ABA making another run at Indy market

The ABA is back in Indianapolis.

Actually, it never left. Since its founding in 2000, the semi-pro basketball league—borrowing the initials of the old American Basketball League—has been headquartered here.

But the Circle City’s success with supporting an ABA franchise has been checkered.

The Indiana Legends launched with the league, but folded just two years later when it couldn’t cover its $800,000 player payroll, plus rent at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

The Indianapolis Drive cropped up in 2010 but didn’t last any longer than the Legends. The nearby Anderson Alleycats also came and went in the ABA.

Maybe the third time is a charm. Fourth if you count the Alleycats. The owners of the Indy Naptown All Stars promise it’s going to be different in this market. The team’s majority owner is Susan Packard, the daughter of Joe Newman, the colorful founder of the new ABA.

The first question Packard and her staff are going to have to answer is, “How is this team any different from the failed attempts?”

“Yes, there have been some failures, either because the team wasn’t structured right or the league didn’t yet have its bearings,” said Rick Craig, the All Stars’ sales director. “Now, it’s a completely different business model.”

With a player payroll well under $100,000, the Naptown All-Stars have scaled down the business operations from the league’s early and more lofty expectations. Craig said of the player payroll: “It’s not even remotely what it used to be.”

The ABA is now structured more like college basketball. With 93 ABA franchises, team officials are responsible for coming up with their own 30-game regular season schedule. Most teams stick with a regional schedule and its modest travel expenses. The league usually has at least one in-season tournament, plus a postseason tournament to determine the ABA champion.

One good sign for the debut season, Naptown All Stars officials said, is the demand for tickets, which sell for $10 per game for adults and $5 for children.

Craig expects the team to come close to selling out its 3,500-seat home venue at Arsenal Technical High School for each of its 16 home games this season.

“We have partnered with the Shriners, and they’ve been selling tickets like crazy,” said Craig, who came to the All Stars after a 25-year career in the retail sales sector. “They believe in what we’re doing with local charities, our work with area schools and our anti-bullying campaign. I’m confident we’ll be at or above 3,000 per home game, and very close to selling out every home game.”

Craig has high hopes the team’s Nov. 9 home opener will be completely sold out.

“Everyone we’ve approached has been very receptive to what we’re doing,” he said.

And that includes potential corporate partners.

“We’ve recently signed a deal with Greek Island restaurant, and we have deals with NCI Promotional Products and Popcornopolis, and we have some other deals pending that we’ll be announcing soon,” Craig said.

The All Stars have hired former Chicago State University coach Kevin Jones to coach the team. The roster of 12 players is expected to be finalized Friday. Team officials said they’ve had no problems getting interested players to try out and expect over half the players on the roster to have local ties.

So what would attract these players?

The ABA for all its wackiness has become known as something of a pipeline for professional players to make it to better-paying jobs in European leagues. There also are rumblings that there could be some type of working relationship with the NBA—making the ABA a developmental league of sorts. At this point who knows about that? The NBA already has the NBA D-League.

The ABA this year did ink a deal to have 40 of its games air on ESPN. The Naptown All Stars will have its Nov. 29 home game aired live at noon on ESPN. There’s a possibility that ESPN could air additional ABA tournament games.

“We’re maybe the last chance for some of these [players],” said Craig, an Indianapolis native who grew up watching the Indiana Pacers in the old ABA. “So they come in here hungry. And we give them the opportunity to be seen.”

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