that players can hold nine-to-five jobs. “Soon, we hope to be able to pay enough to allow our team to be full-time basketball players,” Weinreich said.

But this hope could prove to be a catch-22: in order to acquire the money to attract recognizable players, ABA teams will likely need television contracts; in order to appeal to a television audience, ABA teams need to field a roster of recognizable players. Without broadcasting deals, ABA franchises may have to acquire debt in order to offer competitive contracts. Or, as Lopes said, the ABA could increase the financial requirements for owners, reducing the size of the league while ensuring that teams have the resources necessary to put “the best product out on the floor.” But according to the ABA’s official site, a smaller league doesn’t seem to be in its future: “the ABA will continue to grow as it…grows its number of teams.”

 

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“It was brought to my attention that the opportunity [to buy the team] was out there,” Feroce said in October. “I did some homework and realized if a first rate product was put together it could sit alongside our other two outstanding pro franchises, the PawSox and the P-Bruins.”

He’s right: both teams have built successful organizations relying heavily on local support, like ticket sales and sponsorships. But the for-us-by-us model might hinder the opportunities—for players who don’t make the NBA or NBDL to play professionally in the states, for Benrus to reach a national audience, for the city to meaningfully increase tourism—from being realized, for each likely requires the league to develop in the way Feroce and his staff envisions.

The Sky Chiefs’ organization has a clear sense of what a successful “product” looks like, and it’s strikingly similar to that of the original ABA: an independent professional league with fast gameplay, high quality players, a national market, and a profitable ownership model. With 76 teams and a league set on expansion, though, it’s unclear when or whether that vision will come to fruition.

Even if it doesn’t, the Sky Chiefs could become a staple for Providence basketball fans—judging by the full stands on March 22, it may already be one. This localism won’t attract college standouts, advertise Benrus’ watch to the masses, or bring fans flocking to Providence. But with professional and college sports making millions off of broadcasting rights, there’s a refreshing stasis in a basketball “product” that must be consumed in the arena itself.

Walking along Westminster on a sunny day last week, I heard the pa-pa-pa of a basketball against the pavement. A boy was across the street, skipping and dribbling. As he emerged from behind a car, the red, white, and blue ball became visible.

ZEVE SANDERSON B’15 is peddling the usual buffet of promises.