Sports Biz with Darren Rovell

NBA D-League On The Rise

The NBA D-League tips off its ninth season this Friday and it looks nothing like the league looked when it started.

Teams owned by the NBA with generic logos in seemingly random cities in the South have been substituted by strategically placed teams with intricate brand identities, NBA affiliations and passionate owners who are working hard to connect to the communities they play in.

The best example of what the new D-League looks like can be seen in the Maine Red Claws, a new team based in Portland.

Their mascot? A lobster named Crusher. Their fan section? The Trap. Want to score free tickets? Be one of the lobster fishermen to catch one of 10 lobsters that the team tagged and threw back into the local waters.

Finding the right cities to play in what is official minor league of the NBA is one of the biggest keys to ensuring its future and the Portland team is the perfect example.

When former Boston Celtics assistant coach Jon Jennings was presented with the opportunity to own an D-League team, he traveled across the Northeast and arrived in Maine and found the perfect home.

A state without any professional sports teams, a state that is fanatic about high school basketball and a city in Portland that has embraced its minor league baseball team (the Sea Dogs) was ideal, Jennings said.

The result?

The team hasn't played its first game yet, but the Red Claws already lead the league in season ticket revenue. Jennings said they have sold 1,432 season tickets for home games in their 3,100-seat arena.

The team's innovative logo, blindly submitted by a company in Cincinnati in exchange for a single jersey, has put them at the top of the merchandise rankings.

And the Red Claws have scored 60 sponsorships from community businesses who are helping to get the word out about the team. The most creative deals are with a bakery called Isamax and with a beer company called Gritty's.

Locally based Isamax makes more than 7,000 of its famous Wicked Whoopies a day. But now they'll be making Hoopie Pies, with Crusher on the packaging.

"People are so excited about this team and we think people will love the Hoopie Pie idea," said Amy Bouchard, the bakery owner whose pies have been named to Oprah's "O" list.

Gritty's is producing a Red Claws Ale, which will be available at retail.

Finding the right ownership groups is also a key to the future of the league. Jennings is running the show for the Red Claws, but the team's biggest backer is Bill Ryan Sr., who is the chairman, president and CEO of Banknorth Group.

Four of the 16 teams are owned by NBA owners and the league has made it more appealing by allowing team owners to control player personnel on the teams they own. One catch that remains, that separates it from minor league baseball, is that any NBA team can call up any player, regardless of their D-League affiliation.

On the surface, the numbers might not look all that impressive. D-League president Dan Reed said that league attendance averaged 2,800 fans per game last season.

But the more relevant number was 2.25 million. That's the amount, in dollars, that Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett paid to buy the rights to a D-League team in Tulsa last year.

That confirmed, Reed said, that the league franchise values have just about quadrupled in the last couple years. Given the growth we've seen in minor league baseball, coupled with the focus on value in this economy, it wouldn't be surprising if the D-League becomes the next hot property for both the fans in the communities in which they play and investors.

Questions?  Comments?