Nearing the end of their first season at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, the Long Island Nets are an infant franchise struggling to make a dent in the sports marketplace. Despite modest attendance and little fanfare, the G League affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets is in it for the long haul with the expectation of growing into a vital part of the NBA network.
Earlier this week, Cavaliers star LeBron James articulated a far-reaching vision of the G League as a potential alternative to college basketball and said it could evolve into a vital feeder system like those employed by European club soccer and basketball teams.
“Absolutely,” said Alton Byrd, who is vice-president of business operations for the Long Island Nets. “When every NBA team has a G League affiliate, you will start to see that evolution. We have 26 teams now. In two years, every team will have a G League team, and now you’re starting to develop talent for your own team.
“This league is going to surprise a lot of people. The NBA is heavily invested in every team, and every parent team is heavily invested. The cost of developing players is so important to everybody for the future that you really can’t lose by being involved with this league.”
On the surface, it might appear the LI Nets are paddling furiously to keep their head above water. Byrd said attendance averages between 2,000 and 2,500 per game, and he admitted profitability is a distant goal. But survival isn’t in question because of the support of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Coliseum and the LI Nets.
“It’s about building the franchise steadily over a period of time,” Byrd said. “We’re starting with a new generation of basketball fans and a new opportunity. The quality of basketball in the G League continues to improve significantly. I look at other teams that have started here and how long it has taken them, and I think we’ve made some significant strides in selling basketball, which is the No. 1 participant sport on Long Island.”
Affordability is a major selling point. The LI Nets have an ongoing promotion offering two free children’s tickets to any adult purchasing a $20 seat. They have five remaining home games, starting Sunday afternoon against the Windy City Bulls, and the first 500 kids in the door will receive a Long Island Nets-branded giveaway, such as a shooting sleeve, T-shirt, headband or pencil case.
You might call it a minor-league production, but it has major league implications. Isaiah Whitehead, Milton Doyle and James Webb III all have moved frequently between the LI Nets and NBA Nets this season. Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Quincy Acy on the big club all played previously for other G League franchises.
Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks said the organization has committed significant resources to develop the LI Nets on a par with their parent club.
“What we’re trying to do is to have every player that comes through our G League system cared for from physical tools to mental tools to development tools that are all put in place so they would have the same experience were they to be playing in Brooklyn,” Marks said.
“It’s important that you’re bringing in players that are basketball fits, but they’re also culture fits, too. The piece that’s often left out is the staff development in the G League. If they’re micromanaged all the time, then you’re probably not helping them as much as you should. I do believe the staff there enjoys having a certain level of autonomy.”
Byrd compared the growth process to that of the minor league baseball Long Island Ducks, who have been developed over the past 18 years. “We hope that in five, six, seven years we are top of the league in attendance and that we have a loyal fan base that likes us the way Ducks fans like the Long Island Ducks,” Byrd said. “That might take us a little while, but we’re making strides.”
Marks agreed that’s an apt analogy. “If you look at Triple-A baseball and how people go out to watch their farm system and see spring training, it’s a way of spreading our brand, spreading the notoriety of certain players,” Marks said. “That’s where the following comes. Only good things can come from it.”