GRAND RAPIDS — If Steve Jbara needed a sign that he made the right decision in turning down a recent request to relocate his Grand Rapids-based NBA Gatorade League basketball team to Detroit, he got one rather quickly.
“It was interesting; when all the announcements came out (about potentially relocating), and we dug our heels in and said we were staying, it actually turned out to be one of our best sales tactics,” said Jbara, president of the Grand Rapids Drive, which recently completed its fifth season competing in the 28-team, NBA-owned development league.
“Around 10 companies called and wanted to know how they could support us. They liked what we said. Maybe it took an announcement like that to convince some people,” he said.
The buzz around the Drive potentially moving to the east side of the state stemmed from a recent announcement that Wayne State University would move forward with construction of a 70,000-square-foot, $25 million basketball arena that they will lease to the Detroit Pistons as a home for the organization’s G League affiliate.
The new arena is expected to be completed in time for the 2021-22 basketball season, and also will be used by the school’s own teams.
Because the Drive is the designated G League affiliate for the Pistons, the team will need to relocate or the Pistons organization will drop its affiliation with the Drive and adopt an expansion team.
The Drive’s apparent refusal indicates the latter.
“We’re committed to West Michigan and we love where the league is heading,” Jbara said.
The recent shakeup will have no effect on the Drive for the next two years as they remain under contract as the Pistons affiliate.
Despite the emphatic claims by the Drive, the Pistons’ front office insists that no decision has been made final as the organization continues to fortify its relationship with the Drive while also working with the G League to explore the prospect of an expansion team.
When contacted for comment, the Pistons front office referred to a pre-written statement outlining the organization’s strategy behind bringing its G League affiliate to its own backyard.
“We continue to invest in the success of our franchise and the success of our community,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said in the statement. “Bringing a G League team to Detroit delivers on both fronts. It will give our players and coaches the best tools available to maximize performance, and it will add more fuel to the revitalization underway in Midtown and throughout Detroit.”
The Grand Rapids Drive’s roots are deep in the West Michigan community, owned by SSJ Group LLC, whose 30 investors almost all reside in West Michigan. On top of these local ties, Jbara and the Drive see a large untapped market in West Michigan, which has been fairly kind to the organization in its first half-decade of operation with solid financial support from the business community.
“(The Pistons) see value in (basing their G League team in Detroit), but, on our side, we have Grand Rapids, where in 15 square miles you have a million people, no Division 1 school and a community hungry for talented, high-caliber basketball,” Jbara said.
However, losing the affiliation with the Pistons would levy a blow to the Drive. Without the formal tie to the Pistons, the Drive will no longer be able to lend roster space to Pistons players that are signed to a two-way contract. A two-way contract allows a player to move fluidly from the Drive to the Pistons throughout the season. These tend to be the highest profile players on a G League team’s roster.
The Drive could move forward as an unaffiliated G League team, hosting players for any NBA team to pick up, or they could join forces with the only two NBA teams that don’t have a G League affiliate: the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Drive and Pistons currently operate under a hybrid affiliate model. The Drive’s front office handles marketing and community relations while the Pistons dictate basketball operations. Losing the affiliation creates a void in on-court development.
The Drive could potentially downplay this void by having former Pistons great Ben Wallace in the front office. Wallace, who helped the Pistons to a championship in 2004, became part owner of the Drive last year. He would remain involved with the Drive even if the Pistons affiliation dissolves.
The five-year mark
Jbara pointed to the organization’s growing momentum over the previous five years as proof of concept that the Drive can find solid footing in West Michigan. At the five-year mark, Jbara said that the Drive is currently profitable.
“We’re doing pretty well — we have a good market and model,” he said. “We’ve been steady at 8- to 10-percent growth each year. People are finding out about the team and, once they come in to see it, we have great retention.”
Even with middle-of-the-road attendance and a team that has hovered around the .500 mark in terms of wins and losses, the West Michigan business community has helped fuel the organization’s success with its sponsorship support, Jbara said.
That includes sponsors like Comstock Park-based Perrin Brewing Co.
“(We) had the opportunity to help sponsor the Drive for the 2018-19 season, and we couldn’t have been happier with the partnership,” said Michael Lalley, national brand manager for Perrin. In addition to the traditional sponsorship signage, Perrin capitalized on its close proximity to the Drive’s home, The DeltaPlex Arena, by providing discounts in its taproom for Drive ticket holders.
“One of the tenets of Perrin Brewing Co. is supporting ‘local,’ or as we affectionately refer to it, ‘our backyard,’” Lalley said. “By supporting the organizations, institutions and neighborhoods that enrich Grand Rapids, we too are creating a more vibrant community.”
Jbara and the Drive have leaned on local businesses, not just for traditional sponsorships, but to defray some of the heftier budget line items, which has been key in finding success in such a high-overhead business.
“We do a good job watching our expense line and we have a lot of partners for trade deals,” Jbara said. “They might not have cash, but they’ll have something else — housing, busing. We’ve done a good job trading out a lot of high category assets.”
Bucking the trend
The Drive is quickly becoming one of the closest things to an established minor league basketball team that West Michigan has seen.
The Grand Rapids Hoops previously held that title. But despite its decade-and-a-half-long ride, the organization was still rife with volatility, seeing changes in ownership, home arenas, league and even team name — playing as the Grand Rapids Mackers for a season and, later, the Michigan Mayhem.
“When we launched, that was our biggest uphill battle — to kind of change the perception of pro basketball in Grand Rapids,” Jbara said. “A lot of people had invested money, time and effort to be fans of these teams that would come and go and change venues and do this and that. We were priding ourselves on our affiliation with the NBA, staying put and being a sustainable team.”
This NBA affiliation and access to the NBA’s resources and training remain the defining difference between the Drive and its predecessors.
Tyler Whitcomb, former owner of the now-defunct Grand Rapids Flight and Holland Blast teams of the International Basketball League, has spent the decade following his time in a front office performing a post-mortem on his organizations, determining why it’s tough for teams to be sustainable in West Michigan.
Whitcomb, who was named the IBL’s Executive of the Year in 2006, cited competition with high school and college basketball — both of which are very popular in West Michigan — and a short attention span from fans as a couple of primary hurdles. Both of Whitcomb’s teams saw strong attendance and interest in their inaugural seasons before dipping.
The main problem is even more fundamental: “Bottom line, it costs a lot of money,” said Whitcomb, who also spent a year as a consultant for the Mayhem. “You’re paying for all the coaches, players and renting facilities and your sponsorship dollars have to be so much. Draw-wise, you have to hit a certain seat count and we were unable to do that in our last years.”
As a fan of basketball, Whitcomb is pulling for the Drive, but he also knows sustainability does not come easy.
“It’s going to be tough, but they could do it,” Whitcomb said of the Drive. “They have a good ownership group and good management. The affiliation with the G League is also a really big benefit.”