IBL keeps change after first quarter

New league optimistic despite so-so turnout

January 14, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

With about a quarter of the inaugural International Basketball League season complete, president Thaxter Trafton declares the organization fit.

No teams are going bankrupt. No plans are in the works to move struggling franchises.

Actually, the IBL is outdrawing the established Continental Basketball Association, though the leagues are in different markets.

The IBL is reporting an average of almost 3,500 a game for all eight teams, about 500 more than the CBA's nine-team league average. IBL teams do have the advantage of being in such major markets as Cincinnati and Las Vegas, compared to the mostly mid- to small-sized cities that make up the CBA like Sioux Falls, S.D., and Rock Island, Ill. But the CBA teams have a history with many of these cities, and a reputation as being the next-best thing in America to the NBA.

"We're very happy in some of our cities with the effort that has been made in marketing our product," Trafton said. "Other cities are not doing as well. But we truly understood that coming into this.

"I don't believe our problems have anything to do with the talent level or entertainment of the game. I couldn't be happier with the high-scoring and overtime games. We are providing what we said we are going to provide."

Some of the problems Trafton was alluding to stem from the fact that six teams are averaging less than the 4,000-a-game goal set by league officials at the outset of the season needed to make a profit.

Richmond, Va., for example, which has already seen a coaching change from Allan Bristow to Ralph Sampson and has held a last-place record through the majority of the season, is struggling the most, getting a league-low 1,850 a game.

Trafton gives a number of reasons as to why the Rhythm has struggled, ranging from organizational structure to marketing.

"Our weaknesses are on a team-to-team level, not on an organizational level," Trafton said. "We might have dropped the ball in some cities on getting the organizational structure in better shape. But that is coming around. We are not in any fear of losing any one of our eight teams.

"I know that early on we didn't help Richmond enough in setting them up. We didn't have the right people in the right spots there, and let them know what is necessary as far as marketing and ticketing."

Richmond's East Division rival Trenton, N.J., is not faring much better, averaging about 2,100 a game. Trenton's struggles come as somewhat of a surprise. The Stars moved into a new building, and until a recent skid, had been playing well this season.

Early excitement

Stars general manager Harry Weltman spoke of the excitement for the team in the city before the season began. It has not carried on into the season.

As the Stars' record has dropped, so has attendance. The same can be said in Baltimore, where attendance reached a season-low 1,856 in Sunday's loss to Trenton, its ninth in 10 games. BayRunners general manager Greg Smith said the timing of the games recently, in the midst of holiday season, had a lot to do with the declining attendance, although the BayRunners are still third in the league averaging 3,731 a game.

"We've had a couple of bad breaks being opposite two Ravens games," Smith said. "Then there is the time of the year. Everyone has trouble during the holidays. But I've been encouraged because the people who are at the arena do like the product.

"We pulled back on the advertising because we realized no matter what we did, the fans just couldn't make it. But we will spend in January and February."

Long-range approach

The BayRunners are still in good shape and could very well reach the 4,000-a-game average by the end of the season. But the same cannot be said for Trenton or Richmond, who will have a difficult time making up that much ground.

What becomes of those franchises? The owners will be the ones whose pockets will be hurt the most.

"It might take a couple of years to make money, but they have to have the wherewithal to stay," Trafton said. "So the first year, we don't do well and they lose a couple of dollars. Well, it is the long-range business foundation that has to get solid.

"In some of the teams we've had some weakness. But it is coming around. All you have to do is go to a game and see a couple of thousand people, and it is a wake-up call for the owners. I don't say that to be mean, but it is a wake-up call."

St. Louis and New Mexico rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the league respectively, both getting approximately 5,000 a game.

New Mexico's franchise, based in Albuquerque, is drawing well, despite competition from the University of New Mexico Lobos, by segmenting groups who are unable to attend Lobos' games, according to Jeffrey Candelaria, vice president of marketing for the Slam. Sunday's win over Cincinnati saw 6,800 in the Slam's Tingley Arena.

Jeffrey Candelaria said the organization also wants to make going to a game a unique experience.

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