With only a press release to state the obvious, minor league basketball might have bounced out of Nashville for the final time on Jan. 29.
Tony Chase, the Lexington, Ky.-based owner of the American Basketball Association’s Music City Stars, issued a statement on the dismantling of the young franchise that read longer than the Stars’ season.
“We will spend the next few months determining what course, if any, will be taken in the future,” Chase began. “It is difficult at best to introduce a minor league sport into a community, much less attempting to do so following two attempts in the recent past.”
He went on to discuss how difficult it had been to get fans in the seats, adding that most of the attendance was the result of complimentary tickets.
In truth, the city hoisted a half-courter over the last five years with the Rhythm, Broncs and Stars, only to chuck up an airball. The demise of the Stars — who were in first place when they were shuttered — reflects many of the reasons semi-pro basketball cannot seem to survive in Nashville, among them unstable ownership and an unusually thin fan base.
The Stars were the third ABA team here to fold in the past five years, and — counting the Global Basketball Association’s Nashville Jammers and a women’s basketball team in the late 1990s — the fifth minor league basketball franchise to call Nashville its final resting place since 1991.
At least the Stars left town with their dignity mostly intact. The other two teams — the Nashville Rhythm (2004-05) and the Nashville Broncs (2008-09) — made higher-profile exits.
The Rhythm first earned national headlines in 2004, when they named former Vanderbilt star Ashley McElhiney the first female head coach of a men’s pro team. A new twist on that novelty came in the middle of the season, when the team’s co-owner, Sally Anthony, fired McElhiney in the middle of a game after a profanity-laced on-court dispute. McElhiney was eventually reinstated as coach.
But despite a 21-10 record, the Rhythm disbanded rather than participate in the ABA playoffs that year.
Four years later, the Nashville Broncs, so named by owner-cum-rodeo cowboy Scott Lumley, had a relatively smoother ride. But the team, despite on-court success and a 23-4 mark, generated little in the way of fanfare, with perhaps their most noteworthy accomplishment coming when Lumley was romantically linked to troubled country singer Mindy McCready.
After one year of mediocre effort, Lumley was out, but the ABA was back, this time with Chase trying dual ownership of both the newly rechristened Stars andhis hometown Bluegrass Stallions in Lexington. And just as before, the Stars put a top-notch club together, as evidenced by a 9-3 record.
But like their predecessors, the Stars couldn’t compel a fan base to action.
Less than ideal ownership?
Joe Newman, co-founder and CEO of the ABA, which has 53 teams in operation across the country and plans for as many as 74 to be in operation next year, blames the circumstances more than fans or the city.
“Nashville is one of the entertainment capitals of the world with all the music there, and we’ve tried to get into the sports portion of that entertainment dollar there,” Newman said. “We’ve put a good product and good brand of basketball out on the floor, and I don’t think the fan support there should be a problem. Nashville, Tenn., should be a blockbuster market … and a successful market for us.
“But when you factor in the ownership we’ve had there, with Sally Anthony with the original team and Scott Lumley last year, we’ve had less than ideal owners there,” he added.
As for Chase, Newman said the ABA can be a tough sell, especially with an absentee owner trying to run two franchises.
“I certainly have no issue with how Tony Chase ran the team. He put a lot of money and effort into it, but he also owns the Lexington franchise, and that is where he lives,” Newman said. “He was a rookie owner, and we probably should have had someone local own the team.”
Despite failure in triplicate, Newman said he would welcome another Nashville spin — if the right owner and situation could be put in place. He envisions a franchise that digs into the community and makes itself readily available, working alongside organizations like the YMCA, churches and the Boys & Girls Club to help establish rapport and, eventually, dedicated fans.
But with competition for every athletic dollar in Nashville, would that even be enough?
Ron Bargatze, a long-time fixture as a coach, administrator and broadcaster in Nashville, said minor league basketball is always going to play second fiddle to the city’s long-established college programs. Bargatze should know: The one-time Austin Peay coach was general manager of the Global Basketball Association’s Music City Jammers, who toiled at the Municipal Auditorium in 1991-92 before moving to Jackson midseason because of attendance problems.
“Really, it’s all about the competition from the pro teams and college teams we have here. It just gets lost in the shuffle,” Bargatze said. “Having media coverage [of minor league teams], it’s gotten worse and worse. This year’s team, I never read the first thing about them. There was very little awareness.”
