Two weeks ago, Knicks owner James Dolan was involved in a nasty altercation with a fan. A season ticket holder allegedly yelled at Dolan to sell the team, sparking the latest unfortunate incident for the most unpopular owner in New York sports.
But what if Dolan wasn’t the owner of the team?
What if the Knicks were owned by the fans? What if the Knicks, similar to the Green Bay Packers, were owned by local shareholders?
What if you owned a piece of the Knicks?
This is not a dream. It’s actually a significant piece of the business plan behind New York’s newest professional basketball franchise.
The New York Gotham Ballers of the Champions Basketball League are the city’s only publicly owned pro team, and while they may not have the kind of star power most NBA teams bring to the court, the Gotham Ballers are encroaching on rare air by allowing fans access to the owner’s suite, so to speak.
“We kind of made real the fantasy sports idea, didn’t we?” league CEO Carl George said.
While Gotham Ballers represent the only chance regular New Yorkers may have of owning a piece of a professional sports franchise, the CBL represents life after the NBA for select players trying to get another season or two out of their diminished legs, trying to continue earning a paycheck for playing ball.
But well beyond the nostalgia of watching once-dominant NBA players get up and down the floor, open-bid fan ownership is far and away the most intriguing aspect of the Champions League. In a sports world where wealthy owners are always taking advantage of the fans, taking money out of our pockets to fund new stadium construction with tax dollars and those awful Personal Seat Licenses, the Gotham Ballers want to return some of the power and dignity to the people.
For a minimum investment of $ 140, fans can buy at least 20 shares ($ 7 each) of the team. The maximum investment by a single person is limited to $ 25,000. Ownership qualifies for different levels of fan-owner perks like VIP parking, access to players and coaches, and travel to road games with the team.
Fans can buy common shares for a small piece of the Gotham Ballers, an idea that originated as a club for fans to buy into that earns them dozens of “super-fan owner perks,” according to George. Up to 20 percent of the team is open for public bid and so far, more than 1,000 fans have invested more than $ 438,000 for a piece of the franchise, about half the team’s stated goal of $ 1 million.
Potential owners shouldn’t get carried away though. Shareholders will not guide player personnel decisions or manage basketball operations, like many hands-on team owners like Dolan used to be with the Knicks or Jerry Jones is with the Cowboys. But Gotham Baller fan-owners can absolutely sit on the baseline like Dolan does.
“Teams are run by the board of directors and fan owners get a vote for the board,” George said “The day-to-day operations are left to the team’s management.”
For the Gotham Ballers, that means team president Walt “Clyde” Frazier, general manager Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and coach John Wallace, all former Knicks.
“This wasn’t something I was actually looking for when it came to me,” Wallace said, “but when you see something so cool and intriguing and new, to get a chance to be a part of it from the ground up is pretty awesome.”
Most appealing, Wallace said, is the idea of letting fans own a part of the team and experience some of the perks they would never get in other pro leagues.
“It’s going to be open-door for fans to really come in and interact, things they normally wouldn’t get in the NBA,” said Wallace, who was drafted by the Knicks in the first round in 1996 out of Syracuse. “But in our league, you’ll be able to fill that void and fans who have never had a chance to meet NBA players will get to talk to them and fulfill that, and I think that’s really cool, to be able to take your son or daughter to a game and be able to talk to a player you’ve been watching all your life, it’s going to be awesome to interact with them on a personal level.”
Tickets are also moderately priced to allow a family of four to attend a game for about $ 100. Players are encouraged to sign autographs and mingle with fans on the court after games, the sort of fan interaction you generally see only in baseball’s minor leagues.
“You stand in the middle of the court after a game with players signing autographs for fans who have not left the stadium,” George said. “Everyone comes down to the floor and goes to the exit. We held nine closed-door exhibition games throughout the fall. The average score was 106-104. The average number of people there an hour after the game was in the 90th percentile. Everybody stays.
“It’s a really neat, magical part of what we’re trying to do.”
