Thursday, March 20

Cavs' D-League Team Lands In Erie

There was good news this weekend for basketball fans in northwest Pennsylvania, particularly for fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers: starting next season, the Cavs’ NBA Development League (“D-League”) affiliate will be located in Erie. Hopefully the presence of the new club will help to further expand the Cavaliers’ burgeoning fan base in Erie and the surrounding areas.

As part of his ongoing effort to grow the NBA brand, Commissioner David Stern has put considerable effort into the conception and enlargement of the NBA Development League. Since the league’s inaugural season in 2001 (when it was known as the NBDL), it has more than doubled in size from eight to 17 teams, including next season’s expansion teams in Erie and Reno.

Numerous talented players have passed through the D-League, including Rafer Alston, Matt Carroll, Mikki Moore, Slam Dunk Contest competitor Jamario Moon, and Bobby Simmons. The Cavaliers have two former D-Leaguers on their roster, swingman Devin Brown and recently promoted center Lance Allred (this is a tremendous name for an athlete).

Having the Cavs’ affiliate in such proximity to the parent team could prove beneficial in terms of logistics, in addition to the obvious positives for fans. If the Cavaliers need to promote one of their D-Leaguers to fill a roster spot vacated by a last minute injury, said player could pack a bag and be in Cleveland in less than two hours. It will also be far easier for the Cavs to shuttle scouts, coaches, etc. back and forth to evaluate their D-League players. This situation could be very similar to the arrangement that the Indians currently have with their AAA team, the Buffalo Bisons (the Indians are rumored to be moving their AAA team to Columbus, which might be even more convenient).

Cleveland’s current D-League affiliate is the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, also a farm team for the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets. Located in McAllen, Texas, the Vipers are less than optimally located, relative to the Cavaliers. It is likely that the Cavaliers will share the Erie franchise with one or more NBA clubs, and the Toronto Raptors rumored to be interested in such a liaison. Since individual NBA teams do not control enough players to field their own D-League teams at this point in time, D-League teams are ordinarily affiliated with more than one professional team, with the Austin Toros (Spurs) and Los Angeles D-Fenders (Lakers) being the only exceptions.

The new D-League franchise was officially introduced during a Tuesday afternoon press conference at Erie’s Bayfront Convention Center. Present were Cavs’ GM Danny Ferry, Erie team president Ron Sertz (formerly of the OHL’s Erie Otters), D-League president Dan Reed, and Erie mayor Joe Sinnott. The team, which is currently nameless, will play in Erie’s Tulio Arena. The D-League season is 50 games long and Erie will see at least 24 home games, with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $40 for single games, and $192 to $720 for season tickets.

As a lifelong Erie-ite, I can attest to the fact that Erie’s population has a fairly high level of athletic interest. That said, the professional sports interests of Erie’s fan base are very diverse and segmented. There are fans of the Indians and Pirates for baseball, the Bills, Browns and Steelers on the gridiron, and the Penguins and Sabres for hockey, not to mention a devoted following to high school, and to a lesser degree, local college sports.

Minor league sports franchises have experienced various degrees of financial and on-field success in Erie, with the level of box office success usually dictated almost solely by the team’s performance in the standings. In other words, winning teams draw, and losers generally do not. It’s hardly a unique concept.

Minor league hockey has probably had the most success in Erie, especially when Erie’s franchise, the Erie Otters of the OHL (Ontario Hockey League, a Major junior league), were perennially competing for the league championship a few years back. The Erie SeaWolves, AA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, have been up and down both in performance and ticket sales, even with premier talents such as Curtis Granderson, Jair Jurjens, Cameron Maybin (a brief two week stay in northwest Pennsylvania), Justin Verlander, and Joel Zumaya playing in Erie at one point or another. Admittedly, I attend SeaWolves games chiefly to get a look at the Akron Aeroes, while conveniently not having to make a drive to the Buckeye State.

Indoor football has flopped time and again in Erie, so of course, franchises continue their futile attempts to gain a foothold. The Erie Invanders, Erie Freeze, and the laughable female indoor team, the Erie Illusion, failed successively in a span of just a few years. Even so, a new franchise, the Erie River Rats (formerly the Pittsburgh River Rats - Erie is located on a lake, not a river), who recently had their inaugural kickoff. Figure that one out.

As far as the hardwood is concerned, most of Erie’s attention is devoted to high school and college action (predominantly Gannon, but also Mercyhurst, and Penn State Behrend), with the Cavaliers growing a small contingent by way of their recent success. Erie’s last professional basketball franchise, the Erie Wave of the World Basketball League (rules stipulated all players be 6-5 or shorter), lasted only two and a half seasons (1990-1992). The Wave evaporated due to the financial shortcomings of both the WBL and the team itself, with the entire league biting the dust just weeks after the Wave were terminated.

The unnamed D-League franchise’s primary competition will be the Otters, with whom they will share Tulio Arena in what is sure to become a schedule maker’s nightmare. To a minor extent (pun intended) the team will also compete with college and high school basketball in the Erie area.

Will the D-League thrive in Erie? As cliché as it sounds, only time will tell. But I’m getting good vibes (and possibly even Good Vibrations) from the level of commitment that the Cavaliers and the D-League have exhibited during the fledgling franchise’s first few days. With the possible exception of the AA baseball of the SeaWolves, Erie has never seen minor league athletics of this caliber. If the team can win, or at least be both competitive and entertaining, it’s likely that they will draw quality crowds. But all of that will be revealed in time. Right now the only thing that matters is that fans of the Cavaliers, the NBA, and basketball in general have something extra to look forward to next November.

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