Friday, July 27, 2007

Hester Tries to Change the ABA

Okay, okay, I just can’t seem to take it anymore. I have been quiet about the American Basketball Association for some time now, but the things the league has been doing of late have made me laugh. Of course, I am easily amused, but that is another story in itself.

First, the good of what has been going on. I have been talking with ABA VP of Operations Brad Hester about the state of the league, and to his credit, he has been very honest about the shortcomings of the ABA. As opposed to its CEO, Brad wants to do something about the problems that have plagued this league for the last seven years.

To review, the ABA has seen over 70 teams fold since its rebirth back in 2000-2001. Franchises are supposedly awarded when the $10,000 “market reservation” fee clears the bank, which is the league’s only source of income, but several teams have joined on installment plans or without paying at all. Because of this, the league has no motivation to keep teams in the league. If one folds, another comes in and the ABA has another ten grand in its pocket. There have been countless problems with players not being paid, franchises moving in mid-season, teams being added in mid-season, and findings that owners have criminal records after their franchise was on the books. Owners fold teams without notifying fans, and some teams have had up to four arenas in one season. Combined with the fact the ABA is facing numerous lawsuits claiming fraud and misrepresentation, and SEC filings state the league is 17 million dollars in debt but has only $450,000 in assets, this is a league that is in trouble.

Brad Hester is the VP of Operations for the league and also the stepson of CEO Joe Newman. He was brought into the league last season after running a Store Manager for Lowe’s in Anderson, Indiana for five and a half years. Hester comes from a sports background having played and lettered in three sports in his high school career. In college, Brad played football for two seasons.

When Brad first came into the position with the ABA, he was facing a league in total chaos. Teams were folding left and right, stats and standings were never updated on the league’s website, and the schedule had to be changed and modified seemingly every other minute. There were, and still are PR problems as well as CEO Newman is known for tearing apart fans and media who question him on the league’s issues, and has a horrible reputation with the press. Brad sees these problems and is working to bring revenue into the league and improve its image.

Last year the league only played 63% of its schedule, a number that has been consistent over the years with teams folding and moving in mid-season. This is an issue Brad has had to deal with since he came to the ABA last year. It can’t be any less than a Herculean task to maintain a schedule, ensure games are played, and maintain the league with teams being in constant flux. To combat the issues with teams missing games, Hester is requiring teams to post a three thousand dollar performance bond. The bond will pay for expenses if a team fails to make a game, therefore reducing the financial burden on the team expecting to play and attract fans in their home arena. If a team does not miss a game, the money from the bond is returned to the team with interest. Take the bond requirement, and the fact that if a team misses a game, they will be fined. If they miss a second game, they will be removed from the ABA. This is a far cry from what has been expected from teams in years past.

Another issue fans and scouts have had is the fact that virtually none of the teams in the ABA keep individual and/or team stats. As a result, scouts have a difficult time figuring out which ABA teams to look at for their domestic or international squads. To combat this issue, Hester is requiring all teams to purchase and use the Joc Trac scoring system. This is a scoring system used by many college teams and can track the most minute of stats. Joc Trac also has the ability to transmit game stats straight into the ABA website, which will allow fans to see what is going on with their favorite teams, and allow scouts to have a better idea of who is doing what. This is something that has not been done in years past.

Other things that Brad would like to see in place, but have not happened yet include each team having a functioning website. As we are in the 21st century, fans will look to the web for updates on how teams are doing, news on the team, stats, etc. In the last couple of seasons, there have been very few teams with websites, therefore reducing the amount of exposure they receive from the media, and in turn fans. It is difficult for a team to attract fans to the arenas if no one knows they are around. Some of the websites that are running have obviously not been proofread. Take for example the Georgia Gwizzlies. When I looked at the Gwizzlies site a couple of weeks ago, there were 32 grammatical and spelling errors. Other sites either don’t exist, or are running but with numerous broken links. This is a problem Hester acknowledges and knows that for PR sake has to change. The date teams were required to have this done was July 1st, but the majority of teams have failed to meet this deadline.

What all of this comes down to is if CEO Joe Newman fully backs Hester on these radical changes. In years past, Newman has not been strict on teams who do not meet their obligations to the league. Rules tend to be able to be bent depending on who the owner is, and the statement “The team has been removed from the league for failure to meet its obligations” is simply a line. Multiple sources have told me that only one of the 70 teams to fold in the last six years have been suspended by the ABA. The rest of the teams have simply gone out of business without a trace, only to be replaced by another team either during the same season, or the following.

Newman and the league are facing numerous PR issues due to the actions of CEO Newman. Newman is not PR savvy as he has even called me a “disgrace to my profession” and in an e-mail following an article on the Mississippi Miracles said that I “must have failed your (Being mine) journalism ethics classed in college. Many e-mails have been posted on various websites by fans in which Newman calls fans names, degrades them, and attempts to humiliate them. Combined with the fact that Newman does not put any real news about the league on the ABA website, by his own doing, he is helping to ruin the reputation of the organization.

Newman has said that he wants the league to have 100 teams and for it to be the largest professional sports league in the country. If Newman continues to expand the league by simply taking a check, or a promise, and not conducting any sort of due diligence on prospective owners, he will not come close to that number. Like I said earlier, Newman takes the check and that is about it. According to multiple current and former owners, bank records are not checked, background checks are not done, nor is it even checked to see if a team has a venue in which to play. If the first check clears, you are in; it appears that plain and simple.

The latest in the ABA’s line of problems are the lawsuits that have been filed by the Jaloza group seeking control of the ABA. It has been found by a jury that the ABA and CEO Newman were in violation of an agreement in which he (Newman) avoided repaying a debt to the group. Contained within the agreement was a stipulation where Newman would make the Jaloza group partners in the ABA. In turn, Newman then moved the ABA into another shell company, avoiding having to fulfill his obligations to Jaloza. The decision could end up costing the ABA its license, and force ABA teams to cease and desist using the ABA.

The ABA has tremendous potential with the low cost of tickets, and the accessibility fans have to the players and coaches. The Vermont Frost Heaves proved that this season as they turned out fans in droves to the Barre Auditorium and to their second home in Burlington. This potential can only be reached by all of the teams if in my opinion CEO Newman listens to those who surround him. He has to relinquish some of the power he has and has to trust those with ideas that will improve the league. No longer can Mr. Newman have a set of rules and not enforce them. If he does not enforce the regulations Mr. Hester has suggested, this is a league that will not be around in the next two seasons. All of the bad press, what press there is, will increase, and the fans will no longer continue to support a league that says they will do one thing and then does another.

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