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Published: Monday, 4/23/2007

NBA, Toledo Mud Hens discuss bringing minor-league team to arena


Upon learning he was going to begin his professional basketball career in Cleveland in June, 2003, LeBron James promised he would light up the city like Las Vegas.

Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop wonders if pro basketball, even in its minor-league form, could do the same for Toledo.

People s eyes light up every time I bring it up, Mr. Konop said. Especially young people. They get excited about basketball.

Toledo Mud Hens and National Basketball Association officials confirmed to The Blade that they have engaged in preliminary talks about bringing a developmental-league franchise to the city when the new, downtown arena opens in the fall of 2009.

Called the NBA Development League, or D-League, it is owned and operated by the NBA and is becoming a true feeder system of talent for the world s top pro basketball league.

Since 2005, NBA teams have been allowed to allocate first or second-year players to the D-League, and 29 D-League players have been called up to the NBA in the past two seasons.

Phil Evans, president of the D-League, said his organization is interested in expanding to Toledo because of the prospects of a new arena and the reputation of the Mud Hens, who would likely run the team.

Last week, a not-for-profit organization created by the Hens acquired the rights to the Toledo Storm, the city s minor-league hockey franchise. Now that the Mud Hens have found one anchor tenant for the new arena, they are looking to acquire one or more sports franchises to bring to the Lucas County-owned building, using the same not-for-profit model.

Mike Miller, president of the Mud Hens board of directors, said the front-runner to be that second tenant right now is a new arenafootball2 franchise. But Mr. Miller also said there have been early talks with the NBA about the possibility of the D-League one day setting up shop in Toledo.

The arena football prospect is what we re clearly the most focused on right now, but the D-League is something we will continue to evaluate, Mr. Miller said. When we take a hard look at it, and we will do that, we want to look at the pros and cons of it all. Is it economically viable? Is there a market for it? These are some of the things we need to learn.

Konop Konop

Mud Hens General Manager Joe Napoli said he has had brief conversations with D-League officials and has received a confidential packet of information with regards to acquiring franchise rights for a team.

Mr. Napoli said the D-League, which had 12 teams compete in the 2006-07 season, but none of them located further east than Arkansas, has a plan to expand throughout the Midwest. The league has already announced the creation of four additional franchises for the 2007-08 season, including one in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Fort Wayne s Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, like so many arenas throughout the country, is the home venue for several sports franchises. A minor-league hockey club, an arena football franchise, and Division I college basketball already are played at the Coliseum.

Two things need to happen, Mr. Napoli said when discussing a possible relationship with the D-League. First, we have to sync up the opening of the arena with their expansion plans. The other challenge we face is to find the right balance for the arena schedule. How can we make the building as successful as possible with hockey, arena football, and possibly even the D-League?

The Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind., is home to several sports franchises and college basketball.
The Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind., is home to several sports franchises and college basketball.

Toledo s new $85 million arena, which is planned for construction on a site in the center of downtown straddling Superior Street between Madison and Jefferson avenues, is to be used for sporting events, concerts, and other attractions.

The Storm franchise, which will be on hiatus from ECHL play for the next two years and likely renamed once it does return to the ice, played 36 regular-season home games this year from Oct. 20 through April 6. The arena football regular season runs from the middle of April through July and typically includes eight home games for its teams. The D-League lasts from the end of November through April, and its teams had 25 regular-season home games scheduled this past season.

Mr. Miller said he was concerned all of those home dates, in addition to the 70 or more home games the Mud Hens play, could saturate Toledo s sports market.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Napoli also expressed their desire not to disrupt the fan bases for the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University basketball programs, and Mr. Miller said the Mud Hens have contacted UT officials to inform them they were exploring the idea of bringing a D-League team to Toledo.

Miller Miller
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We would want to weigh [acquiring a D-League franchise] against the effect it might have on our two college programs, Mr. Napoli said. Bowling Green and Toledo have both done very well, and we wouldn t want to impede their progress. It all goes back to finding the right balance of the community.

While Mud Hens officials can cite several reasons why they wouldn t bring a D-League franchise to Toledo, they also said pro basketball coming to town is a possibility that will likely grow stronger as time passes.

Mr. Miller, for one, said Toledo s proximity to Cleveland and Detroit two NBA cities and its reputation as a strong sports community are reasons to believe the D-League could thrive here.

The D-League s Mr. Evans believes those pros will one day outweigh the cons for a pro hoops team in Toledo.

I expect that because of the strong organization that they are, the Mud Hens will pay this a significant amount of due diligence, Mr. Evans said.

But at the end of that period, I believe they will come to the conclusion that the D-League is a terrific business opportunity and asset to Toledo.

Mr. Konop said he sees the promise of acquiring a local D-League franchise.

He said that while NBA stars like James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwyane Wade wouldn t be playing in D-League venues, the league offers the opportunity to watch high-level athletes at affordable prices.

And Mr. Konop hopes these athletes will one day play in Toledo.

Joe Napoli is nationally renowned for his management of minor-league sports, so I will ultimately defer to him and the Hens, Mr. Konop said.

But this is something that s definitely on my radar screen, and I will continue to talk to the Hens about it.

Contact Joe Vardon at:jvardon@theblade.com or 419-410-5055.

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