Q+A: Steve Haney
American Basketball League CEO explains why the ABL will succeed when so many others have failed.
by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
The American Basketball League’s website claims:
“For over three decades we have witnessed the habitual failure of minor league basketball in America. Each fledgling league, full of empty promises and business models that simply could never achieve longevity. As a result, “Market Reservation Fees,” uncontrolled expansion and abhorrent executive leadership have eroded the minor league basketball system in America today.”
CEO of the ABL, Steve Haney, thinks his league is different. Instead of giving players unrealistic dreams of playing and starring in the NBA, Haney and his executive team plan on using their platform to help young ballers have a long and profitable basketball career.
The league has already created a buzz in both the media and sport world thanks to partnership with media mogul Steve Rifkind and are gearing up to compete with the D-League for minor league supremacy.
Haney recently caught up with SLAMonline to give us the scoop on the ABL:
SLAM: First and most obviously, why start the ABL?
Steve Haney: We felt that there is a real void right now in American basketball for a good minor league product that can develop graduated college players to go play in Europe. There’s not a league that operates as essentially a D-League to Europe. By creating the ABL and playing all FIBA rules we feel we can fill that void.
SLAM: Do you think there’s an audience for that brand of basketball? Or is this merely to help basketball players get to Europe?
SH: I think it’s a blend of both. The business model is far different that other leagues in existence right now. We’re not trying to play in front of 10,000 people, we’re fine playing in front of a few thousand people at smaller venues and building a foundation and fan base the right way.
We’re trying to keep costs down by playing regionally and avoiding some of the mistakes that some of the other leagues have made, including the D-League who are losing millions of dollars a year because their business model is flawed.
SLAM: What mistakes are you referring to? How is the ABL different?
SH: I think what’s primarily different is our geographical scheduling and our regional conference alignment. Currently these other minor leagues—including the D-League—they have teams that are playing from coast to coast and they are incurring an incredible travel overhead through flights and hotel.
By playing regionally, we’re not going to have those types of costs which will allow our league to flourish and operate in a profitable way rather than losing money every year. The D-League is losing millions of dollars a year, other leagues, the ABA for instance, has had 200 teams fold in the last 10 years. With our business model we’re going to avoid the types of problems that other leagues have had.
SLAM: Business model aside, do you think you’ll be able to attract players?
SH: There’s a lot of great basketball in America right now and the problem is there aren’t a lot of jobs in the NBA. Now that the NBA has made a real effort of appealing itself to Europe, you see a lot of players from Europe coming into the NBA and taking jobs from American players. You have hundreds of college players who aren’t having the opportunity to play professionally and our league is going to offer them the opportunity to develop their skills and get taught how to play internationally through FIBA rules.
They’ll be able to use the connections and network myself and Tony Parker Sr. have in Europe to partner with Federations and have the opportunity to transfer from America over to Europe. In that respect, I think our league, while it won’t be bigger than the NBA, will be more important than the NBA to college athletes.
SLAM: You’ve mentioned the D-League a lot, are you trying to directly compete with them?
SH: We are. The platform of the D-League is failed. College players aren’t entering the D-League as graduating juniors and seniors and then transitioning from the D-League to the NBA, that’s not happening. Most of the call-ups from the D-League are veterans who have been bouncing around the minor league for years.
The true D-League is the NCAA, they’re not developing players in the D-League to play in the NBA. Players are starting to recognize that and that’s why a lot of players are reaching out to the ABL. They now recognize that playing year after year in the D-League and making no money is not a basketball career. A basketball career is playing in a developmental league and being developed to make more money somewhere else and that’s what our platform is.
If a European team wants one of our players, they won’t have to play a $25,000 buyout to the ABL. If they want a player he can immediately go play in Europe and make more money. We’re not trying to develop talent to go play in the NBA, that’s not our goal because I don’t believe there’s any room for that. It would be a lie to tell players that we are developing them to play in the NBA because after guaranteed contracts and the Draft, there’s no room for our players. I think that’s why the platform of the D-League has been a failure and part of the reason why they are losing as much money as they are.
SLAM: What about kids who are hell bent on playing the NBA? They don’t want to necessarily go to Europe, they want to play in the NBA. What do you say to those kids? Are they welcome in your league?
SH: They are welcome to play in our league and we are going to have seminars to educate players on the reality of contract situations in the NBA and roster spots available so they can make an informed decision on their basketball careers.
Right now, players pay a lot of money to go to D-League tryout camps and they have certain aspirations and hopes and believe that as an undrafted player from a Division II school, they might go to this D-League tryout and wind up in the NBA. It’s not fair to that player for the D-League to profit off of an unrealistic hope.
The reality is, if they want to have a basketball future, they should play in a league that will develop them well to play in Europe and if they play well in Europe they can transition from Europe to the NBA.
That’s what Charlie Bell did. He wasn’t drafted, went over to Spain, played a few years there and ended up starting in the NBA. That’s our platform, we don’t want to stomp on anybody’s dreams but considering that everyone in our league at the executive level has played basketball collegiately and professionally, we’re not going to mislead players.
SLAM: With that type of basketball background at the executive level, do you feel like you guys have had enough experience where you can now influence players and lead them on the right path toward a successful career?
SH: Absolutely. We also have Kenny Anderson who’s involved in our league as far as player development. I’ve been an attorney for 15 years so I’ve been able to transition that from basketball. Deputy Commissioner Eric Newsome is the former Associate Athletic Director at FAU and is in private business in Boca Raton.
We look at this league as more than a basketball league, we want to mentor the players and put them on a career path and help them make good decisions. We want them to work with their agent and not be pitted against their agent like some players in the NBA. We want a cooperative effort to try and help these young guys coming out of college and help them build a basketball career instead of having their representation find ways to make money off of them.
SLAM: Can you speak on Steve Rifkind’s involvement a little bit?
SH: Steve Rifkind came on as a partner in the league and through Steve we look at doing innovative things to integrate basketball and entertainment in a way that’s never been done before. We’re looking at doing some partnerships in Europe and bringing over some basketball federations and holding a global tournament and involving recording artists to have a festival next summer.
He has a track record of being one of the best branders of concepts and one of the best marketers in entertainment so we’re going to utilize his networks and involve him in any way within the league.
SLAM: He has had great success in entertainment but why do you think that will carry over to the world of sport?
SH: His network in the corporate world is pretty deep, too. He has some very strong relationships that will transfer over to the marketing and sponsorship specter that will help promote the league and brand the league on a national level.
Right now we’re in Florida and Texas with plans to expand to New York and California and he has strong ties out in Cali and New York. I think he’ll be a good partner in a lot of ways, just his involvement in the league has already created a buzz and it’s always good to have people talking about a new basketball and entertainment concept.
SLAM: Finally, what is the ultimate goal of the ABL?
SH: We want to create a national league that will have conferences in New York, LA, the Midwest and the South. We want to be in a position where our league can create hundreds of jobs for college athletes coming out of school.
If we can eventually feed players to the NBA, that would be great. In the short term, if it means we’re able to facilitate 25-50 players to Europe and secure them contracts to play professionally, our goal would be achieved in the first year.