Bank shot will help IBL score

Fiscal footing boosts hopes as league tips off

November 25, 1999|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

One thing that separates the International Basketball League, which tips off its inaugural season tomorrow night, from the slew of basketball minor leagues that have failed, is money.

This according to league president Thaxter Trafton, who said a lot of money was invested by the owners so that not a lot of it will have to be spent by the fans. Ticket prices start as low as $10.

Trafton said underfinancing is the primary reason minor leagues have failed. And he said it will not be a problem with the IBL this season, in part because of the $522,000 salary cap.

Players on the eight charter teams will earn from $20,000 to $100,000. Trafton said he and other top league officials spent four years researching and came up with these numbers in order to make the league a success.

"This is a business rather than a sports venture," said George Blaney, IBL vice president for basketball operations. "Art Cipriani, who is the CEO of the league, Thaxter and the board of directors took years to put this together and look at all different other leagues at what worked and what didn't work. Then they put together a business plan first.

"It is a sound business plan. People can make money in this. The second thing they did was put enough money into it so it was capitalized real well. Those are probably the two biggest reasons why businesses fail. We think we have the ingredients to make it successful."

Trafton said the selection of team owners was purposely a drawn-out process, to make sure the venture would be financed properly. Consequently, the Las Vegas and Baltimore franchises do not have majority owners.

Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken has a minority share in the BayRunners, and the league retains majority ownership. The BayRunners will open in the Baltimore Arena at 7 tomorrow night against Trenton.

Owners for the six other teams had to put up a $1 million line of credit on top of the purchase price for the franchise. Trafton said they had to turn away a number of potential owners because of the selection process.

The majority of the league's capital comes from Cipriani, who made his money in the energy field.

Cipriani took Natural Gas Clearinghouse from scratch to an international business with annual revenues of more than $9 billion. Cipriani retired at 38 in 1994 and has devoted much of his time since to helping develop the league, getting involved because "he thought it was a good business opportunity."

One day away from the beginning, Cipriani may be right. Blaney and Trafton have just come from a tour of most of the charter cities, and cite no major problems.

The BayRunners have almost sold out the 11,500-seat Arena for their home opener, and many other franchises have done the same.

Harry Weltman, general manager of Trenton and former general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Jersey Nets, said his team and the city are excited about moving into a new building.

"We have an excellent coach and a good draft," Weltman said. "We're in the process of putting together a solid organization. The league is on the right track. We've assembled good coaches and front office personnel."

That was one of the things Trafton and the board of directors focused on -- getting people who know what they are doing, those who have been involved with the NBA.

Every team has at least one person with some type of NBA experience. The list includes such names as Oscar Robertson, one of the NBA's 50 greatest players and part-owner of the Cincinnati Stuff. Former NBA coaches Allan Bristow (Richmond), Bernie Bickerstaff (St. Louis) and the BayRunners' Herb Brown are in the league.

The IBL wants to eventually serve as a league NBA teams can draw from. Now, the NBA uses the Continental Basketball Association.

But the IBL has at least one advantage over the CBA: IBL cities are in bigger markets.

The CBA may still have the players, although Blaney said the players the IBL ended up with far exceed what he expected. Many were cut by NBA teams and chose to sign with the IBL rather than go overseas or play in the CBA, such as the BayRunners' Keith Booth, who was cut by the Chicago Bulls.

"More importantly is how we are being accepted in the basketball world," said Blaney, who played for the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers and coached at Seton Hall and Holy Cross. "It feels like we are a 15-year-old league the way we are being treated, written about and the affairs we go to. We haven't thrown our first ball up yet."

That will take place tomorrow in arenas that will be close to sold out. The question is: How does the league plan to keep the arenas filled come February, when the novelty has worn off?

Blaney estimates a need for 4,000 fans a game to make it work. The caliber of play is what he expects will keep people coming back.

The league may not have the big names at first, but the IBL does have a few well-known former college players, such as ex-Kentucky stars Wayne Turner and Allen Edwards, who helped lead the Wildcats to a national title in 1996. Both play in Cincinnati.

Having Turner and Edwards play near their college was by design. The BayRunners' preseason roster was stocked with players who have connections to the Baltimore area. Blaney said the regional name recognition should help fill the seats.

"That is how fans get to fall in love with a team," Trafton said.

The teams will play a 64-game schedule with playoffs in May.

The goal is to expand to 12 teams next season, then 20 in five years, possibly internationally.

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