December 6, 2010

Scott Wasser: The king's court just got a little bit bigger

(Continued from page 1)

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Jon Jennings, the president, general manager and part owner of the Maine Red Claws, has a passion for basketball that developed while he was growing up in Indiana.

2009 file photo

"I ran around New England trying to find the best place to start a team," he said. "Once I saw the passion for basketball here in Maine, it was a no-brainer to start the team here. Maine has a passion for high school basketball like Indiana, where I grew up."

Jennings found 14 area businessmen who possessed enough of that passion to form a partnership led by Bill Ryan Sr. and Bill Ryan Jr.

Jennings said the team is run as a small business intended to turn a profit for its owners.

That's not a novel idea in most industries, but there's a reason you don't hear Donald Trump's name tied to minor league sports franchises.

Yet the Red Claws seem to be an exception. Despite substantial start-up costs that included more than $400,000 in renovation at the Expo, they made money their first season.

"We forecast a loss," said Jennings, "and ended up making a sizable profit."

He won't reveal dollars and cents but gladly shares the number that have made this skeptic a believer in the Red Claws' viability: 3,045. That's the number of tickets the team peddled for each and every home game last season.

In doing so, the Red Claws became the first team in the D-League's 10-year history to sell out every home game. That includes all of the $70 Gold seats that line the sidelines, the $45 Courtside Suite seats on the baselines and the $30 seats in the bleachers near center court.

The vast majority of Red Claws tickets cost less, and Jennings boasts that a family of four can attend a game for $20.

"You can't park at a game in Boston for that," he said.

And you can't buy Maine-made Red Claws ale or Hoopie Pies at Boston sporting events either, the way you can while the Lady Red Claws dancers, J.G. (aka Jason Gibbons) or the Rim Rockers slam-dunk quartet are performing during breaks in the action at the Expo.

It all adds up to an engaging and exceedingly entertaining evening at the Expo every time the Maine Red Claws tip off. Jennings has somehow turned a minor league sports franchise into an entertainment draw, a marketing magnet, a community trust and a successful business.

So much so that Jennings was named D-League executive of the year during a brief ceremony prior to the Red Claws' 2010-11 opener. The award means less to Jennings than the success of the Red Claws and the fans he can create for the team.

Count me as one of them. Count me convinced the Red Claws are for real. And count me as a loyal subject of the king of Maine basketball, because I love a sovereign who rules with passion.

Scott Wasser is vice president and executive editor of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.


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