The ABA is a league full of holes

Teams often fail to turn up, pay players a pittance, and disappear without notice. (See also the companion article, “The Crisis in Canadian Basketball” by Tony Seed, on this website)

By ALEX J. WALLING*

HALIFAX (11 June 2997) – THE STORY is like taking a car trip across Canada. You never know what will take place along the journey, and you may never reach the end.

The Halifax Rainmen are slated to launch their professional life this November in the American Basketball Association.

Last week, they started selling season tickets.

Let’s give the Rainmen, at this stage, full benefit of the doubt. Let’s also assume they will handle themselves professionally.

But what about the ABA? What is this league about? How long has it been around? How reliable are the teams?

I had tonnes of questions, and went looking for answers.

Maybe I shouldn’t have.

When this trip started, I had little knowledge of the league, but it didn’t take long to realize the main characteristics: it centres on credibility and consistency, or a lack thereof.

Those are not opinions, just facts.

Teams moving or folding, and the leadership of the founder and CEO Joe Newman, are the common denominator as I navigated from owners to media, to former executives.

What started as a small trip turned into an epic journey.

Let’s start with the name of the league itself – the ABA.

Newman and partners picked up the name from the NBA, and own 51 per cent of it.

There is no similarity between the old ABA, which played from 1967 to ‘76 and produced some dynamite talent like Julius Erving and Moses Malone.

The only point of reference between both leagues is the multi-coloured basketball that reminds me of the early Montreal Expos hats as worn by the mascot Youppi.

The new ABA launched in 2000, stopped operations a few years later, then came back in 2004.

There were problems early on, especially when the league went from seven teams to 30 by Year 2.

You know the Hank Snow song, I’ve Been Everywhere? One should do a re-release, but use the names of the places where the ABA once was.

It appears they’ve been everywhere in North America, and beyond.

It seems that the lure of owning a pro team for such a cheap price is what draws investors to this league.

ABA franchise fees range from US$20,000 to $40,000.

But when these entrepreneurs realize that they need money – and lots of it – for travel, meals, salaries, promotion and other necessities to run a successful operation, the cold reality hits, the cash sometimes isn’t there and teams fold.

Newman says the league does due diligence on those who apply.

Two owners, however, told me they got in immediately, with no checks or references being done.

One executive said he wanted to take over a struggling team and was basically told, “Good. You got it.”

Why are teams folding?

Newman says the ABA does have a business plan.

“If a team doesn’t follow the plan, it risks not being successful,” he said.

“It’s not the ABA or city, but the ownership that determines the success of a team.”

But ABA teams seem to fold and change like Maritime weather.

Here’s a small sample.

– The Minneapolis/St. Paul Slamma Jammas were scheduled for the 2005-06 season, but crashed before playing their first game.

– The Toledo Royal Knights were known as the Ice before a December 2006 ownership change. The team cancelled the rest of the season due to lack of funding.

– The Tacoma Navigators made it through their first season in 2005, but forfeited their playoff that spring.

– The Portland Reign played in the fall of 2004 and folded in February of 2005 after posting a 4-8 record. However, many of their games were cancelled prior to that.

– Do you remember the Oklahoma City Ballhawgs? They came into the league in the winter of 2004 and folded after one game. They in turn were replaced by the Louisiana Cajun Pelicans, who are no longer in the league.

On and on it goes. The Memphis Hound’Dawgs? They lasted one season, and that seems to be an accomplishment for an ABA team.

In fact, one club, the Utah Snowbears, made the playoffs, won their quarterfinal and semifinal, then forfeited the final.

I can’t recall that ever happening in another pro league.

We’ve also had our headaches in Canada with the ABA. For example, the Calgary Drillers played in 2004-05, but suspended operations in February.

Overall, my research tells me close to 60 teams have folded in the last few years.

Then we have the teams who quit, or left to go elsewhere. Some of them include the Arkansas RimRockers, Charlotte Krunk and Vancouver Dragons.

With folding and shifting tides, at least 80 teams have said no to the ABA.

