Saturday, November 22, 2008

Economy gets the blame for taking down one Chicago area sports franchise

Economic troubles have everybody cutting back, and that has one professional sports franchise in the Chicago-area thinking that the responsible thing to do is to shut down operations for one year.

It’s not the Blackhawks or the Bears, or even the Cubs (although after the way they’ve performed in the playoffs the past two years, they ought to shut down next year out of a sense of shame of being seen in public).

IT’S THE STEELHEADS, the Gary, Ind.-based team in the International Basketball League – one of the minor leagues that has teams in small cities and are filled with ballplayers who are a second too slow to excel in the National Basketball Association.

When the league plays out its 2009 season, there won’t be a team in Gary (or in Merrillville, Ind., a nearby town that the team was considering relocating to).

Now most of the economics-minded people who have said in recent weeks they think professional sports will be one of the few industries that won’t be significantly affected by the struggling economy have focused their attention on the “major league” level.

Major League Baseball. The NBA and the National Football League.

THE THEORY IS that people will still want something to provide a diversion in their lives, particularly if times get tough and people are having to struggle with lower incomes or higher prices (or a combination of the two).

And their love of root, root, root(ing) for the home team will help them get through the tough times.

Even if they wind up going to a game or two fewer per year, it will mean more instances of watching their favorite team on television. That could mean higher ratings, and since major league sports teams rely heavily on broadcasts of their games to bring in revenue, it could be a plus.

But all of those factors are completely irrelevant to professional sports teams at lower levels, which rely almost entirely on their gate receipts and concession sales to bring in revenue.

FEWER PEOPLE ATTENDING games (particularly at minor league levels where crowds are smaller by their very nature) means less money on hand, which could mean the difference between barely breaking even and losing one’s shirt.

That was the reality that confronted the Gary Steelheads, who said they expected to encounter serious problems with getting people to purchase season-ticket plans or local businesses to buy sponsorships that would entitle them to advertising in the arena or in the programs and other team publications.

And the team’s owners preferred the idea of shutting down for a season, rather than going for broke (literally) by playing out the 2009 season.

“We don’t want to field a minor league team in this economic climate,” attorney Jewell Harris Jr., told the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper. “It’s just not feasible.”

TEAM OFFICIALS TOLD the area newspaper that the realities of minor league sports is that few franchises have glorious histories with long ties to their respective cities. Some leagues have franchise changes virtually every year.

Even insofar as athletic activity on the basketball court, minor league teams have constant turnover in terms of players. So it is likely that none of the current players would still have been on hand by 2010, even if the team were to play the season next year.

So officials with the Steelheads are optimistic that they can shut down operations in the arena for one year, then come back to the league fully restructured.

The trick is whether area fans will remember that there was once a basketball habit that could be satisfied with a team based at the far southeast corner of the Chicago metropolitan area.

WILL FANS REALLY care enough to want to watch a team that pulled the highly-unusual move (for a sports team, at least) of taking a season off? This move makes it very clear that a sports franchise is primarily about the front office, rather than the activity on the athletic field or court.

Will the Steelheads lose any momentum they ever had gained during their eight years of existence in their current league (and previously while playing in the Continental Basketball Association)?

And will area basketball fans make the same discovery that fans of minor league baseball made back in the 1950s – that superior-quality ball could be watched on television for less time, money and hassle than going to the local minor league team’s games.

Now some minor league baseball fans will note the sport’s minor leagues were resurrected in the 1980s by teams that marketed the entertainment experience of actually attending a game.

BUT THE STEELHEADS would need to actually play games next year to take advantage of that mentality.

So the bottom line question is “Will the Steelheads actually return to basketball in 2010?”

Or are they destined to join the ranks of obscure Chicago-area sports franchises (the Stags, the Hustle, the Cougars) that will have only one unique characteristic about them. They’ll be the answer to the following trivia question:

“What Chicago-area basketball team was never heard of by most Chicago-area sports fans until the day they announced they were ‘taking a break’ from playing ball?”


EDITOR’S NOTES: It will be interesting to see how long this website remains ( active. The league is considering new teams for next year in Eugene, Ore., and Olympia, Wash.

Drawing about 1,500 people per game to an 8,000-seat arena in downtown Gary, Ind., ( this year did not give the city’s basketball team much reason for financial optimism next season.

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