Ninth District becomes hub of 'Minor League' basketball

David Fettig | Editor

Published January 1, 1994  | January 1994 issue

Change is nothing new for the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). That franchises would come and go with little warning was taken as a matter of business in years past.

But that propensity for change ebbed within the last 10 years, according to Brett Meister, special assistant to the commissioner of the CBA. Although new franchises have been added in the past decade—many of them in recent years in the Ninth District—the pace has slowed. Meister acknowledges that 10 years ago the league would expand "at the drop of a hat." He says the CBA is now taking a more considered approach to expansion by carefully reviewing owners' proposals and franchise sites.

One city that is undergoing the league's analysis as a potential location for a new franchise is Bismarck, N.D. Bismarck will host a special CBA tournament in March, an event that will help league officials determine the possible level of support in North Dakota's capital city for the National Basketball Association's developmental league.

"We'll use the tournament as a gauge to see what interest the city has," Meister says. "But it's no guarantee that it's a shoo-in."

If Bismarck is selected, it would join five other district cities as CBA hosts: Rapid City and Sioux Falls, S.D., Fargo, N.D., Rochester, Minn., and La Crosse, Wis.

In Rapid City, the Thrillers have a relationship with the fans that would be the envy of big-league franchises. With an average attendance of 5,489 last season, the Thrillers ranked second among 16 teams (the team has also been successful on the court in recent years), and city officials are quick to acknowledge the team's impact on the community.

"It is definitely a popular part of Rapid City and something that we're impressed with," says Lori Hein, of the Rapid City Economic Development Commission (EDC). She says that the commission sometimes takes business executives to a game to show off this example of "community spirit."

Like representatives from all communities with professional teams, Hein doesn't know the actual economic impact of the team because of the difficulty of tracking spending from outside the immediate area. However, in a recent newsletter, the EDC made no bones about economic benefits: "The Thrillers have 11 full-time employees and 33 part-time employees. ... The Thrillers have a 1.25 million dollar operating budget that is spent primarily in Rapid City. There are 15 other CBA teams that come to Rapid City and spend per diem in restaurants and malls. Dollars are spent at the civic center and recycled again. Fans get up off the couch and go out on winter nights, who before stayed at home, which stagnated the economy."

The team also has a revamped arena to play in: About $600,000 was recently spent on new seats, a new scoreboard, shot clocks, a scorers table, logo work on the floor and painting throughout the arena. "It looks like the NBA," says Jerry Jasinski, civic center general manager.

"We did this for basketball, but we use it for other things," Jasinski says. He wouldn't divulge the team's lease rate, but says the Thrillers get a "good rate deal" because they provide at least 28 dates when the civic center would otherwise be empty.

In Fargo, the Fargo-Moorhead Fever pay $30,000 per season to lease the city's new Fargodome, which recently announced that it had doubled net income projections for its first year to $315,585. At just over $1,000 per date, the team wasn't a strong part of that income statement, says Roger Newton, executive director of the Fargodome. Revenue from parking and concessions makes the team—which averaged 2,850 fans during its first full year in Fargo—a small moneymaker for the arena, Newton says.

"But there is a broader issue," Newton says. "What did we lose by not having a particular date open?" For example, Newton says that the arena made more money on one Garth Brooks concert than on the entire CBA season. Small crowds, with little earnings from parking and concessions, are a money loser for the arena on a per game basis, Newton says. But even on slow dates, the basketball team brings exposure to the dome, he says.

"We enjoy having them here," Newton adds. "The key for them is putting people in the seats."

That's also the key for the Rochester Renegades, a first-year team that last season not only finished with the worst record in league history (6-50), but also at the bottom of the attendance ranking, averaging 1,532. "You can't make it," with attendance like that, says Gary Smith of Rochester Area Economic Development Inc.

Rochester, which lost a CBA team five years ago, hired Bill Musselman, former Minnesota Timberwolves and University of Minnesota coach who also has had a successful coaching career in the CBA, to ignite the team's record and inspire fan allegiance. "This will be the greatest challenge of my career," Musselman said after taking the job. "I'm going into this with the idea that we'll win here, and that we'll sell the place out."

Roy Sutherland, director of Rochester's Parks and Recreation Department hopes that happens. Currently, the Renegades pay just $500 per date in rent for the Mayo Civic Center, and the team retains a percentage of the concessions. "They got a sweetheart deal on the rent," says Sutherland, who adds that the rent will double in succeeding years up to $2,000, where it will remain. "Hopefully, they'll stay here and we'll all get well together," he says.

"Is [CBA basketball] a major part of the economic base of our community? No," says Smith. "But it is a major part of our quality of life, so it has value. But I don't know how to put a precise value on that."