Mark Bennett: Would Terre Haute support a minor-league hoops club?

·6 min read

Oct. 22—The perception of professional sports differs between casual fans and those with a bit more gumption.

Exposure to the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL happens ubiquitously. Updates, highlights, stats and live game action are accessible on the phones tucked into back pockets, digital tablets, laptops and, yes, on TVs — for old-schoolers like me. People living near large cities with teams in those major leagues can watch games in person.

For much of America, the big-league action seen on screens and from seats in big stadiums is pro sports.

That label looks broader to adventurous souls in hundreds of small cities across the country, where minor league pro teams operate. Some, have survived for decades, like the Chattanooga Lookouts, a farm club of the Cincinnati Reds at the Double-A level (two notches below the majors) that originated in 1885. Others come and go with the turns of the economy, always teetering between viability and folding, depending on the loyalty of their fan bases. COVID-19 hammered minor league sports, just like the rest of society.

Minor league baseball shut down in 2020, then returned this year to sporadic attendance, down 23% from 2019 nationwide, Bleacher Nation reported. The public's willingness to vaccinate could determine the success of these leagues' 2022 seasons.

Some cities are accustomed to the presence of minor-league franchises. The southern Connecticut city of New Haven — population 130,000 — has been home to minor-league baseball, arena football, hockey, basketball and soccer. Closer to home, Toledo, Ohio — population 276,000 — fields the Toledo Mud Hens (baseball), Toledo Walleye (hockey) and the Toledo Glass City Basketball Club.

Toledo's Glass City team is now part of The Basketball League, a national minor-league hoops circuit that hopes to also add a team in Terre Haute.

Terre Haute is half the size of New Haven and has less vast minor-league pro sports history. So, any interested parties have much to consider, from potential attendance to finding a home court to the trajectory of the ongoing pandemic.

Terre Haute enjoyed some historic baseball moments with a series of big-league farm clubs playing at Memorial Stadium, once labeled the finest minor league park in America by MLB commissioner Kennesaw "Mountain" Landis. That ended with Terre Haute's old Three-I League club disbanding in 1956.

And, there was the short-lived Terre Haute Thunder, a semi-pro football team whose lone season in 1986 was highlighted by playing a doubleheader on Aug. 10 of that year at Memorial Stadium — a feat then-unprecedented in the sport. (Terre Haute split the twin bill.)

As for basketball, top-level games have been played in Terre Haute before.

The Indiana Pacers played seven games in Hulman Center between 1974 and 1977 during their American Basketball Association years and their first year in the National Basketball Association. Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics played the Pacers in a preseason NBA game in 1986 in Hulman Center.

A different level of pro hoops could be coming to town in the near future.

Representatives of the TBL met with a small group of Terre Haute business and civic leaders last Friday at The Meadows to discuss the prospects of a franchise operating here.

The TBL will begin its fifth season next spring. Its 2022 regular season will run from March 4 to June 26, with postseason playoffs to follow. Each team plays a 24-game schedule on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 12 games at home and 12 on the road. TBL President David Magley expects the league to have between 45 and 48 teams, spread from California to the East Coast. That's an expansion from the 29 teams in the TBL last season, when the Enid (Oklahoma) Outlaws won its championship. Teams will play their regular-season games within their regional conference. Indiana teams play in the TBL's Midwest Conference.

Rosters would consist primarily of former college players, undrafted by the NBA and hoping to climb the professional ladder into the G League (the NBA's official minor league) or join a pro team overseas.

"The talent level is really good," Magley told the local group on his exploratory visit to Terre Haute.

Magley came to Terre Haute along with former Indiana University star and NBA player Kent Benson. Both Magley and Benson are former Indiana high school Mr. Basketball award winners — Magley with South Bend LaSalle in 1978, and Benson with New Castle in 1973. Like Benson, Magley played in one of college basketball's iconic programs at Kansas, then played briefly in the NBA, followed by several years in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association.

Magley's wife Evelyn is CEO of the TBL.

Benson is helping the TBL locate potential franchise owners in Indiana and Michigan. Benson ran the now-defunct Hoosier Hardwood Basketball Association, a semi-pro loop he formed last season. That league included a local team, the Terre Haute Sharp Shooters, which played its games in the Boys and Girls Club's Howard Sharpe Gymnasium. The league disbanded after its lone 2021 season.

The TBL is a completely different league, Magley said last week, after the local group raised questions about the level of play and low attendance at Sharp Shooters games last spring.

TBL franchises include the Kokomo BobKats and Indy Express, as well as the new Lebanon Leprechauns and Medora Timberjacks. Magley cited Kokomo, which won 19 of its 24 games this year, as an example of the TBL's stronger franchises.

"It's a big deal in Kokomo, and it'll be a big deal here," he said.

After last Friday's meeting, those attending seemed inclined to delay any attempts to establish a TBL franchise until after its 2022 season. Primary concerns included, of course, finding an ownership group, as well as securing a venue and whether Hulman Center would be available and affordable. Those variables will take time to resolve, if they can be.

"It's more than likely going to happen the following year [2023]," Magley said in a follow-up interview Monday.

The cost of entering the TBL runs from $300,000 to $400,000 for a franchise, and yearly operating costs average between $100,000 and $200,000, Magley said. Players' monthly salaries range from $1,500 to $6,500.

Gordon Bryan, a partner in The Meadows Center ownership, hopes to get public feedback to the prospect of a TBL team. "I'd love to find out what the community thinks about the professional basketball" coming to town, Bryan said.

Indeed, the number of paying fans determine whether a minor-league sports club lives or dies, whether it's in Terre Haute, Kokomo, New Haven or elsewhere.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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