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NCAA, NBA launch iHoops to promote sport of basketball to future players, fans

November 21, 2009

One of the legacies left behind by the late NCAA President Myles Brand is a 10-person startup company tucked in a high-rise office building in downtown Indianapolis that is just starting to make its mark on the basketball world.

Brand

Though the for-profit iHoops wasn’t officially launched until Oct. 26, six weeks after Brand’s death from pancreatic cancer, the education initiative—the first business partnership between the NCAA and National Basketball Association—is essentially Brand’s brainchild.

At the core of iHoops’ mission is weaving basketball more deeply into American culture. Through online education and hands-on instruction, iHoops aims to increase youth basketball participation at all levels and convert those participants into either college or pro players or lifelong fans of the game. Its Web site, iHoops.com, targets a broad audience—including players and their parents and coaches—and covers such topics as how to run a practice and the importance of a college education.

Sources close to the initiative point to rapid declines in youth basketball participation over the last few years and decreased funding for school-run and other publicly funded teams and leagues as reasons for the NCAA’s and NBA’s intervention.

Brand thought the only way to address the pressing needs facing the sport, NCAA officials said, was to pull all the sports’ constituents together.

“It’s a global take on the future of the sport,” said Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president of basketball and business strategies. “At its heart, like so many of Myles’ initiatives, it’s about education.”

iHoops took shape in 2005 after a meeting of Brand and NBA Commissioner David Stern. Brand and Stern enlisted USA Basketball, the NBA Players Association and NCAA member institutions to join the effort, which is the first time the premier college and professional basketball leagues have sought to intervene in the fortunes of youth basketball.

The NCAA and NBA, said sources close to iHoops, pledged $5 million each in cash and marketing resources for the first year alone. iHoops will have a major presence on NBA and NCAA Web sites and during national radio and television broadcasts of college and pro games.

Shaheen said iHoops will be highly visible during this season’s men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, and NBA officials added that their investment could exceed the initial commitment.

Already, ads promoting iHoops.com are playing prominently during NBA telecasts on cable channel TNT. Billboards are being erected in key markets and ad time during network broadcasts has been secured. There also will be significant in-arena signage for iHoops at NBA and NCAA games this season.

“This is about Myles Brand and David Stern’s vision to bring everyone together to create a better environment for the kids, and a better way for them to learn about the game of basketball and the role it can play in their overall growth as a person,” said Kathy Behrens, NBA’s executive vice president of social responsibility and player programs.

There are also solid business reasons for the NBA and NCAA to be involved in such an initiative.

Development of elite players and U.S. teams is a big thrust of iHoops. Stern has made no secret of his desire to expand the brand globally, and an improved Team USA in the Olympics and other international competitions helps him do that.

And youth basketball initiatives co-branded by the sport’s most powerful collegiate and professional bodies has an undeniable monetary component. It would open a bevy of opportunities for sponsorships and other corporate involvement, sports marketers said.

Deals with Nike, Adidas, Spalding and Right Guard were signed earlier this year, and iHoops officials think more sponsors could be secured in the coming months. The staff housed in Capital Center at 251 N. Illinois St. is expected to grow as the initiative takes off.

NCAA and NBA officials each own half of iHoops. They brought in former Big Ten deputy commissioner and Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg to run the operation. Weiberg was serving as vice president of the Big Ten Network when he was approached by Brand about becoming iHoops’ CEO.

iHoops board members include Duke University basketball coach Mike Kryzyzewski, former Indiana Pacer and current NBA TV analyst Len Elmore and NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.

Former Indiana University and Bowling Green basketball coach Dan Dakich, who has a teen-age son and daughter playing youth basketball, thinks the initiative is overdue.

“As a college coach, I saw it all the time, that players and parents struggle to find the right information,” Dakich said. “This brings a much-needed structure to youth basketball. And it gets instant credibility because it is being done in conjunction with the NCAA and NBA.”

In late October, iHoops.com was launched to serve as an information clearinghouse for pre-collegiate players of all levels, parents, coaches and officials.

The site features articles and videos on topics such as how to structure practices, proper nutrition and health care for players, and information on NCAA eligibility as well as blogs, message boards and other interactive features.

There are sections on life lessons as well: for instance, the do’s and don’ts of using a credit card and how to avoid debt. Expansion of the site is expected to include certification programs for coaches and officials.

iHoops’ initiatives, however, will go beyond cyberspace, with a host of youth basketball clinics, camps and seminars planned.

iHoops officials on Nov. 23 were to announce the first such program, a skills challenge they expect will draw 700 players ages 9 through 14. Competitions will start at the grass-roots level through YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and other select organizations, with competitors advancing to regional competitions in NBA cities. A championship round will be held in Orlando next May.

Weiberg outlined four major iHoops objectives: Achieve structural improvements in youth basketball, including educational opportunities for coaches and better central organization of club and travel youth basketball; enhance the basketball experience for players and parents; achieve a more unified set of stakeholders by working with organizations like the Amateur Athletic Union and USA Basketball; and increase participation levels in youth basketball.

Weiberg said the game plan calls for pouring all iHoops’ profits—if there are any—into creating and fortifying the company’s programs.

Forming iHoops-branded leagues, teams or tournaments is not in the game plan—for now. There is fear by some youth basketball organizers and club team operators that NBA and NCAA officials are muscling in on their territory.

“We want to work with all those involved in youth basketball to make it better,” Weiberg said.

Improving participation levels could be one of iHoops’ most important missions from a sales and marketing standpoint for the NCAA and NBA, said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis.

Youth participation in basketball for all levels nationwide has declined more than 10 percent since 2005, according to Maryland-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

“The stakeholders in the game of basketball are in a position where they’re saying, ‘Where is the next generation of fans going to come from?’” DeGaris said. “There’s a strong relationship between participation in a sport and becoming a fan. All the research proves that, and the NBA and NCAA are acutely aware of the situation.”•

 

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