Even those involved with the Stars agreed that the uphill fight for recognition and survival in Nashville is an enormous challenge. Not only are there the Titans, Predators and Nashville Sounds to compete with on the pro level, but there are also successful and deep-rooted college programs.
The Stars — or any other incarnation — are almost always going to rank behind those franchises in most fans’ minds. Jan van Breda Kolff, the former Vanderbilt player and coach, guided both the Broncs and the Stars. He admitted it’s often a losing proposition to win fan support for minor league basketball.
“It’s just a hard situation to be in, because you’re competing with Vanderbilt, Lipscomb, Belmont and Tennessee State. All those schools have had local programs for a hundred years, and they have teams year after year, and they have alumni year after year,” van Breda Kolff said. “And people are going to support those schools. Nashville is a big city, and there are lots of opportunities, but when you take the entertainment dollar, it only stretches so far.”
The Stars did what many minor league franchises do early on, papering the house with free tickets to put their product on display. But after averaging just over 1,000 fans at Lipscomb’s Allen Arena for the first three games, the front office began to realize an ugly truth: Attendance lacked staying power without the freebies. The situation got worse when other ABA teams scheduled to visit the Stars folded, leaving holes in the home schedule.
“After that, the attendance started to dwindle,” van Breda Kolff said. “Our next game was the night of the [college football] national championship game, and then we had the snow and ice storm.”
Ronnie McMahan, 37, was a Vanderbilt star in the early 1990s and played part time on the Broncs and Stars, as much as his role as an administrator and coach at Montgomery Bell Academy would allow. McMahan said it’s important to cater to kids and families while trying to establish a fan base, but he knows it’s tough to make those inroads with youth against the stiff competition in town.
Given a choice of sporting events, would mom and dad take the kids to see Vince Young, Jordin Tootoo or some relative unknowns they remember from years gone by?
“When you’re a minor league team, kids don’t have that relationship with you,” he said. “Parents may, but kids themselves don’t.”
Adding to the mountain of why-nots is the fact that many believe Nashville to be a city where pro football trumps all.
“People here love football. It seems like until football is over here, people aren’t ready to get excited about the next sport,” van Breda Kolff said.
First impression hard to erase
While many believe minor league basketball’s ship sailed (or sank) long ago, McElhiney thought it had a chance when the Rhythm started. The former Vanderbilt point guard, now coaching in her hometown of Gleason, Tenn., said the misadventures of Sally Anthony and the Rhythm probably left a bad taste that has lasted. It may be too difficult to overcome.
“I think the first team for the ABA in Nashville had good support from the community — the uniqueness of the situation, the players, and people being anxious to see a coach [or] team perform, had the attention of the public,” McElhiney said. “But after the fold with the first team, people will probably always have doubts about a minor league team surviving in Nashville. The first impression sticks in people’s minds.”
It hasn’t stopped Newman from holding out hope that someday Nashville might be back on the ABA’s radar with a better-run and more community-oriented business model.
But maybe the city has simply outgrown the bush leagues. While the ABA has teams in a number of bigger markets, the league also sports clubs in smaller towns where there is less competition, places like Owensboro, Ky.; Yakima, Wash.; and Bluefield, W.Va.
“In minor league basketball, the best franchises were in towns where there wasn’t a lot of competition,” Bargatze said. “Tommy Smith went on to coach in Sioux Falls, and that was the only thing going on in that town. The Sioux Falls Skyforce became the model that everybody else duplicated.”
Van Breda Kolff agreed, adding that if Nashville could somehow get a minor league affiliation that was a strong feeder program for the NBA, the odds of success might increase. That major-minor connection has helped keep the Sounds — Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers — in business since 1978. As of now, the NBA has its developmental leagues, but even that is sketchy at best.
“Even the D-League has had teams struggle. Maybe it’s because there are too many minor leagues, like the NBDL, ABA and PBL [Premier Basketball League]. Maybe if there was only one, and the NBA said, ‘This is our one,’ and those teams were put in selected cities, it could be successful,” van Breda Kolff said. “At one time, the CBA was a success. They had numerous players come from there to the NBA and coaches like Phil Jackson and George Karl. Places like Albany [N.Y.] drew 6,000 or 7,000 fans a game. If they came up with something like that and had teams in the right cities, it could work. I don’t know if Nashville could perhaps be one of those.”