Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Spurs, the Farm Team, and the Fan

I want to take a few moments to attach a follow up comment to yesterday's TrueHoop, Malcolm Gladwell, and Malik Hairston post.

The Austin Toros are a good basketball team. This will sound controversial to some, but they have more talent on their roster than most, if not all, D1 programs. The Toros are not alone, if you look over the rosters of most NBDL teams, you'll find a who's who list of former high school and collegiate phenoms. The Spurs push the Toros further than this because of their insistence to play their end-of-the-bench NBA talent in Austin--i.e. Ian Mahinmi, Anthony Tolliver and Malik Hairston.

Last season, the Toros advanced to the NBDL Finals, but lost. This season they have a record of 10-3, with what many would consider the most talented roster in the league. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the Spurs impose themselves on the Toros in every way, including the shared expectation to win. Fans are always quick to highlight the more pious sounding aspects of Spurs culture, such as hard work, humility, and perseverance. Those are all present, thankfully, But a core tenant of Spurs culture, unspoken as it may be, is that the team will compete for championships. Winning is part of the dogma. The Toros, then, are not satisfied to be the lap dog of big brother Spur. They're drinking the Kool-Aid; they're the class of their league too.

The upshot of all this is that the fans really do have something good to cheer for in Austin. The games are worth watching, the team is a winner, and some of the players will stick with San Antonio for several seasons. In other words, investing oneself in, say, Malik Hairston may lead to bar stool conversation a half a decade from now when you proudly bore everyone with your memories of "when Malik sunk that shot against the Albuquerque Thunderbirds." "Even back then," you'll say, "I knew--really, really knew--that this kid had something." In business terms, the Spurs approach to their D-League affiliate puts the best possible product on the floor for their clients.

Dan Reed, NBDL president, is quick to note that putting a good product on the floor in Austin not only advances the Toros brand but it helps the Spurs as well. Writing about the 3rd team to own their affiliate, the Thunder, Reed makes a strong point that largely, if not completely, applies to the Spurs-Toros relationship:
In addition to all of the basketball-related benefits that all NBA teams love, I think what OKC sees that perhaps other NBA team owners have overlooked or undervalued is the business opportunity inherent to owning and operating your own team in the NBA D-League. Clay Bennett has gone on record in saying that he wants the OKC team to represent all of Oklahoma, not just Oklahoma City. And while his lease with the Ford Center doesn't allow him to play OKC games all over the state, by owning and operating the Tulsa 66ers he has the opportunity to extend the "OKC" brand and experience to the 2nd largest market in Oklahoma, which allows him to grow his fan base, provide a greater level of value to his marketing partners, and open up new revenue streams. He has good reason to believe in this, as the business of the NBA D-League is flourishing - our team valuations have quadrupled over the past two years, in part because of the 20% increase in attendance and the 40% increase in team sponsorship revenues we saw this past season.
The model the Spurs are inventing in Austin is rife with positive business-basketball symbiosis. Let me give one final example, and then I'll be done. Yesterday I noted this comment from Shamsports.com:
San Diego State legend Mohammed Abukar's career has taken a turn for the better, as he was unsigned until about 24 hours ago, when he was picked up by the Austin Toros of the D-League. Quietly, the San Antonio Spurs have managed to stash basically every one of their training camp signings on their D-League affiliate (which they own), as well as their former draft pick Marcus E. Williams. Owning your own affiliate seems to have some merit when the allocation players are handed out.
The Spurs spent a little extra cash in training camp this summer, bringing in a collection of fringe NBA players and overseas professionals. The result was a hotly contested camp. The Spurs have two incentives to move beyond the all too typical process of inviting a collection of practice bodies to training camp. First, their cap constraints place an onus on unearthing affordable, under the radar talent. But second, and perhaps more importantly, the camp allows them to scout for Austin-bound talent. In a related way, team scouts are now getting much more value from their day-to-day efforts. They are no longer simply scouting for the Spurs upcoming draft. The Toros, remember, have a roster that needs to be filled out as well. Dan Reed put it this way:
One NBA GM who owns an NBA D-League team (I'm protecting my source, so flip a coin), told me that one of his biggest surprises was the additional benefits that it provided from a scouting perspective. For one, neither the Spurs nor the Lakers have to ever send scouts to NBA D-League games - all the top prospects come to them for their home games! The Lakers and Spurs probably have the closest thing to "perfect information" on all of the players in the D-League, because the coaches of the D-Fenders and Toros - who are preparing game plans and breaking down matchups - are also their employees. Also, their college scouting efforts are improved, because now instead of scouting for one or two draft picks per year, they are scouting for up to 12 "roster slots" (2 for the NBA team, 10 for their NBA D-League team). You could see this in action to some extent with the Spurs last season, as they not only fielded an excellent team with the Toros this past season, but were very aggressive in utilizing the NBA D-League to find an additional swingman for the Spurs - calling up Keith Langford, Marcus Williams, and Jeremy Richardson before ultimately settling on DerMarr Johnson for their playoff run.
Taken altogether, the Spurs ownership of the Toros, and the care they provide for players like Malik Hairston, is to the benefit of their fan base. And in fact, the relationship between San Antonio and Austin is strong justification for the people of Austin to assemble and proudly support the Toros. They wouldn't be watching in vein, and they certainly wouldn't be cheering for crap. The Austin Toros are the San Antonio Spurs of the NBDL, and in more ways than we could number.

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