Nearly a decade ago, the National Basketball League Summer League looked like a bunch of pick-up hoops games where green NBA rookies and roster-spot-craving veterans didn’t even wear matching team uniforms.
There wasn’t much industry mojo for the hoops event that drew just six NBA teams.
Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, the 30-year-old nonprofit event-organizing and promoting agency, remembered those good ol’ days as he contrasted what the worldwide basketball industry event has blossomed into.
The NBA Summer League is the professional basketball industry’s biggest gathering of players, agents, coaches, general managers, owners and scouts at a one-stop, 11-day shopping extravaganza for pro teams in America and around the world. It began Friday and continues to July 22.
In essence, Las Vegas is the unofficial home of the NBA’s summer meetings and has emerged as the capital of basketball in July, which includes USA Basketball arriving in Sin City after the Summer League. The NBA and 200 of its employees launched the 22-team, 61-game schedule at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, which is playing host.
“NBA Summer League in Las Vegas provides our fans — on site and on television through NBA TV — the unique opportunity to see some of the NBA’s brightest young stars competing in one location in an up-close and family-friendly environment,” NBA spokeswoman Joanna Shapiro wrote in an email.
“It is an extraordinary venue that not only allows 22 teams to evaluate young talent and free agents, but gives rookies the opportunity to get acclimated to the NBA and provides veterans a chance to fine-tune their games,” she said.
The hoops mecca is much more than professional teams playing games and hundreds of players, dozens of general managers and 300-plus scouts from around the world checking out freshly drafted players, free agents and veterans looking to hang on with an NBA or European team.
For example, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver — Stern’s heir apparent — will hold league meetings and the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting is set for July 18 in Las Vegas.
“You get everybody here,” said Mike Newcomb, executive director of Thomas & Mack Center. “The league has meetings that week.”
Even San Francisco-based sports agent Warren LeGarie, who hatched the idea for the summer league, still comes to Las Vegas to do basketball business.
LeGarie, who represents NBA coaches such as recently fired Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, is looking to hook up one of his coach clients with coachless teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers.
“We call it the Sundance of basketball,” LeGarie said. “People from top to bottom in the industry will be in Las Vegas. It’s one of the few times besides the All-Star Game when lots of people and decision-makers are looking to make an impression or move relationships further along.”
The Summer League offers a blueprint for other industries to emulate if they want to stage an event in Las Vegas to wheel and deal.
First, there’s timing — and it couldn’t be better. Only a few weeks ago, the NBA just hit its crescendo with a captivating seven-game Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs.
LeGarie noted that the window for player free agency is still open, meaning agents, players and general managers are arranging meetings during the Summer League.
Even coaches are looking for jobs. LeGarie recalled that at last year’s event, two NBA teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers, conducted coach searches.
The NBA industry gathering also offers another tip for other industries that want to do business in Las Vegas: Include an international element to give the event global appeal.
For example, scouts for basketball leagues in nations around the world — Israel, Australia and Germany, to name three — will descend on Las Vegas to check out players who don’t catch on with NBA squads.
“It gives European scouts a centralized venue to watch up to eight games a day and pick from players who are borderline for NBA teams or have no hope of making it here,” LeGarie said.
Teams are also using the Summer League as a marketing tool to treat high roller sponsors and devoted season ticketholders to a good time in Las Vegas.
“It’s valuable for sponsor and season ticketholder engagement. We might use Vegas as an entre to lure a potential sponsor,” said Chris Clark, a Sacramento Kings spokesman.
The summer league’s informal atmosphere, similar to baseball’s spring training, is a fun environment for fans. A daily ticket is $25.
“In Vegas you have access to the players. It’s a collegiate-style atmosphere,” Clark said. “It’s attractive to season ticketholders who like the behind-the-scenes look at how a team is built.”
The NBA contracts with VSL Properties to stage the Summer League. Each year, VSL Properties tweaks the program to boost the event’s juice, said Albert Hall, the company’s vice president of business operations.
For example, each of the 22 teams will play a five-game schedule, but the Summer League will culminate in a tournament for the first time, Hall said.
“For a team that didn’t make the playoffs, the Summer League championship is a momentum builder,” Hall said. “It can be a precursor to the team moving in the right direction.”
NBA TV will televise all 61 games, including 37 live contests, Hall said. And sports broadcasting powerhouse ESPN will broadcast its popular SportsCenter show from the Summer League this week, he noted.
Hall said the Summer League started as strictly a player development program in 2004, but in about three or four years the event grew into a much bigger attraction.
He said it took on a league meetings atmosphere, especially with team owners or representatives coming for the NBA Board of Governors sessions.
Teams began talking directly to players and agents during the Summer League. Sports shoe companies started signing players for endorsements and other companies explored sponsorship deals, too.
Veteran players who have a secure roster position even show up because they enjoy Las Vegas.
And it gives new coaches a platform to get to know their players. Look for Doc Rivers, just signed by the Los Angeles Clippers, to roll into Las Vegas to get accustomed to his new players.
“After year three or four, because of the quality of the players, it became a hotbed for a lot of business in a condensed area in a short period of time,” Hall said.
The Summer League carved out its niche because there were too many satellite player development events for NBA teams to visit, LeGarie said.
“Previously, there were so many little events,” he said. “We stabilized our event into a one-stop shopping environment for players and agents to meet.”
The Summer League paved the way for USA Basketball, which oversees the national men’s basketball team, to follow and hold its summer camp this year from July 21-25 in Las Vegas. The men’s hoops team is preparing for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, set to run Aug. 30 through Sept. 14 in Spain.
Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball’s chairman, said the basketball buzz created by the NBA Summer League was a natural draw for the men’s team to hold its camp in Las Vegas. USA Basketball began holding its summer camp in Las Vegas in 2006 — two years after the birth of the Summer League.
“We’ll be looking at this group (of players) and getting an early read. We’ll see who might come back from the Olympic team to play next summer,” Colangelo said. “We have vast pool of players who want represent the country and want to play.”
Contact reporter Alan Snel at email@example.com or 702-387-5273.