Local entrepreneur aims for nothing but net with Broncs franchise

Monday, September 22, 2008 at 2:04am
Former rodeo champ Scott Lumley has spent seven months preparing the Broncs for their inaugural season. Steve Lowry for The City Paper

The last time Nashville had a professional basketball team, one of its owners stormed the court in the middle of a game and fired the coach.

That team, Nashville Rhythm, only played the 2004-2005 season in the American Basketball Association, a league that has had issues with stability — teams have come and gone by the dozen — and absenteeism, with teams sometimes simply not showing up for games.

At one point, the league’s troubles prompted sports columnist Alex Walling with Canada’s TSN to dub the league the “Amateur Basketball Association” — not because of the players but because of how the league was run.

Scott Lumley, a former rodeo champion born in Dyersburg, Tenn., plans to erase the negative memory of Middle Tennessee’s last ABA team here with a more polished approach to running one of the league’s newest franchises, the Nashville Broncs.

He acknowledges the natural question — why will he succeed where others have failed? — but says professionalism, preparation and cooperation with other team owners will make the difference.

Whereas the Nashville Rhythm opened shop 60 days before its season began, Lumley has spent the past seven months preparing, signing players, selling tickets, marketing and working on corporate sponsorships.

He has also spent a good bit of time working with other owners to bring stability to the league and raise the value of its teams.

“This is a two- to five-year endeavor,” he said.

Lumley said the Nashville Rhythm didn’t fail because of a poor business plan. The team played at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena and set attendance records in the ABA.

“They were having success with 1,500 to 3,000 people per game,” Lumley said. “It was the people involved that were the problem.”

His new team has allotted 1,200 season tickets for the 9,800-capacity Municipal Auditorium, the Broncs’ home. With more than two months until the start of the season, his staff has sold close to 500 season tickets. Packages range from $172.50 to $495. Single-game tickets range from $11.50 for children to $33 for VIP seats.

Securing the staff, finances

In its brief life, the Rhythm made positive national sports headlines when it hired 22-year-old Ashley McElhiney, a former Vanderbilt University basketball star, as the first female coach of a men’s team at the professional level.

Months later — as the team was on its way to a 21-10 record — the headlines turned negative when co-owner Sally Anthony fired McElhiney during a game for playing another former Vanderbilt star, Matt Freije.

Joe Newman, the ABA’s chief executive officer and co-founder, said the owner’s actions had created an untenable situation that led to the team’s folding. But the situation with the Broncs stands in sharp contrast.

“I don’t have too many Scott Lumleys,” Newman said. “He puts his money where his mouth is. He’s daring.”

Lumley, who has a staff of 20, earlier this summer hired as head coach Jan van Breda Kolff, another former Vanderbilt star who played in the NBA and ABA and later coached the Commodores.

“I brought in people who people like and accept,” Lumley said. “I didn’t go out and get interns to run my business.”

The team has secured sponsorship deals with, among others, Hotel Indigo, NovaCopy and local ESPN affiliate 106.7-FM ‘The Fan,’ and has paid rent for half of its season. Bob Skoney, the auditorium’s general manager, said the remaining rent has been promised before the season begins.

Lumley, who also owns the Blue Goose Restaurant in Hendersonville, also has spent $105,000 for the team’s own lighting and sound in the auditorium. For its part, Municipal gets 10 percent of the advertising sales in the venue and all concession revenues.

“We’ll do well if he’s doing well,” Skoney said. “We’re not giving a free ride.”

To make sure the Broncs are protected against a no-show by an opposing team, Lumley is requiring visiting teams to sign contracts and provide insurance that covers the Broncs’ expenses at Municipal.

Putting league on stable footing

Lumley isn’t a household name, even in Nashville. But he did burn up the rodeo circuit in an event called “team penning,” which involves separating yearlings from a herd and corralling them in a pen. He won a variety of championships in the late 1990s through 2003.

“I wanted to be the best horseman and cowboy there ever was,” he said.

But Lumley said passion and money don’t always match up. In 2001, he was ranked sixth for team penning and earned $41,956, according to National Ranking Systems International, which ranks riders in that event. The top rider earned $85,183 that year.

While Lumley said he “always made enough money to get to the next rodeo,” by 2003, he was flat broke with a wife and child. He started researching liquidation sales and returns, finding that he could buy products for pennies on the dollar and resell them online. With $250, he bought a pallet of products and sold them on eBay, making $4,800 over several weeks.

Soon enough, he’d built his business, Large-Lots, into an active eBay seller. But he also has expanded into the secondary-store market, selling overseas and buying products stores were closing out. That side of the business now accounts for the majority of sales.

Lumley doesn’t believe it will be terribly difficult to overcome the Rhythm-induced image Nashvillians may have of pro hoops.

“I don’t think it hurt credibility so much so that it can’t be repaired,” he said.

The bigger challenge could be the league’s image. The original ABA built a storied history out of challenging the NBA for almost a decade and then merging some of its teams into the latter in 1976.

The new ABA, however, doesn’t have a rich heritage. Newman founded the league in 1999 with Richard Tinkman, an attorney who worked the ABA-NBA merger. Their new venture started with eight teams, shut down for the 2002-2003 season to reorganize and came back with no fewer than 36 teams.

In the past decade, nearly 30 other teams have started with the ABA and left. The Premier Basketball League, the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA Development League all have snapped up teams from the ABA, while other franchises simply shut down — sometimes after playing just one game.

“Two leagues exist today because they pirated the ABA,” Newman said of his competition. “These teams don’t fold. We kick them out much more than they fold.”

Newman said the league focuses more on prospective owners’ financial capacity these days. Still, the barrier to entry is low: Franchise rights cost $50,000, which is up from $10,000 few years ago.

Wanting to make sure weak franchises are weeded out and good ones supported, Lumley and other owners have created regional management committees to work with and oversee teams’ operations and lend a hand to new owners.

“This year is the first year in which the owners have more input,” said Quinton Townsend, who owns the ABA’s Atlanta Vision and has been the league’s president and chief operating officer since April. “On the court we are foes, but off the court we are business partners.”

Lumley’s main goal is to restructure the leagues finances so that its teams generate consistent revenue for the league to use on marketing the ABA brand. Now, teams just pay the one-time fee. But teams in the National Hockey League, for example, pay annual dues and share in merchandise sales. That creates a common-good mentality.

“I’d love for someone to buy a Predators jersey,” said Gerry Helper, spokesman for the Nashville Predators. “But more importantly, I want someone to buy an NHL jersey.”

Townsend said this is the year the ABA has to produce.

“My goal within three years is to put the ABA teams’ value somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million,” he said. “I would like there to be exit strategies for owners who want to sell their team to someone wanting to be in that market.”

So far, the efforts of Lumley and other owners have trimmed the number of playing teams to 30 from 50. In addition, the schedule has been pared from 36 games to 30, with the championship games to be played in Nashville next year.

“You can’t build from the roof down,” Lumley said. “If they are not prepared to play ball, then they are out. I’m not building a franchise here in Nashville to play an unprepared team.”

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By: Lurker on 12/31/69 at 7:00

Good to see someone who is a businessman trying to bring a professional basketball franchise to Nashville.Would love to see some of our former college favorites playing there (Vandy/UK/Belmont/LU).