While the NBA Developmental League is meant for younger players hungry to someday make an NBA roster, the CBL is for players on the opposite side of the basketball spectrum — players who have been cut from pro teams but still feel like they have another season or two left in their legs.
Each year, the NBA cuts 120 players “like clockwork,” George said. The CBL wants to capitalize on those players who are caught in the transition from being an NBA player to what they will become in their post-playing days. The CBL offers them an option to stay in the United States and keep playing basketball at a time when many players, such as former Knick Amare Stoudemire, turned to leagues overseas to extend their their earning years.
“We’re the post-NBA league for professionals,” George said.
The NBA’s D-league pays $ 22,000 a year, pro teams in Europe offer a couple hundred thousand dollars to play a seven-month season, or players can elect to join the CBL and earn about $ 200,000 a year playing in 30 games and attending a dozen charity events, George said.
Teams are made up exclusively of former NBA players for a summer league played in 16 traditional basketball cities around the country such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
While CBL players are not unionized, the league is offering them part ownership of the teams they play on, in addition to a salary that pays them for games during the summer and appearance fees for community and charity events held the rest of the year.
The league, which identifies as a sports marketing company, recently won a huge victory when ESPN agreed to live stream games and events on its multi-screen ESPN3, which can be viewed on any number of devices.
But is anyone really going to be watching?
League investors like Tommy Hilfiger associate Bernt Ullmann believe they will.
“Not to toot our own horn too much here, but we clearly have a choice, a quite significant pipeline of opportunities that we can involve ourselves in,” Ullmann, the president and CEO of Star Branding, a pop culture fashion powerhouse, told USA Today. “And the reality is that there’s only so much time, so we try to only involve ourselves in projects that A) we think can be highly successful and B) have a lot of longevity. The reality is, we’re part of this for that very reason.
“We firmly believe in this,” he said.
The CBL is trying to carve out its own place in a crowded sports landscape. Between baseball and summer activities that pull people away from the TV, a transitional basketball league for aging stars like Mike Bibby and Rasheed Wallace will be a tough sell. We can just as easily watch a mixtape of former NBA greats like Jason Williams dominating their local rec games on YouTube.
Following in the footsteps of older leagues like the ABA, the USBL and the CBA, the Champions League will play to smaller, more engaged crowds, with some of those fans actually owning a stake in the team.
The Gotham Ballers, with a roster that includes Kenyon Martin, Shawn Marion, Al Harrington, and Anthony Mason Jr., the son of the former Knick, are set to play home games at the renovated Nassau Coliseum. The team spends the rest of the year making appearances at charity events.
Community ownership is limited only to the Gotham Ballers, but George said that will soon change, spreading to other teams around the league.
The idea of New York fans getting a chance to own a basketball team is especially appealing now, primarily because of how poor the Knicks have been on and off the court. In the last year, Dolan has presided over yet another losing season. He’s gotten into it with fans and former player Charles Oakley, all while the Knicks have missed the playoffs four years in a row. It’s been 17 years since they last won a playoff series.
Now there’s a new team in town competing for interest, offering fans a chance to beat Dolan at his own game. Perhaps the Gotham Ballers will be better than the Knicks have been. If anything, the Ballers will be more democratic in the owner’s suite. But they may play a little harder than their NBA rivals, too.
“In New York, it’s more of an effort thing,” Wallace said. “They know, and they expect effort. I wasn’t one of the main players, but the main guys on the team, from Patrick Ewing on down, if you didn’t play hard, you didn’t play. The fans respected the guys that came with their hard hat and lunchpail mentality to play the game of basketball.”
The Knicks may not have a lot of those guys now. But the new team in town promises to play with that old-school grit that was once a hallmark of those old Knicks teams. Maybe the Gotham Ballers would even give the current Knicks a run for their money.
“If you know me, you know I don’t concede victory to anybody,” Wallace said. “I would never say any team is going to beat me, because on any given day, anything can happen.”
Hey, crazier things have happened.
But the craziest thing happening in New York sports right now is that after all these years of disappointment in Dolan’s sputtering Knicks, local hoops fans have an opportunity to buy a piece of their own pro sports franchise.