Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette The Mad Ants' Trey McKinney Jones looks to take a shot during last year's playoffs at Memorial Coliseum. This season, the G-League will have single elimination in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Monday, October 09, 2017 1:00 am
Playoff plan ignores G-League's fan base
The NBA's developmental minor league, the Gatorade League, continues to move and add franchises at a frenetic pace, surging toward its ultimate, ill-advised goal of getting to 30 – one for every NBA franchise. As difficult as it is to keep track of the cities, owners and affiliations, there is one member that is both the easiest to identify and the one being treated the worst – the fan base.
The criticism I'm about to put forth is not criticism of the Mad Ants. They play in a market with much professional basketball history, including the NBA's Zollner Pistons and the Continental Basketball Association's Fury. They have to fill a good-sized building, Memorial Coliseum, and averaged the seventh most fans (3,026) in the league last season. Their staff has a genuine appreciation for putting out a good product on and off the court and wants to be profitable.
But the changes to the G-League playoff format unveiled last week are a reminder the NBA sees this as a venue to develop players but not fans.
It's scary to see how little those in the NBA's New York City offices understand what fans in minor-league cities want and will pay for. The G-League keeps heading down the road traveled by other ill-fated leagues that grew too fast, alienated fans and folded after realizing that development sounds great until you're throwing millions of dollars away every year.
The playoffs had already been unsatisfying for fans, who invested time and money in a 50-game season, losing a couple of games to the neutral-site NBA Showcase for scouts, with postseason series being only best-of-3. On its surface, the 26-team G-League deciding to have 12 playoff teams, up from eight, may look like it's a step in the right direction. But it's not. Four teams will have first-round byes, and all rounds will be single-elimination before the best-of-3 finals.
So you're not even guaranteed a home game if your team makes the playoffs. In a professional league that plays that many regular-season games, single elimination is absurd unless it's a wild-card playoff game like they have in Major League Baseball. Sure, single-elimination can be exciting, but that makes it neither fan-friendly nor something that will register on the national radar so close to the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, the G-League has always been transparent on the lack of value it places on the postseason. Minor league baseball has the same problem. They want to develop players, make them available for call-ups late in the season, and not put them at further risk for injuries. They're having playoffs because they have to do so.
In this respect, minor league basketball needs to take a lesson from hockey, where fans and scouts learn which players are the best in the most stressful of playoff series and franchises pocket more money the longer they play. If the G-League really wants a single-elimination tournament, go back to doing that at the Showcase, where it could be amazing if set up correctly.
It should be noted some G-League teams play in facilities seating only hundreds and don't have fan bases as large as Fort Wayne's. But as long as there are season-ticket holders, they should get a product worth paying for and that includes a reasonable chance at playoff games.
While NBA teams may not worry about throwing tons of money into a minor league now, they will when they realize how few players actually make to the NBA. At that point, they'll regret not worrying enough about the fans, who won't stand for a system in which their teams make the playoffs but they can't even go to a game.
Justin A. Cohn is a senior writer for The Journal Gazette and has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1997. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org; phone, 461-8429; or fax 461-8648.