(As seen on WZZM TV 13) With the first Grand Rapids Drive season in the books, Steve Jbara joked the office’s focus now is on a summer softball team.
Jbara and his management team aren’t too concerned the Drive didn’t make the NBA Development League playoffs in its first year with a 23-27 win-loss record, but they’ve got bigger plans for the summer than playing softball.
The organization nailed all of its revenue goals, according to Jbara, adding that the goals were conservative since the organization wasn’t sure how the city would react to the team. He said the community rallied around the Drive more quickly than he had imagined, but he pointed to local support for the Grand Rapids Griffins, West Michigan Whitecaps and area college teams as an indicator it wasn’t a fluke.
With a successful first season in hand, Jbara and vice president of sales Wes Weir are ready to grow the team’s business.
“Last summer, we were selling a dream, and people were taking a risk with us,” Weir said. “It’s not a concept anymore: We have something tangible to sell them with specific attendance numbers, media exposure and things like that.”
Despite the fact the season just ended April 4, Weir said many of the first year’s sponsors already are on board for next season, with many increasing how much they want to contribute. New companies are approaching the management group, as well, which is quite a difference from last year when Jbara and Weir went knocking on doors.
“They are definitely warmer conversations,” Jbara said.
They’re currently working on a partnership with a car dealership, which Jbara said should be a natural fit with the team’s nickname.
Also in the works is a way to expand courtside seating, for which there is a waiting list. The Drive will look to increase its season ticketholders — currently, approximately 1,000 — by 30 to 40 percent.
To help do that, the team will expand its market. For the first year, marketing was focused mostly on Grand Rapids. This summer, Jbara and Weir will head west to communities such as Muskegon and Holland. A calendar with 50 to 75 community events is slated to help ensure the team’s relevancy doesn’t drop despite the absence of basketball games.
“There are a lot of opportunities. It’s hard for those western communities to go to (the Drive’s parent team, the Detroit) Pistons games, or even Michigan State games,” Jbara said. “They would come to Grand Rapids, but we lacked presence out there.”
The team and the fan experience it offers will continue to improve, Jbara said. The first few games were a struggle, he admitted, but as the season went on, game days continued to improve. He said the Pistons weren’t used to having a direct affiliate either.
Detroit likely will add several players to its roster in the offseason, some of whom won’t be ready for the NBA roster and will end up in Grand Rapids.
Winning, although helpful, isn’t actually a deciding factor in a franchise’s longevity. Good players will get an opportunity at the next level, leaving holes in the D-League, Jbara said. The Drive’s ownership group, The SSJ Group, is dedicated to staying in Grand Rapids and will continue to provide a unique entertainment opportunity, especially as the league grows to its eventual 30-team, one-to-one affiliation model with the NBA.
Other development league teams, such as the Los Angeles D-Fenders, an affiliate to the Los Angeles Lakers, aren’t concerned with bringing people to their games. The D-League teams essentially are used to develop players for the affiliated NBA teams, Jbara said.
Jbara said the NBA is aggressive in its goal to grow the D-League and could see up to four new teams announced this summer that will begin play in 2016-17.
The Drive’s head coach, Otis Smith, will be back next season with a continued focus on developing players. Smith, a former general manger of the Orlando Magic, said he has a different view of the D-League following his stint in Grand Rapids.
Once the league achieves 30 teams and starts to pay better, the product will be vastly improved, he said. Currently, there are 18 D-League teams.
Jbara, Weir and one of the team’s 30-plus investors went to the NBA offices this month and chatted with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for more than 40 minutes. They were excited about his bullish plan for the league.
Weir said the NBA and the Pistons are happy with the way the first season wrapped up.
“If Steve and I weren’t prepared, the support system from the NBA would sit us down and tell us we need to get back on track,” Weir said.
“We haven’t seen our team business operations rep in months. What that means is he hasn’t felt the need to fly over from the NBA offices in New York to make sure we’re staying on track.”