Why settle for a single basketball team when you can buy an entire league? Maybe that was the mind-set of National Basketball Association future Hall of TX: Famer Isiah Thomas when he recently ponied up $10 million to purchase the Continental Basketball Association, a nine-team minor league operation that serves as an unofficial developmental league for the NBA.
Although Thomas retired from professional basketball in 1996 after 14 seasons with the Detroit Pistons, he never steered too far from the bright lights of the NBA. First he became executive vice president and part-owner of the NBA Toronto Raptors. After a brief flirtation with purchasing the Raptors outright, Thomas joined NBC-TV as a basketball commentator. But he says he never lost sight of his primary objective-business ownership. Now the CEO of Isiah International Inc. has his sights set on nothing short of establishing an official farm league for the NBA, establishing a system similar to the one which currently operates in Major League Baseball. The deal, if successful, could eventually net Thomas millions in return on his initial investment.
“Last January we set up a meeting to talk to Isiah about his purchasing an expansion franchise,” says CBA Commissioner Gary Hunter. “About halfway through that meeting, he said he’d be interested in buying the entire league.”
Thomas says that while he was originally interested in only bringing an expansion team to Detroit, his vision started to slowly expand. “I started to look at the potential of the league as a whole. I thought to myself that under a different operational structure, operated as a single entity, there was great potential here if you had cost reduction and at the same time had added revenue enhancement,” he says.
Thomas talked through the process with Hunter and laid out the concept of a single-entity league rather than the conventional individual owner concept. After some detailed negotiations, the deal was done.
So what did Thomas get for his $10 million? Currently the CBA is comprised of nine teams based in small market areas across the country: Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota, Washington and Idaho. The league, created in 1946, has produced current NBA stars, including the San Antonio Spurs’ Avery Johnson, Golden State Warriors’ John Starks and the Charlotte Hornets’ Anthony Mason. Unlike the multimillion-dollar salaries that are commonplace in the NBA, CBA salaries generally run a more down-to-earth $30,000 to $50,000.
With the purchase, Thomas plans to operate the league under a single-entity format where his office would handle all operational aspects of the CBA. The previous team owners that sold their teams to Thomas would become investors/ operators in the new league.
“My goal is to one day form an official affiliation with the NBA where each team will have its own CBA team and you can call up or send down players, similar to what they have in baseball,” says Thomas.
If the NBA does buy into Thomas’ vision, it could ideally circumvent a problem the NBA has been grappling with for the last several