January 10, 2017

The Bayhawks' Last Stand

Last month I took a quick trip to eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to watch some NBA Development League hoops. This is not the first trip I've taken a trip to watch minor league basketball and I don't expect it will be the last.

Each time I've seen a game in some new town, I've written a blog post about my experience where I've chronicled the history of the home team; talked about the arena; and maybe elaborated on one or two experiences while I was in town that made me feel like I was in a unique place in the United States. There's sort of a formula to those posts. I did that last week when I wrote about our first D-League stop on that trip in Canton, Ohio.

But my plan for writing about my trip to Erie, Pennsylvania to watch the hometown Bayhawks take on the Westchester Knicks was a bit different. I was going to go off script a little and use my trip there to talk about something else. And that was whether a franchise like the Erie Bayhawks was likely to survive what is happening in the current NBDL as the league expands and its members are more often that not wholly owned subsidiaries of NBA teams. But then the Orlando Magic beat me to it and announced last month that starting with the 2017-2018 season, the Erie Bayhawks would be moving to Lakeland, Florida, presumably with a new name since Lakeland does not sit on a bay.

I think the Bayhawks moving to Florida is tragic. Yes, I know it's only minor league basketball and that Cleveland is about an hour away if someone from Erie wanted to go to an NBA game. But sports are important to communities and stripping a town of a professional sports team, no matter how minor league it is, is not something to be celebrated.

Let's take a look back at how we got here. The NBA Development League started as the National Basketball Development League in 2001 with eight teams located in the southeast of the United States and none of these teams was owned by an NBA franchise. Sure the league had the endorsement of the NBA and operated on a sort of a farm system basis by allowing NBA teams to assign players to the D-League but there was little actual visible meddling.

I believe one of the original ideas behind locating the NBDL in the southeast U.S. was that the NBA saw an area of the country mostly crazy about college hoops completely underserved by professional basketball of any sort. With the Continental Basketball Association already in place in the midwest, the NBA chose southern Virginia, both Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia as the place to start its league. It wouldn't stay there long. There's only so much chance of making two pro hoops teams in Alabama viable year after year. To that point, once of the two Alabama teams (the Mobile Revelers) failed after just two years, along with the Greenville (SC) Groove.

In 2005, four years after its first season, the D-League expanded back to eight teams and moved west, adding one team each in Fort Worth, Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas and seeing three of the original eight teams move to New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. A year later, they would expand into the midwest, the Continental Basketball Association's territory, when the CBA's Sioux Falls (SD) Skyforce, Dakota Wizards and Idaho Stampede jumped ship from the then in trouble and ultimately failing league.

At the start of the 2008-2009 NBDL season, things seemed to have settled down. The D-League had expanded to an all time high 16 teams despite the loss of the remaining three original teams and the demise of the Fort Worth and Arkansas franchises after just two seasons. It seemed like the league had a comfortable footprint nationwide and the instability that had characterized the league's first few years seemed to be in the past. Sure the Anaheim Arsenal moved to Springfield, Massachusetts after that season and the Colorado 14ers went bust but the addition of the Maine Red Claws got the league back to 16. No worries, right?

Over that period of the D-League history, three of the teams in the league had been sold to NBA franchises. The Los Angeles Lakers bought the Los Angeles D-Fenders; the San Antonio Spurs purchased the Austin Toros and the Oklahoma City Thunder acquired the Tulsa 66ers. For the first time in D-League history, teams were single affiliated with an NBA franchise which allowed the franchise to install the big league offensive and defensive schemes at the minor league level and really develop their D-League assignees in a targeted fashion. It just so happened that the teams these three franchises bought were located close to the parent team's city.

Say goodbye to the bouncy castle, children of Erie. The Orlando Magic don't care.
Then in 2010, something different happened. Donnie Nelson, an executive with the Dallas Mavericks and son of legendary NBA coach Don Nelson, moved the Colorado 14ers (he had bought the defunct franchise a year prior) to Frisco, Texas, just a little more than 25 miles from Dallas and the Mavericks became exclusively aligned with the minor league franchise. This was different than a team buying a local team and keeping it in the city where it was before the purchase. Now, an NBA team had moved a D-League franchise to be super close to the NBA team's home.

It caught on. Two years later the Golden State Warriors purchased the Dakota Wizards, a team that had been playing in Bismarck, North Dakota since 1995 (!!) and moved them to Santa Cruz, because they needed a team closer to them so they could develop their young players. 17 years in one place and then poof! Gone!

The race was on. Springfield Armor? Sold to the Detroit Pistons and moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2014. Bakersfield (CA) Jam? Property of the Phoenix Suns and relocated to Arizona as the Northern Arizona Suns (yawn name!). What about the Idaho Stampede, another CBA-era team? Moved to Salt Lake City by the Utah Jazz. Then this season the Reno Bighorns became the property of the Sacramento Kings with a promise to move them closer to Sacto. Finally (although not really) it was the Erie Bayhawks' turn on December 14 of last year: moving to Lakeland, Florida effective 2017. 

Next year there will be no pro hoops in Erie, Pennsylvania. I'm sure not many people really care about that. I'm pretty sure the Orlando Magic don't care much at all. But I've been to Erie on a game night (as I had been to Springfield three seasons prior) and I've seen people from parking garages and restaurants and bars make their way to the Erie Insurance Arena to cheer on their Bayhawks. This stuff matters, folks. And right now the NBA teams are focusing all their energy on moving local franchises as close to their home arenas as possible. And I don't hold with it.

As of the beginning of the 2017-2018 NBA Development League season, there will be just three D-League teams located more than 150 miles from their parent clubs: the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (about 350 miles from Houston); the Iowa Energy (600 or so miles from Memphis); and the Sioux Falls Skyforce (more than 1,000 miles from Miami). Watch out Sioux Falls; you are probably going to lose your team at some point very soon.

I loved visiting Erie for an afternoon and evening. The Bayhawks, despite giving up an early and seemingly insurmountable lead to the visiting Westchester Knicks fought back hard (with maybe a little help from the refs) and had a chance to win it at the end. Despite the bottom of the league status of the team, the Bayhawks' faithful (including me, sometimes between bites of the arena's poutine) made a ton of noise for the team that night. Next year, it troubles me that those same fans won't have a team to root for. I think it's great that the NBA Development League is evolving into a true minor league; I'm just not happy about the effects on small cities like Erie.

Poutine in Erie. Way better than Verizon Center's version of a couple of years ago. Closer to Canada, eh.

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