The NBA’s G-League has come a long way from its humble beginnings as the National Basketball Developmental League (NBDL). Founded in 2001 with just 8 teams (all owned by the league) across 5 Southeastern states, the NBDL became the NBA Development League (D-League) as part of the 2005 NBA collective bargaining agreement. Over the next decade teams relocated, the league expanded and NBA organizations began buying up teams or negotiating single-affiliation partnerships with them; by 2015, every club in the Development League was either owned by or maintained sole affiliation with an NBA franchise. The league will begin the 2019-2020 season with 28 teams (only Denver and Portland will be without).
Sponsors and media partners began to take notice during the 2017-2018 season. Gatorade signed on to be the league’s title sponsor – which sparked another rebrand (see: G-League) – and both Twitch and the ESPN family of networks began carrying live game broadcasts. Progress on the business end lent credibility to the NBA’s minor league and recent investments in team ownership from celebrities like 2 Chainz and Ben Wallace, has only strengthened the narrative that the G-League – an overwhelming success in terms of churning out players, coaches and executives who can contribute at the pro level – is also a viable business.
Howie Long-Short: The NBA was less than forthcoming when asked if the celebrities referenced had made financial commitments to acquire their investment stakes, so I initially suspected the ownership titles awarded were simply part of broader licensing or marketing partnerships, but Jeff Feld (author of ‘Celebrity Ownership is the Newest Tool in the Aggressive Expansion of the G-League’) says that he has confirmation from team sources that both 2Chainz and Wallace ponied up hard cash. Feld said he didn’t cite the amounts invested or the ownership percentages acquired in the Forbes story “because the team sources asked that it not be disclosed.”
Ben Wallace rejoined the Pistons franchise (in May ’18) as part owner and chairman of basketball operations of the organization’s G-League team, the Grand Rapids Drive. Wallace, a fan favorite from Detroit’s ’04 championship team, indicated that his interest in minor league basketball stems from his own experience. As an undrafted free-agent, the JUCO/D-II prospect needed time to develop before he was ready to help an NBA roster. He hopes to “keep the dream alive” for the next late bloomer.
This past May, the Atlanta Hawks introduced Tauheed Epps – aka 2 Chainz – as a new partner in their G-League franchise, the College Park Skyhawks. For Epps, the opportunity to combine a love of basketball with an investment in the community he grew up in was a “dream come to fruition.” Of course, G-League ownership also gives both guys a formal affiliation with the NBA and the clout that comes with that, for significantly less money.
G-League teams are not particularly profitable (some still lose money), but NBA organizations – and now celebrities – are investing in them because they’re appreciating assets. The CEO of one Eastern Conference NBA franchise told me “we are close [to profitability with our G-League team]. The G-League is the 2nd best basketball league in the world. So, as part of a $2.5 billion NBA organization – the Clippers, Nets and Rockets all went for north of $2 billion and the NBA keeps on getting bigger – it’s a great property to own.”
Quentin Williams (currently chairman of The Butler Lappert Williams Firm PC), who was the first president of the North Charleston Lowgators (one of the league’s original 8 teams), agreed saying that “teamowners will make money on the resale. Profitability while operating depends on how good the club is at selling corporate sponsorship and what they do in the community; commitment to the local community remains a big part of minor league sports – it translates in attendance figures.”
Feld called celebrity ownership “the [G-League’s] newest route to relevancy”, but the team executive we spoke to was “not confident celebrity [ownership] makes any impact – and if it’s a faux relationship, it’s destined to stumble.” No argument here. If 2Chainz or Wallace are hosting meet and greets before games perhaps there’s a bump in attendance, but no one buys a ticket to watch the owner.
Fan Marino: The G-League is about development on the court (and in the front office) and family fun entertainment off of it. While I’ve never had the experience of attending a G-League game and can’t speak to the in-arena atmosphere, the league has certainly made an impact on the NBA game; 40% (198/494) of the players on opening night rosters last season spent time in the G-League. The league also now holds claim to having developed its first NBA All-Star – Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton.
Williams said that in addition to developing players the NBA has two other goals for the G-League; “expanding the local fan base, as many of these teams are located on the periphery of an NBA market (think: Greensboro & Charlotte), and constructing greater demand for the game of basketball.”
Interested in Sports Business? Sign-up for our free daily email newsletter list, here!