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Archive for Sunday, June 20, 1999

WHY SALINA? CAGERZ GM EXPLAINS

June 20, 1999

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Salina -- If you build it ... the United States Basketball League will come.

Or as Salina has proven, if you already have a suitable, well-preserved basketball facility, a franchise in the 12-team USBL will consider planting roots in your town.

Last year, after drawing 500 fans a game, Columbus (Cagerz) president/general manager James Williamson sought a stronger market for his team.

"I knew I was going to move the team to the Midwest, but not sure where. I came up with what I call the 'S' strategy -- Sedalia, St. Joe, Springfield, Salina," Williamson explained.

"We walked in this town of 50,000 in the middle of nowhere and decided it was perfect for a pro franchise."

Why Salina?

For one, because of the 7,000-seat Bicentennial Center, which annually hosts the Class 4A state basketball tournament.

"If you do not have the right place to play, people will not come," Williamson said. "The people here told me, 'We will do all we can to make this a pro venue.' They have been true to their word.

"People at the Bicentennial Center take care of all my ticket administration and merchandising. They have a professional staff," Williamson added.

Thanks to "a grassroots effort in the entire community," the Cagerz have earned a reputation as the best organization in the USBL.

The Cagerz, who sold 1,200 season tickets and averaged 2,647 fans a game in 12 home dates, have been asked to host the USBL's postseason tournament, a three-day single-elimination tourney (June 26-28) that will crown the champion in the league.

"At least six teams asked us to host it," Williamson said. "We have locker rooms for the teams, the officials and a VIP box. We have stats for the teams at halftime. I gave the Connecticut coach stats and he said, 'Are you kidding me? This is the best operation in the league.'"

The only negative, Williamson said, is Salina's corporate community didn't embrace the Cagerz in their first season.

"We came in with certain expectations from a revenue-generating standpoint," Williamson said. "Corporate sponsorship was one, and the second was ticket sales. We have reached roughly one-third of our expectations in corporate sponsorship. And 150 percent in ticket sales, which has sustained us our first season."

Williamson said he believes the Cagerz will be included in businesses' budgets next year. At least the Cagerz don't have to worry about escalating salaries. Players, including the three local favorites from KU -- Ryan Robertson, Billy Thomas and Sean Pearson -- are paid about $400 a week during the two-month season.

Players play for peanuts for a reason -- showcasing themselves for NBA, CBA and IBL.

The USBL's motto is "League of Opportunity."

"Our team motto is, 'Earn your way to the NBA,''' Williamson said. "Our players are hungry. This league has sent 120 kids to the NBA. There are scouts at all our games."

If KU's players don't hook up with NBA teams, they will be welcomed back by the Cagerz. The Jayhawks are one reason the Cagerz have drawn good crowds. It also doesn't hurt that it's cheap entertainment. A single-game ticket costs $8.50, though ads in the Salina Journal provide half-price seats.

"Obviously Sean, Billy and Ryan have been great for us," Cagerz coach Tom Hughes said. "We draw KU fans not only at home but on the road. One little girl found our website and had her parents drive her up to watch our game in D.C.

"Quite surprisingly, every arena we go to, somebody shows up. KU fans have found out about us and followed us everywhere."

The Cagerz wouldn't exist without KU players.

"Having three KU players is one reason they've drawn so well," said Harold Bechard, sports writer for the Salina Journal. "The fans like the Cagerz. They like them better when Billy and Ryan play well.

"I was a big-time skeptic at first. I thought they'd draw 300 a game. Summer basketball is not that popular. But with good marketing and the KU guys ... they've exceeded everybody's expectations."

-- Gary Bedore's phone number is 832-7186. His e-mail address is bedore@ljworld.com

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