2017-07-12 23:54:03
The Two Men Who Make Money From the N.B.A. in Summer

23:54, July 12 29 0

LAS VEGAS — The games may be exhibitions, and most of the players may be fringe candidates to make N.B.A. rosters, but the operation is highly professional.

“We provide a credible product,” said Warren LeGarie, executive director of the N.B.A.’s Las Vegas summer league. “We also know we have to put on a show.”

Featuring 24 of the league’s 30 teams and the top five picks from the recent N.B.A. draft, the Las Vegas summer league is the most important event on the N.B.A.’s summer calendar. “We are the Burning Man of basketball,” LeGarie said, later trying out an analogy involving the Mos Eisley cantina from “Star Wars.”

N.B.A. teams are testing their rookies, and scouting players for the end of the bench. Foreign teams are searching for players who are not good enough for the N.B.A. but good enough for Greece or South Korea. Executives are here to wheel and deal, owners are here to meet with one another, and the news media is here to talk with sources.

Fifteen years ago the summer landscape was splintered, the exhibition calendar was a hodgepodge and the organizations involved were fly-by-night. “I went to every summer league, and people hated them,” said LeGarie, who is also an agent, representing coaches like Rick Carlisle of the Dallas Mavericks and Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Executives would arrive as others were leaving, and scouts could not see all the players they wanted to evaluate. Games would not start on time, and it is hard to imagine that any of the leagues made money.

That all changed with the introduction of the Las Vegas summer league in 2004. LeGarie started his career representing European players and coaches, bushwhacking across the world. He knew firsthand how badly all the N.B.A. business that went on during the summer needed to be harmonized in a central location.

For years he bugged the league office and David Stern, then the N.B.A. commissioner, until he got the go-ahead to organize the Las Vegas league, heavily supported by the current commissioner, Adam Silver.

The first year six teams attended, and the games were staged at the Cox Pavilion, a 2,500-capacity arena on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A handful of media members attended, as well as a few thousand fans across the entire schedule.

LeGarie and Albert Hall, the co-founder and current vice president for business operations for the summer league, put up $30,000 of their own money. Along with their staff, they managed to strike up a few relationships with brands like Reebok and Saturn. But no real marketing dollars were coming in, even though Hall went to creative lengths in search of them.

“I put a proposal on a size 21 shoe,” said Hall, who sent it off to the New York-New York Hotel and Casino. “It said, ‘We’re trying to get our foot in the door.’”

Though the two men lost money the first year, by the second they were profitable.

LeGarie and Hall are careful not to disparage their competition — the much smaller summer leagues in Orlando, Fla., and Utah — but it is clear they think teams that do not attend Vegas are making a poor decision, and are ceding a competitive advantage. The biggest differences between Las Vegas and Orlando, which hosts eight teams, are that in Orlando there are no fans and news media access is tightly controlled.

More than 100,000 fans attended last year’s 11-day schedule in Las Vegas, and LeGarie and Hall expect 120,000 to 130,000 this year. Last year their market research found that 38 percent of attendees were from Southern California.

Half of the games are still played in Cox Pavilion, but the other half are played in the adjoining Thomas and Mack Center, capacity 17,923. Last Friday’s session, featuring Lonzo Ball’s debut with the Los Angeles Lakers, sold out in advance — a first.

LeGarie and Hall are even more excited about television growth. Every game is broadcast on an ESPN or NBA TV property, and the league is drawing an audience. The Friday night matchup between the Lakers and Boston Celtics drew 1.1 million viewers on ESPN, and ESPN said its summer league ratings over the first weekend were up 99 percent over last year.

But they do not benefit monetarily from that audience, at least not directly. While LeGarie and Hall operate the summer league through their company VSL Properties and take on the financial risk, the N.B.A. retains the television rights, which are part of the larger package the N.B.A. sold to ESPN and Turner Sports in 2014, for $24 billion.

Not that LeGarie is bitter about having this revenue stream for the league elude him. “Sometimes, great rewards don’t come in this life,” he said.

LeGarie and Hall are in their element here. It is almost impossible to carry on a conversation because what seems like half of the thousands in attendance know them. As we walked around the Thomas and Mack concourse, every five feet a staff member, an usher or a child stopped them.

The children were everywhere; so many more are here than are at a regular season N.B.A. game. After all, they are out of school and a ticket to watch nine hours of basketball is just $30. “It’s cheaper than day care,” Hall said.

In a city known for excess — and disappointment — the summer league is a reliable bargain. It is “the people’s league,” Hall said, and the two men have built an entire community around the summer league with current players, retired players, coaches, referees and community service. They run a junior N.B.A. league, basketball clinics, movie screenings and all manner of ancillary programming.

In an event-driven town, “we are that N.B.A. franchise in Las Vegas,” Hall said.

As we talked outside an area where children (and some adults) could test their vertical leaps, one teenager came close to hitting the top vane of the Vertec device. “You hit the top and you’ll get two tickets,” Hall told him. After he succeeded, Hall pulled a couple of tickets out of his pocket and handed them over, before pulling him aside to talk.

When Hall returned, he told me the young man was going to be an intern at the summer league next year.