Newman agrees some teams did not belong.

“I kicked many of them out myself for not following rules and standards of the league,” he said. “In many of those places, I replaced them with better ones.”

One of the rules and standards is paying players. Over and over again, I heard comments about owners/management delaying payment or not paying at all.

A regular season in the ABA is 36 games, but research shows few teams actually play all of them.

Lots of turnovers

“I can’t tell you how many teams were in this past season” says Sev Hrywnak, a former co-owner with the Rochester RazorSharks.

“It kept changing from week to week, or at times, day to day.”

It seems some teams would promote one club for a home game, and another would show up.

I asked Newman to provide me stats and standings for the last few years. He didn’t, or couldn’t, or it seems, wouldn’t.

I asked three times, and the last time Newman told me that his brother-in-law, Brad, who owns one per cent of the league, had the stats.

He, however, was on holidays.

If I have a hard time requesting such a small matter as standings, what happens on a major issue like details about why a team folded or didn’t show up to play?

I can only assume standings will show how few teams completed the full season.

I do know the Salt Lake Dream ceased operations last November without playing a single game.

A check of the ABA website shows little about the teams. No history. No stats. Little info other than press releases announcing new teams and how one can buy ABA merchandise.

Anything, but what a reporter wants.

The Rochester story

To get a positive slant for this story, I went looking for a strong ABA club and picked the RazorSharks. They were the defending champions when the ABA season started last fall.

Rochester was held to us as the model that other teams should strive for at a news conference by Newman when he came to Halifax in January to promote the ABA all-star game at the Metro Centre.

Newman told us the RazorSharks were one of the best ABA franchises.

He said the RazorSharks held the ABA attendance record in the mid-7,000 range and averaged 4,400 per game.

During all-star weekend, we heard many good things about Rochester from the ABA, including by players and coaches.

However, Rochester left the ABA to join a new league, the Premier Basketball League.

So, I was surprised when Newman changed his mind on this team when I reached him a few days ago. Maybe he forgot what he said in Halifax. But here is what he e-mailed me when I asked how he felt in losing his top-rated team to the Premier league.

“Rochester was not one of the most successful teams in the league,” he wrote. “Only PR. They lost as much if not more money than any other team ever in the ABA because of their refusal to follow the ABA business model.”

These comments amount to a total contradiction to what was said just months ago by the ABA’s head man.

I spoke to Hrywnak about this, and he did not have nice words about Newman.

“If Rochester was that terrible of a franchise, then how come their city held the Great 8 ABA tourney in 2006, where they won the title?” he asked. “That hosting award goes to one of the top teams in the league.

“And if the team was so bad, how come one of our people received the ABA executive of the year?”

Rochester was one of several teams to forfeit their quarterfinal a few months ago in the ABA playoffs.

They wanted to play their first playoff game, but had notified the ABA that the NCAA had their arena booked for its men’s hockey championship.

It seems the league was not pleased, and not prepared to wait. They said they may give the series to their opponents.

Rochester then pulled out.

Newman says: “Those are lies, and you can quote me.”

I checked the NCAA website, and the hockey tourney was held in Rochester last March.

Jiving with Joe

Wherever I went with this story, it came back to Newman.

“Joe Newman is the ABA, and the successes and failures have to be attributed to him,” one reporter who followed the league told me.

Hrywnak called him “the best salesman in the world,” while another said: “He’s personable, loves basketball and can make anything look rosy.”

Litigation, conflict or differences seem to follow Newman.

When he was in Halifax at the ABA all-star game, some on the board of directors tried to overthrow him. The coup included Tom Doyle, league president and owner of the Maryland Nighthawks, and former NBA player and media man John Salley. The coup was unsuccessful and when Newman got back from Halifax, he called a meeting and fired Doyle and the other dissenters.

“How stupid are they,” Newman asked. “I own the league and so I fired them.”

Doyle answered by pulling his team out and starting his own circuit – the Premier league.

Guess who joined him? None other than Rochester.

