Nighthawks fly from ABA coop

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Tom Doyle did not like the way the minor league in which his basketball team played was being run. So the Rockville lawyer decided to start his own.

The owner of the Maryland Nighthawks withdrew his franchise from the American Basketball Association. Now, the Nighthawks are a founding member of the Premier Basketball League.

“There was no way from a business standpoint we were going back to the ABA,” said Doyle, the president and CEO of the upstart PBL. “Out of the mess of the ABA, we just wanted to do things for ourselves. The franchise wasn’t gaining value. We need to secure ownership groups that have capital and are committed to our model to make this thing work.”

The PBL is the latest entry in the pro hoops arena, which already includes the Continental Basketball Association, the United States Basketball League and the NBA Development League. It will play a 24-game schedule starting Jan. 1.

The Nighthawks, who play at Montgomery College in Rockville, just completed their fourth season and gained some worldwide recognition by signing China’s 7-foot-9 Sun Ming Ming, the tallest player ever in professional basketball in this country. This season they went 16-17 in their dysfunctional league.

The ABA is known for expanding liberally — there are 61 teams listed on its Web site plus six expansion clubs — only to wind up with franchises failing to complete — and in some cases start — the season because of a lack of funds. The startup costs are low and little backing is required.

The annual fallout has made the ABA a laughingstock to many in the public and media. Healthy franchises such as Maryland and fellow ABA-turned-PBL members Rochester (N.Y.) and Wilmington (N.C.) were forced to rearrange schedules on the fly as opponents went out of business.

Doyle has implemented strong financial safeguards for the PBL. They include a $5,000 application fee, $50,000 market fee and the stipulation that groups have $1 million in liquid assets to operate the business. Teams will have a $125,000 salary cap.

“Credibility is everything,” Doyle said. “We are not the NBDL, but they play all their games, and so will we.”

Doyle is also instrumental in plans to build a 12,000 seat arena in upper Montgomery County that in addition to Nighthawks’ games would hold various events including high school graduations and concerts.

The new league is expected to have about 16 “well-funded” teams this season. Four other teams, including new teams in the Dallas area and in southern Connecticut, already have committed. Five more are expected to be added soon.

Things got so bad in the ABA that five teams — including the Nighthawks — decided against playing in the disorganized league playoffs.

The officials of the Rochester RazorSharks helped Doyle found the PBL, although their team was the ABA’s Model franchise, averaging 4,400 fans and winning the league title the 2005-06 season.

However, management too often had to search for opponents rather than focus on selling sponsorships and promoting games. An expansion team from Baltimore did not show on opening weekend. Once Rochester’s officials paid travel expenses for a team that was about to cease operations to secure a game.

“If we missed a game in Rochester, we would never get support for a professional game again,” RazorSharks owner/general manager Orest Hrywnak said. “Stability was a major hurdle in the old league. It was not stable or credible. I have experience with the people putting this league together. They are well-organized individuals with money in the bank.”

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