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Thunder provided lesson in supply and demand
By Craig DeVrieze / QUAD-CITY TIMES

Anne Potter DeLong phoned family in the Quad-Cities on Thursday evening from her winter retreat in Texas, just in time to overhear a man-on-the-street interview playing on television in the background.

What the woman who paid dearly to supply professional basketball to her hometown for the better part of a decade overheard was a man suggesting that lower ticket prices through the years might have helped salvage pro hoops here.

She also heard him say that, no, he had not had the chance to take in a Quad-City Thunder game himself. Too busy, he said.

And DeLong felt anew the frustration she and so many others had fought while fighting the good Thunder fight for 14 years.

“Everybody had an idea on how to run it,” the former owner of Thunder basketball said Friday morning. “I don’t think they ever understood the dynamics.”

The dynamics never really were all that complex.

Not even Business 101 stuff, truth to tell.

A Thunder franchise that played near the highest level of professional sport hereabouts for 14 very unprofitable years died a slow and ignoble death for the simple reason that the cost of supply was extremely high and the level of demand was too damnably low.

Tempting as it is, then, to indict the newest former Thunder owner for the demise of the CBA here, that’s a shot that only grazes the rim.

Yes, absolutely. If NBA Hall-of-Fame point guard Isiah Thomas had run a basketball team like he ran a basketball league, his professional playing career would not have lasted one day.

Yeah, you’ll get no argument here if you say that Thomas’ 15-month turn at the helm of the CBA was a warp-speed train wreck.

In fact, it was a reign of error that started mere weeks after his $9 million-plus purchase was made complete in October 1999. In his only visit to the Quad-Cities, in early November of that year, Thomas came across more like an airport Moonie than a buttoned-down businessman. He met the Q-C press, chanting nonsense about creating a nationwide network of 300 to 400 minor-league franchises and taking the game of hoops back to its neighborhood roots.

The man on the Q-C street could have told him then and there that his own interests would best be served by taking the steps necessary to stabilize the nine financially struggling franchises he had in hand.

Had we known it was coming, some of us could have told him to take NBA commissioner David Stern’s $11 million offer to take the CBA off his hands. And run.

Since before the Thunder became a bouncing baby basketball team in 1987, it was largely understood that the key to minor-league basketball survival was through serious NBA subsidization, or, better still, flat-out NBA ownership.

The story goes that Thomas thought, or was told, he had something worth more than the measly $2 million finder’s fee Stern’s offer offered.

When he tried to play hardball with Stern, he was out of his league. The NBA announced formation of the forthcoming National Developmental Basketball League, and Thomas was left holding a very expensive bag.

No question. He treated the Thunder and the CBA like an unwanted dog almost from the start. And once he took a head coaching assignment with the Indiana Pacers, Thomas just up and left the Thunder and the CBA unfed and unwatered.

Now, the Thunder franchise has been put down. And if an autopsy doesn’t excuse Thomas’ sins, it does confirm that the patient was ailing when Thomas took charge.

Potter DeLong enjoyed two break-even years in her decade of ownership. Had the other eight years been as kind, she would have been ecstatic.

She wanted only to maintain the entertainment option. And Jay Gellerman had the same goal in mind when he bought the club from DeLong in December 1996.

He and his minority partners learned a hard lesson about supply and demand. Chiefly, Gellerman said, it costs roughly $1 million per year to supply the kinds of salaries CBA teams pay and to meet the travel demands of a far-flung, flying league.

“Do you know how hard it is to sell $1 million worth of tickets?” he asked.

Ultimately, it is too hard virtually anywhere, save the rare Sioux Falls or Fort Wayne. Since the Thunder joined the league, more than 25 CBA franchises were lost to such costs. When Thomas came along, the Thunder were on the verge of being the next.

The supply was too high. The demand was too low.

And it was going lower.

You can blame it on the move from cozy Wharton Field House to the too-spacious Mark. You can blame it on the competition from the over-the-top popular Mallards. From college hoops. From prep hoops.

You can blame it on midnight, if you feel the need.

It is market economics, though, that decided the Quad-Cities is not a good market for Triple-A basketball.

The Thunder averaged 3,200 fans in Gellerman’s last year of ownership. They averaged fewer than 1,000 through 10 homes dates this year. So, understandably, Gellerman is not interested in taking up an offer from the Thomas trust to reclaim his team and follow a few former CBA friends back onto the treadmill as a member of the International Basketball League.

The man in the street has spoken. The Quad-Cities are too busy to make pro hoops work.

“We couldn’t quite get enough (program and signage) advertising,” Gellerman said. “We couldn’t quite get enough fans. We couldn’t quite get over the top. It just didn’t quite make it.”

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