“My idea of success and Newman’s differ,” Doyle said. “I’d rather have fewer teams, that are stable and last, as opposed to having tonnes that continue to fold. It’s not the amount of teams that a league has, it’s the amount that finish.”

A call to the Indianapolis Star, the paper where the home of the ABA is, produced this line from one of its reporters, who didn’t want to be identified.

“The league is a joke, a pure joke, and the lowest league in North America where people get paid to play sports,” the reporter told me. “We stopped covering them early in their existence. We didn’t have a clue when or where they were playing. God pity Halifax if you get involved with this group.”

The reference to not having a clue where they were playing applies to the Indiana Legends.

In their second year, there was a salary dispute going on with the players. The team kept moving, starting at a very nice facility, but ending up in high school gyms. They folded.

The players took legal matters against the owner and got an $800,000 judgment.

That owner is none other than Newman, who tells me he is “dealing with that matter as we speak.”

Besides teams folding, there are plenty of other horror stories floating around.

Doyle says one night, he had to pay to have the visiting team play. “I had to pay to bring them in and was never refunded,” he said.

One sportswriter told me one team showed up with five players and had to dress the manager and trainer, and lost by 80 points.

Teams will have to travel a long distance to get to Halifax.

Newman guarantees the Rainmen will have opponents for all games.

But not only does this league lose teams, it also doesn’t seem to keep its players. It is common to see players come and go, and CEO Newman defends this practice.

“The salary cap for the ABA is $120,000 divided by 12 (about $10,000 per player),” he said. “The ABA is a platform for players. International teams offer the players from $10,000 to $20,000 per month and we encourage their taking advantage of the larger contracts. We do not want to stop any young man from his potential. This is not a bad thing.”

Maybe in America, but I would hate to see the reaction of fans of the Halifax Mooseheads if midway through the season they saw Jakub Voracek and Logan MacMillan take off to play elsewhere.

And how do you build interest if you can’t identify with a player?

Now, getting back to trying to find those standings and statistics, Newman says this will be rectified this season.

“We will be putting the stats and standings up later this summer and will keep accurate record next season. Sorry.”

That’s what he e-mailed me.

How can you have a league if the fans don’t have a clue as to what is going on?

And how can this continue year after year? They have been around since 2000.

Mikal Duilio, once the ABA commissioner, but now president of the International Basketball League, wouldn’t talk, but sent an e-mail stressing some differences between the IBL that he created, three months after the Portland Reign folded.

“The IBL is a league of stability. In both 2005 and 2006, every IBL team completed their season,” was his comment.

The IBL had 26 teams this year.

Few positives

In trying to find the positives about the ABA, I was told to reach the Vermont Frost Heaves, a team that will be in the Rainmen’s division.

They played all their games last season and are the league champions.

Phone calls were not returned, but on the Frost Heaves website is a section on the ABA.

And while fans in Vermont support the team, the ABA was bashed for their problems.

If there is some great and sparkling news on this league, other than expanding, I can’t find much, if any.

I informed Rainmen president Andre Levingston of my findings. As for its apparent instability, this was his reply.

“We are strongly committed to this franchise and to the ABA,” he wrote. “We believe in this league and the resources we have brought to the table prove that beyond a doubt.

“The league has … placed a new requirement into effect for the 2007-08 season that guarantees each team will play its scheduled games and if there is a circumstance that prohibits a team from playing, another team will be flown in their place.

“To support this commitment, each franchisee will pay a $3,000 fee with 61 teams, which goes in escrow for flights. We will play 18 home games this season, promising truly exciting basketball every night.”

I hope the promise to Levingston is better than the promise of Stephen Harper and the Atlantic Accord.

*Alex J Whalling is a veteran sportswriter, author and broadcaster, and a columnist with the Halifax Daily News in which this article first appeared. He may be reached at ajw@eastlink.ca

Source: Shunpiking Online, June-August 2007, Volume 4, Number 5

http://www.shunpiking.com/ol0405/0405-SR-AW-theabaisfull.htm

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