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New professional basketball team has a game plan, on and off the court

on September 20, 2011

After labor talks between NBA players and team owners failed to break a lockout last week, some basketball fans may be wondering if they’re in for a dry winter. But for those living in Richmond, there will be a new game in town this season.

Starting in November, the Richmond Rockets, of the American Basketball Association, will be playing regular games at the Civic Center Memorial Auditorium. The Rockets will be the first professional basketball team in the city, and team president Keith Hazell said he hopes they will become an integral part of Richmond.

“I want people to wake up in the morning, go to work and brag about their team,” he said.

The Rockets will be one of 80 teams in the ABA, a league that originally merged with the NBA in the 1970s, but relaunched as a separate organization in 2000. While much lesser known than the NBA, the ABA is currently the largest professional athletic league of any sport in the country, with new teams joining every year.

“We could have waited to the 2012-2013 season, so there would have been more time to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t,’” said Rockets CEO and owner Eric Marquis, who began putting the team together late last spring. “But we saw a window of opportunity that was pretty irresistible.”

For starters, Marquis is hoping the NBA lockout could redirect the interest of Bay Area basketball fans to local ABA teams, of which there are four: the San Francisco Rumble, the East Bay Pitbulls, the Bay Area Matrix, and now the Rockets. But to Marquis, the NBA’s woes will not be the Rockets biggest selling point. It’s economics.

At $10 per ticket, Rockets games will be a more affordable alternative to other professional sports and entertainment events in the Bay Area.  Moreover, tough economic times are giving ABA teams an opportunity to develop special symbiotic relationships with their communities.

“I was watching America’s Got Talent last night and one judge told a team, ‘You’re just what America needs right now,’ and I thought that’s what the ABA is all about,” said ABA CEO Joe Newman.  After watching the show last Wednesday night, Newman wrote a letter to all ABA team owners reminding them that the league makes job creation, community service, inclusion and affordability a priority.

There are about 2,000 people employed by ABA teams, 75 percent of which are owned by minorities and women.  And most teams follow a general grassroots business model: develop close philanthropic relationships with nonprofit groups in the community and help elevate small, local businesses.

It’s a model that the Rockets are following closely. The team has formed a partnership with Richmond’s Police Activities League to allow PAL the primary concession stand at games, and Marquis wants to donate a portion of ticket sales from each home game back to the  organization. Additionally, all the players will be required to provide community service, such as mentoring and basketball clinics for youth in the city.

The team will play 30 games this season, beginning November 10. Of those games, 15 of them will be played in Richmond. Marquis and Hazell have already been meeting with members of Richmond’s Chamber of Commerce to discuss concession and sponsorship opportunities at games – opportunities that may be unfamiliar to most vendors.

“The cost to get involved with big teams like the Giants or the 49ers is usually cost prohibitive for small businesses,” said Dick Packer, president of the ABA. “Our teams show them how they can use sports as a platform.”

As for the players, they won’t be making NBA-style salaries.  Marquis is still finalizing the pay scale for the Rockets, but for now it won’t be nearly enough for any of the players to quit their day jobs. The ABA caps the collective team salary at $120,000 for the year. But Marquis wants to find ways for the players to share in the success of the team.

“We want to give players additional opportunities to earn income, such as profit from team merchandise and commission from selling tickets,” he said.

Marquis is most ambitious about ticket sales: the Civic Center Memorial Auditorium has 2,200 seats, and Marquis said he believes he can sell out games.

Packer said that most ABA games have fewer than 1,000 attendees. Marquis used to work for the San Francisco Rumble and on average their games drew between 200 and 400 fans. But there are success stories. Last year, the Jacksonville Giants of Jacksonville, Florida attracted 3,500-4,000 fans on average, Packer said. And that was in their first year. He attributes the team’s success to the close ties they built with their local community organizations.

It’s a lesson the Rockets hope to repeat.

“We didn’t come with buckets full of money,” Marquis said. “Our success as a team will be predicated on what we can do for the community. “

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