South China Morning Post: Net loss — the grisly mistakes that sidelined Vancouver’s Asian fans

(This article was first featured on the front page of the Sunday edition of the South China Morning Post in 2001, in the wake of the demise of Vancouver’s NBA franchise, the Grizzlies.)

by Derek Moscato
SOUTH CHINA MORNING POSTJuly 15, 2001

Few tears as Memphis-bound NBA franchise bids farewell to Western Canada after six fruitless seasons

The National Basketball Association has made it official: The Vancouver Grizzlies, a basketball franchise plagued by management miscues and player meltdowns since its inception in 1994, is now Memphis-bound. On Tuesday, NBA owners gave unanimous approval to the move, allowing the team to reap the benefits of a well-schooled basketball market and local corporate support from the likes of FedEx.
Chicago-based owner Michael Heisley, who assured Vancouver fans last spring that their team was staying put despite what the rumor-mill had to stay, quickly changed his tune earlier this year. Beset with financial losses pegged by management at about US$46 million during the 2000-2001 campaign, the franchise announced its relocation ambitions, and after shopping around for an ideal hometown south of the border, eventually settled on Graceland.

Some Vancouver fans, not surprisingly, were shocked and outraged by the move. Others felt betrayed. But for the most part, most simply shrugged their shoulders and said “good riddance.”

For all of its good intentions, the franchise never clicked with the city, or for that matter, Western Canada. The dismal performance of the team on the court didn’t help matters, but in the opinion of some basketball fans, it was the franchise’s ho-hum attitude towards the local community that effectively sealed its fate.

Many fans believe the team could have captured the city’s imagination if it had catered to one of Vancouver’s most significant demographic groups: the Asian community. “It was foolish for the Grizzlies not to do more to tap into the Asian community,” says Dan Russell, a Vancouver sports radio personality.

Buoyed by immigration from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan, India, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, particularly during the last decade, the city’s Asian population base is among the largest in North America.

Indeed, the Asian connection played a pivotal role in the city landing the franchise back in 1994. At the time, NBA commissioner David Stern wasn’t shy in expressing his hopes for Vancouver — that it would become the NBA’s eventual gateway to Asia.

The team’s home stadium, GM Place, was located adjacent to the city’s bustling Chinatown. And the team’s birth coincided with the rising financial and political clout of the city’s Asian population.

But the team never took off with Asian fans from either side of the Pacific Ocean.

“It seemed to me that there were great opportunities the Grizzlies could have taken advantage of,” says John Bell, who took an acute interest in the Grizzlies connection to Asian fans during his 1997 tenure as ambassador for Canada’s Year of Asia Pacific. Bell cites the surging popularity of the sport in the Asia Pacific hub, as well as within the Vancouver Asian demographic, as reasons why the franchise needed to reach out to that market. “A larger effort with the Asian community would have given some identification. There were a number of things they could have done to make the team more Asian.”

The team actually bought into his viewpoint, to a degree, during the past season. A Chinese New Year’s promotion tied in with a home game against the Chicago Bulls generated an attendance tally of 16,845 fans, one of the largest turnouts of the year. But by then, Heisley was already looking for greener pastures. Other Asian-geared promotions put more fans in the seats, but never created the groundswell of support that would have saved the team.

“There was a real push in this last year to do a little more,” admits Jay Triano, the former director of community relations for the team. “They tried to hit the Asian market knowing the popularity of basketball amongst most Asians.”

Some pundits — including Russell — argue that recent promotions weren’t enough to captivate the community, however. “It took far too long for the Grizzlies to wake up and realize it was critical for the future of the franchise to gear a large percentage of their marketing strategy in that area,” he says. “They were guilty of assuming the Asian population would simply support them. I don’t believe they became creative in this area until the final year, and by then it was too late.”

What was needed, argues Russell, was a bonafide NBA Asian star to establish the franchise as “Asia’s team.” It didn’t happen.

During the 1999 draft, the Grizzlies had a shot at picking Chinese center Wang Zhi-Zhi — but passed up the opportunity. Instead, the 7-foot-1 Beijing-native went to the Dallas Mavericks. He made a much-ballyhooed debut with the squad earlier this year.

Ironically, the Mavericks have picked other international players deemed not as worthy by teams like the Grizzlies, including celebrated Canadian hoopster Steve Nash, Mexican Eduardo Najera and Nigerian Obinna Ekezie. German power-forward Dirk Nowitzki also plays for the team. By going global, the Mavericks franchise earned whopping exposure around the world, especially in Asia, where the “Wang Watch” took hold with Chinese media outlets. And while Wang’s future in Dallas is uncertain, a city best known for football, cowboy culture and oil briefly laid claim to a basketball team with international, pan-Pacific cachet.

Even officials from the NBA admit that the Mavericks have established themselves as “Asia’s team” — not an easy feat, considering the ongoing popularity of legendary franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers in the region as well.

The Vancouver Grizzlies, on the other hand, weren’t interested in acquiring players as marketing tools. As Triano explains, “the Grizzlies were in a situation where they couldn’t pick players because of their popularity. They had to pick players who would help them win basketball games.”

But the team turned in another dismal campaign during the 2000-2001 season, despite their stated focus on drafting for on-court performance, not marketing or community relations. After six seasons in Vancouver, the Grizzlies achieved a lifetime home record of 66-220, the worst percentage showing among the 65 franchises in league history.

“I don’t know why they passed up on Zhi-Zhi,” laments Russell. “I do know when I spoke with GM Billy Knight before Christmas about Yao Ming (the top-rated Chinese basketball prospect from the Shanghai Sharks), he did not seem overly receptive to the notion. Perhaps by then he already knew what the future was going to bring.”

