Krupa, Gregg. (1998, August 13). New leagues face jump ball for financing; Critics wonder if corporate America will respond to founders' courting The Boston Globe, Thursday, City Edition, SECTION: ECONOMY; Pg. C1

Three new professional basketball leagues, including two with

prospective franchises in Boston, are shooting to be up and running by

November 1999, rivaling the NCAA for the role of preparing players for the

NBA.

 

With many of the most talented high school players in the country

academically ineligible for college play, and an increasing number forgoing

most or all of their college eligibility to jump to the big time, the

leagues believe they can recruit many of the best young players in the

country.

 

But will corporate America ante up the necessary sponsorship fees and other

financial support to make the leagues viable?

 

Organizers of the Collegiate Professional Basketball League and The National

Rookie League - which both seek to establish Boston franchises - and the

International Basketball League are scurrying to find out.

 

"If you are a young male basketball player in this country who seeks to play

at the professional level, you have access either to a league where the

average pay is $ 2.4 million or another league where the average pay is $

15,000 and there is no in between," said Andrew Brandt, a vice president at

Woolf Associates. "I think there is a market in this country for more than

the National Basketball Association and the Continental Basketball

Association on a professional level, and this fills the void.

 

"Whether all three of them survive, that is a different question," Brandt

said of the start-ups.

 

Corporate support is especially important because officials of the three

nascent leagues say that, at least at the beginning, television revenue or

fan support will not generate enough revenue to operate.

 

All three leagues are hoping to patch together successful business plans in

part by borrowing strategies from other sports - minor league baseball is

expert at appealing to niche markets; European soccer clubs have survived on

the public sale of stock; NASCAR racing emerged as one of the country's most

popular sports after long years of operating with no national television

coverage.

 

While several corporate spokesmen and their representatives said they

understand the potential for a new basketball league, most interviewed said

they would likely wait before signing on.

 

"The thing with a start-up league that is difficult for us, and for

corporate America, from an evaluation standpoint is the lack of history -

especially when there are already other leagues playing the sport," said Tom

Haidinger, vice president of Capital Sports Inc. of Darien, Conn., which

represents companies active in sports sponsorships like Bic, TIG Insurance,

and Naya Spring Water. "It's tough to just jump right in, because basketball

is so popular, and assume there will be fan and television and sponsorship

interest. With leagues like these we tend to take a wait-and-see attitude."

 

"There has been some buzz about these new leagues, but it is not as if there

is a hot property out there that people are vying to jump on," said Eric

Kraus, who handles sports marketing projects at Gillette Co. "They are going

to have to work very hard to tap corporate sponsors who are currently

involved in other sports. You're not only competing against other basketball

properties, you are competing with all sponsorship opportunities."

 

Organizers of all three leagues say that part of their purpose is to fill a

low-cost entertainment niche for families and "basketball fanatics," while

offering a place for quality, young players to prepare for life in the NBA.

But there is more to their approach.

 

"I have always had the feeling with basketball specifically, that there is a

little bit of abuse going on," said Paul McMann, founder and president of

the College Professional Basketball League, and an assistant professor of

accounting at Babson College. "The colleges generate a tremendous amount of

wealth from their programs and the athletes generally walk away with

nothing."

 

The spurious hope of "hoop dreams" is well documented across the country.

According to NCAA statistics, less than 40 percent of NCAA Division I

basketball players graduate, the lowest proportion of degree recipients in

any sport. Only one in 10,000 of all high school players make it to the NBA.

 

While some critics have long advocated pay for college athletes, especially

those who play for powerhouse teams, the NCAA and most colleges and

universities reject the notion. Also rejected, to date, are proposals to

lengthen the degree eligibility of college athletes from five to six years,

so they can spread out their academic workload and even continue studies for

a year or more after their playing days have ended.

 

In the meantime, an increasing number of talented high school basketball

players eschew college entirely and jump immediately to the NBA. The list

includes budding superstars Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin

Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

 

Each of the start-up leagues would, in their own way, offer some money for a

college education, at a time when the athletes are ready to attend. They

also would provide some training for life and for conducting themselves as

professional athletes.

 

"The International Basketball League values education and will implement a

program which will further develop players' skills on and off the court,"

said Richard Lapchick, the founder of the Center for the Study of Sports in

Society at Northeastern University, who will design and implement the

educational programs for the league. "Keeping in mind that less than half of

collegiate players who use their college eligibility actually graduate, this

program offers distinct elements that will ensure their success with or

without basketball."

 

The NCAA's response to date has been muted.

 

"The leagues may in fact be a viable alternative for basketball players who

may not be academically prepared to handle the load at the college level and

who want to play basketball," said Wally Renfro, a spokesman for the NCAA.

"The big fear is that some players who are academically qualified will pass

up that opportunity for a short cut to the pros."