New pro league The-BALL kicks off this weekend
When Michael Wranovics was a filmmaker, he used to imagine a packed theater filled with people eagerly watching his movie; that’s what kept him going through the seemingly never-ending process of putting a finished product on the screen.
Wranovics is on the other side of the country now and is no longer making films. But once again, he’s trying to envision what the audience response will be to another one of his projects: a new professional basketball league based out of Philadelphia.
The first games of the league – called The Basketball Alumni Legends League, or The-BALL – will be held this weekend with former college stars from Philly schools competing against alums from Washington D.C.-based schools.
The games, which will be held at George Washington University on Saturday (4 p.m.) and Hagan Arena at Saint Joseph’s on Sunday (8 p.m.), are essentially a sneak peak as to what we can expect from the league, which is slated to officially begin in the summer of 2013. Both contests will be televised live on Comcast SportsNet.
“It’s a very exciting time because we’re actually going to have games going on for the first time,” Wranovics said. “I think it’s amazing the players we were able to assemble for this. It’s something we’re fired up about.”
The rosters are indeed loaded with talented players – most of whom are playing professionally overseas – that college hoops fans should know well.
The Philadelphia team includes Allan Ray (Villanova), Curtis Sumpter (Villanova), Tasheed Carr (St. Joe’s), Pat Carroll (St. Joe’s), Dwayne Jones (St. Joe’s), Ryan Brooks (Temple), Dionte Christmas (Temple), Ramone Moore (Temple), Dustin Salisbery (Temple), Mark Tyndale (Temple), Rodney Green (La Salle) and Frank Elegar (Drexel).
And the D.C. squad is made up of Chris Monroe (George Washington), Tony Taylor (George Washington), Jason Clark (Georgetown), Austin Freeman (Georgetown), Henry Sims (Georgetown), Chris Wright (Georgetown), John Gilchrist (Maryland), James Gist (Maryland), D.J. Strawberry (Maryland), Folarin Campbell (George Mason), Jai Lewis (George Mason) and Will Thomas (George Mason).
The idea for Wranovics was simple: attract the best college players of the past few years and have them play in front of the fans that once ravenously cheered for them.
“It starts with me just loving college basketball,” said Wranovics, The-Ball founder and CEO. “It’s by far my favorite sport. I’ve been a fan of Stanford basketball for a long time. I’m from the West Coast, went to grad school at Stanford and got hooked watching the basketball team. And we’ve had so many players come through the program – but after senior night you’d never see them again.”
Around three or four years ago, Wranovics started to think about the potential for a league where teams would be filled with those kind of once-beloved players. But he knew the West Coast wouldn’t be the best place to start something like that. The natural choice was Philadelphia, which features six quality Division I programs and is one of the country’s premier hoops hotbeds.
Despite living out west, Wranovics already had a good deal of knowledge about Philly basketball. As a kid, he went to the 1979 Final Four that featured Penn (and also a couple of guys named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.) Later, he remembered former St. Joe’s guard Marvin O’Connor pouring in 37 points against Stanford in the 2001 NCAA tournament, and then closely followed the Hawks’ perfect regular season in 2003-04, which coincided with Stanford’s own quest for an unbeaten campaign. (Wranovics shot a documentary about that Stanford squad, shortly after releasing a film called “Up for Grabs,” which was about the two men who fought over the 73rd home run ball hit by Barry Bonds in 2001.)
So after doing a lot of research to test the viability of starting a professional sports league and reaching out to players, agents and universities, he decided the concept could work well and made the cross-country move to Philadelphia last month to run The-Ball.
“There’s always risk when you’re starting a new company, especially something like a sports league,” Wranovics said. “But there’s been a lot of research, a lot of development, a lot of good thinking that’s gone into this. And we wouldn’t be going forward with it if we didn’t feel very confident that we have something here. Personally, it’s a greater risk not to do something you’re this passionate about and to go through life always thinking what if? and regretting not going for it.”
While excited for this weekend’s showcase games at George Washington and St. Joe’s, Wranovics isn’t sure what kind of turnout there will be because they only decided to have the games in the “11th hour” and they didn’t have too big of a marketing budget for them.
But no matter what happens, he’ll continue preparations for the league’s 2013 summer season – which includes getting at least two more teams in place besides Philadelphia and Washington D.C. (“We’re looking anywhere from Raleigh or Charlotte up to Hartford or Syracuse,” he said), finding local owners to run the clubs (which he called “the most important step” because, in his research, he found bad owners have dragged down other leagues in the past) and creating a model for it to be a profitable venture for those owners (he believes an attendance of 2,500 per game should do the trick).
Down the road, he hopes to expand the league to eight or 12 teams but wants to be careful not to expand too quickly or lower the high standards for the league – which he says will have a far different feel than summer pro-am leagues because of stable rosters, players being paid and televised games.
“This,” Wranovics said boldly, “is going to be true professional basketball.”
For more information on The-BALL, visit http://the-ball.com/. Details about this weekend’s game can be found at http://the-ball.com/the-ball-showcase/.Dave Zeitlin covers college sports for CSNPhilly.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.