Next week the NBA season will tip off, with LeBron’s return to Cleveland, Phil Jackson reshaping New York, Miami revamping itself, Kobe coming back to action in LA and the Spurs looking to defend. However shortly after the NBA gets rolling, the NBA D-League will kick off its season, with perhaps the best strategic positioning the league has ever had.
D-League as a viable business platform? A few years ago the thought of a D-League franchise sent marketers and owners running for cover. The League was a business loss leader, with no real hope of marketing or business success. However under then-commissioner Dan Reed, and with a new approach and additional time investment by clubs, the D-League changed and has transformed more into what was the original vision of then-Commissioner David Stern; to be a great testing and proving ground both national for basketball and locally for clubs. A growing number of teams now have used their own partially or wholly owned D-League clubs not just to develop and mold their on-court talent, but to grow their sports business and media groups as well, and along the way have increased their fan development side like baseball, and in some ways hockey have done for years. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have a D-League club in Santa Cruz that has the look and feel of their parent club, while at the same time bringing in several million dollars in sponsorship and promotional dollars. The Sixers have their team in nearby Wilmington, using those assets for fan development in an area where the assets of the parent club could not always focus. The Detroit Pistons are making a bigger effort to market to a wider audience through their new affiliation with the Grand Rapids Drive, once a hotbed of minor league hoops. The Knicks will use their new White Plains-based team to test new marketing initiatives and bring a little more of their team-branded feel back to the county where so many fans reside but may not make it into the City for games all the time, in an area not far from their practice facility in Greenburgh. All of the parent teams can use these D-League clubs as a way to hone new programs with brands that may not be able to engage with the lofty dollars associated with an NBA partnership but still crave an association with pro hoops.
For the NBA itself, the D-League becomes a great test market for new rules, coaching changes and even sponsorship with things like branded patches on uniforms and ways to engage in wearable tech devices, all of which can be tried out in real time in solid markets without infringing on the sanctity of the NBA. It also makes more sense for the teams themselves to have more control of D-League franchises from a personnel standpoint, using their D-League to craft and mold players not yet ready while keeping them close to home to watch that development in person. The Lakers D-League team for example, plays and practices in their practice facility, a model which Phil Jackson will have with his club now in New York (although their games will be not that far away at the Westchester County Center).
So what does this mean for other markets, even a state like New Jersey? With Philly and the Knicks having much closer relationships, the once-New Jersey and now Brooklyn Nets have aligned themselves with a team in Springfield, Mass for now. Wouldn’t it make sense, given the affluent and basketball-crazed environment in The Garden State, to pursue a relationship closer by to develop and rekindle some marketing and brand affiliation in New Jersey? While the Prudential and Izod Centers are too big for a D-League budget, college arenas like the one at Monmouth University on the affluent and commuter-friendly Jersey Shore could make sense, along with a place like Jersey City, which has the Yanitelli Center at St. Peter’s College not that far from the Barclays Center. The Nets organization also has an ongoing relationship with Nassau Coliseum which will now be targeted for redevelopment, but their focus for Long Island is to rope fans into Brooklyn more. New Jersey as a state has found become very fertile ground during the summer months for minor league baseball, with clubs like the Lakewood Blue Claws doing very well as businesses. The winter months, not so great these days, with no minor league hockey anywhere in the State today. So why not the D-League? It has become a burgeoning business, and the state has the facilities and the fan base, not to mention the local businesses who love to engage in sport.
It is an interesting proposition to look at as fans try and find affordable spends for their discretionary dollars across a long winter.