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May 4, 2009 | last updated November 30, 2011 11:06 pm

Pick and roll: NBA D-League sells a record number of tickets since choosing Portland

Photo/David A. Rodgers
Photo/David A. Rodgers
Jon Jennings, the Red Claws general manager and former assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, expects Portland's new minor league basketball team will turn a profit its first year

Faces behind the Red Claws

The Red Claws ownership group is a who's who of area business leaders. Bill Ryan Jr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway, says having a stake allows him to contribute to family-friendly entertainment that adds to the city's vitality. "We're all in it to make money," he says, "but nobody's depending on it to pay their light bill." Here's a list of the 15-member group:

William Ryan Chairman of the board, TD Banknorth, Portland

William J. Ryan Jr. Owner, Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford

Jon Jennings Red Claws general manager; former assistant coach and scout, Boston Celtics

Michael Dubyak Chair, president and CEO, Wright Express Corp., South Portland

Rowland Moriarty Vice chair, Wright Express Corp., South Portland; chair, CRA International, Boston

Stephen Goodrich Founder and CEO, PowerPay, Portland

John Leonard President and CEO, MEMIC, Portland

Joseph DiLorenzo CFO, Plymouth Rock Studios, Plymouth, Mass.; former CFO, Boston Celtics

Drew Gilman Owner, NEPW Logistics Inc., South Paris

Stephen Griswold Real estate developer and owner, Portland

Barry Hobbins Attorney and state senator for District 5, Saco

Jed Troubh Partner, First New York Securities, New York, N.Y.; Falmouth resident

Ken Troubh Founder and president, NR&C Co., Portland

Ted Tye Managing partner, National Development, Newton, Mass.

Theodore West President, Atlantic National Trust, Portland

Jon Jennings is a former assistant coach and scout for the Boston Celtics. He's worked with the likes of Larry Bird and Reggie Lewis. He's also held several high-level positions at the U.S. Justice Department and the White House. But what he calls "the greatest meeting I ever had in my life" took place at a Starbucks outside the South Portland Target. That's where, halfway through Jennings' pitch, a local businessman agreed to invest in the city's new National Basketball Association D-League team. Dubbed the Portland Red Claws, the team is now well on its way toward kicking off its season in November at the Portland Expo, and has sold more tickets in its first six weeks than any other new franchise in the league, according to Jennings, the team's general manager. "It's been a real entrepreneurial effort," he says from his still largely bare Congress Street office. Sitting across from him is Bill Ryan Jr., owner of Oxford Plains Speedway and the investor from the Starbucks meeting.

Jennings and Ryan teamed up a year and a half ago to bring the team to Portland, handling everything from rallying local investors

to running to the post office. "We've been astounded by the support," Ryan says. "The passion for basketball in Maine is just huge." The league has already sold 650 season tickets and all of the venue's top-tier $90 Hollywood seats, which sold out in 10 days. Fans snapped up all eight courtside suites, which include six $45 seats, within the first five weeks, Jennings says, pointing to a map of the Expo speckled with multicolored pins marking sold seats. The top tiers offer amenities like in-seat food service and VIP parking, he says. For fans who don't mind walking to the concession stand, $5 individual seats will be available in the fall. Season tickets are $240.

Each team sets its own ticket prices, with league approval. Ticket sales will comprise about 60% of overall revenues, with the remainder originating from sponsorships, Jennings says. The ownership group also plans to spend nearly $300,000 to transform the high-school gym atmosphere of the 3,100-seat Expo, adding a new parquet floor and video scoreboards. The improvements are part of a license agreement they reached with the city. The contract runs through the 2017 season and outlines a graduated fee schedule that starts at $2,100 per game, according to the city. "This isn't just an investment for our team, it's an investment for the community," Jennings says. Asked when he expects the team to turn a profit, Jennings appears baffled. "Well, the first year," he says, matter-of-factly.

The Red Claws, spearheading the league's expansion to the Northeast, are not the city's first minor league basketball team. The Wave and the Mountain Cats, two summer teams affiliated with the U.S. Basketball League, both went under due to weak attendance, according to news reports. This time, however, the team has one major advantage: the NBA stamp of approval. "We're the only basketball league to have official affiliation with NBA teams," says Dan Reed, president of the D-League. The Portland team will announce its pro team affiliation, hoped to be the Celtics, in June. Overall, the organization has doubled over the last three years, and team valuations have quadrupled over the last two, he says. Portland had several things going for it, he says: a top-notch ownership group, a quality arena, a strong market and an already fervent basketball following. The challenge is to convince fans they're watching the next generation of NBA players, Reed says. As of a recent count, 20% of all NBA players formerly played in the D-League, he says. The "D" shouldn't be confused with a letter ranking, by the way; it stands for development.

The presence of two other minor league teams in the city — the American Hockey League's Pirates and Major League Baseball's AA Sea Dogs — will only help the Red Claws, says Jo Williams, associate professor of sports marketing at the University of Southern Maine. "Having another team in the mix will just create another level of excitement in the city for minor league sports," she says. "Your die-hard hockey fan is not going to abandon the Pirates." Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal in 2007 ranked the city as 23rd among U.S. minor league markets, and it placed second among markets with two or more minor league teams that filled at least 75% of seats over the previous five seasons. The momentum generated by upcoming announcements — the team's logo, affiliation, coach and roster — will sustain interest until November, according to Williams. "That's going to be a hot ticket in town," she says.

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