Other media types close to the Grizzlies’ marketing efforts, such as Vancouver television producer Karning Hum, echo Russell’s sentiments. “I think it goes without saying that drafting a player of Chinese descent would have put more fans in the stands,” he says.

Bell, who witnessed Yao and Wang exchange baskets in a game between the Shanghai Sharks and the Beijing Army in China, has no doubts the two players could have a serious impact in the NBA. “Watching the two titans squaring off was the best basketball I’ve seen in my life,” he says.

Bell made a push to bring a Chinese star to Vancouver, and talked to management about the possibility of Wang suiting up in a Grizzlies uniform. But trade scenarios with Dallas to acquire Wang this past year never materialized. Bell also tried, unsuccessfully, to bring North Korean center Michael Ri to the city. Ri spent eight months in Ottawa, Canada, training under the tutelage of Jack Donahue, the former Canadian national-team coach. He told the Montreal Gazette newspaper last year that the player was “NBA material”.

Over time, however, the interest of the Grizzlies in Ri began to lessen, and the efforts of Bell and others to add the jump shot specialist to the team’s roster fell through.

According to one individual involved in the effort to keep the Grizzlies in Vancouver, a successful sales pitch to Asians here could have improved the team’s local fortunes to the tune of millions, but that still wouldn’t have solved the big-picture woes. That’s because factors outside of the local community’s control, including currency exchange rates and the team’s losing record, were primarily at play. “A full house could happen every night and you’d still have a $20 million (loss) problem.”

Still, he says, the departure of the team represents a huge blow to the NBA’s bigger plans.
“It’s a real disappointment to (NBA Commissioner) David Stern,” he said. “Part of the league’s rationale was internationalizing the league. That’s why you see them sending teams to Tokyo. The (Asian) market’s important to them. But if it fails in Vancouver, what chance do they have making a move on Asia or Mexico?”

For their part, NBA officials in New York have so far downplayed any league expansion overseas. “That’s just not in the plans at all,” says Terry Lyons, the NBA’s VP of International Public Relations. “We have no thoughts of establishing franchises in Asia.” The league does, however, maintain a Hong Kong office overseeing the league’s activities and marketing efforts on the continent. As well, satellite offices currently serve Japan and Taiwan, and there are plans to have an office within the year to focus on Mainland China.

As for the Grizzlies, Lyons is defensive of the team’s ownership record, and its relationship with the Western Canadian market. “As much as any team in the league, the Grizzlies were focused on drawing from a diverse community,” he says. “I think the team was successful in those terms.”

But a Vancouver media frenzy surrounding potential buyers for the team from Heisley underscored how much interest existed in the team’s Asian connection.

The Vancouver Province tabloid newspaper reported in February that Taiwanese-born Daniel Chiang, chairman of Chinese Internet portal Sina.com, was keen on buying the team outright and keeping it in Vancouver. Chiang, who expressed his interest in buying a West Coast team with a losing record, and emulating the turnaround efforts of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, touched off speculation from Vancouver’s Chinatown to the NBA offices in New York. “I see Vancouver as having a great deal of potential,” he said in February. “There is big room for improvement. Turning the team around would give me the sense of achievement.”

The dot-com magnate, who maintained that raising the money for the team purchase wasn’t a problem, also said he wanted to exploit his connections to Asia to market the NBA franchise overseas, especially in China.

It turned out that the takeover talk was fruitless, however, something attested to by local sources close to the situation, as well as David Stern himself. For reasons not divulged by either Stern or Chiang, the technology billionaire’s interest in the team suddenly disappeared.

The Chiang soap opera gave way to another franchise takeover rumor, this one fueled again by the Province newspaper. A splashy front page photo and headline alluded to the Grizzlies ownership ambitions of Nina Wang, Hong Kong’s richest woman. That story was unsubstantiated from the get-go, however, and was based on a third-party broker’s attempts to sell her on the idea. Wang herself was apparently never involved in the Vancouver situation.

But the ownership guessing-game taking place in the media underscored a desperation in the air. Vancouverites were holding out for an Asian savior, but one never surfaced. Without a legitimate high-roller to step up to the plate, Heisley and his team were as good as gone.

“Nothing for this franchise went right after their first two games of the first season,” says Russell. “A horrible on floor record, an NBA lockout, bad drafting, poor trading, disenchanted players, a lack of a leader in the dressing room, and bad ownership are all on the list.”

Russell, like many others who watched the rise and fall of the franchise in Vancouver, laments the fact that the team wasn’t able to parlay the city’s unique position as a gateway to the Pacific into a global marketing opportunity. What could have been a showcase franchise for the league, one laying claim to athletes and fans from around the world, eventually deflated into its current state.

Basketball fans in Vancouver, Asian or not, will surely miss having a professional basketball team of the NBA caliber playing in their backyard. And Stern is said to have his regrets too, as the league will no longer enjoy a foothold in Vancouver’s multicultural society, nor the convenient connection to Asia that he once envisioned.

Michael Heisley, meanwhile, is pleased his franchise has made the move to Memphis, a more traditional basketball market with greater access to corporate cash. But fans of the team will always wonder if he, and the owners who came before him, should have made a bigger push to Asian basketball fans in Vancouver and beyond.

“They were guilty of assuming the Asian population would simply support them,” says Russell. “I don’t believe they became creative in this area until the final year, and by then it was too late. To largely ignore the value of the Asian community to the future of the franchise was a mistake.”

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