By Chris Maza
I still remember the morning more than 20 years ago when a 12-year-old version of myself learned that the Springfield Indians had been sold and were leaving the city.
The Springfield Armor didn’t carry the same tradition or history as the Indians, but surely there was a 12-year-old somewhere who was experiencing the same feelings of devastation on March 26, when it was reported in several media outlets that the team would leave the City of Homes, relocating to Grand Rapids, Mich.
While a media report stated that city officials, including the mayor, were surprised, the decision shouldn’t come as a huge shock.
In years previous, owner Michael Savit said he could have put the franchise anywhere and chose Springfield because of its basketball history, but expressed frustration with the lack of attendance, telling Reminder Publications
, “I feel like we're putting on a party 24 times a year, but people are missing it.”
He was right.
While the Armor put together an enjoyable product, had a core group of devoted fans and was active in the community, namely the schools through programs like its Read to Achieve program, the team regularly played in an nearly empty MassMutual Center and only had one sell-out in its history in what proved to be the team’s final home game in Springfield on March 20.
The joke in certain circles was that when looking at the announced attendance for a game, one must remove the first number. 1,850? Well, more like 850.
In the end, there wasn’t enough interest to sustain the organization.
It’s an issue that is facing teams in the D-League throughout the country and at its root is a serious problem. The D-League and the NBA have yet to illustrate why the league is necessary.
Two of the main water cooler sports topics right now – the NCAA tournament and the anticipation of seeing where a poor team like the Boston Celtics will end up in the NBA Draft lottery – make that clear.
With the way players are currently developed in the college ranks, it is obvious that the D-League is not currently a viable entity that can produce impactful talent at the next level.
The D-League has the support of one of the major sports leagues, an international phenomenon, but doesn’t have the clout of an organization like the American Hockey League, which has been a legitimate place for players to develop into impactful members at the sport’s highest level.
The nationally televised game between the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Springfield Falcons’ NHL affiliate, and the Detroit Red Wings on March 25 was a prime example. Cam Atkinson scored the game-winner, while Ryan Johansen netted two. Curtis McElhinney came in relief in net and got the win, making 19 saves on 20 shots, and Boone Jenner and Matt Calvert registered assists.
All of these players spent time in Springfield. Johansen leads Columbus, in a battle for a playoff spot, in points and goals and Atkinson is tied for second in goals. Gustav Nyquist, another AHL alum, scored both Detroit goals and leads his team in that category.
Even with this level of talent, some AHL cities, like Springfield, face constant attendance questions, so especially in an area has hard hit by the recent recession – many would argue the region is still in it – it can be difficult to convince someone to fork over hard-earned money to see a pair of teams whose best players are most likely vying for 10-day contracts to serve as bench depth for an NBA team.
Some of this, of course, is a function of the major personnel requirements of the two sports, but it illustrates a clear difference in the effectiveness of both leagues.
If the D-League wishes to be a viable entity, changes will have to be made. In addition to revoking rules that require at least one year of participation in college basketball, there would have to be a severe change in the payment structure – the average D-League salary is $17,300, with a maximum of $25,500, according to an ESPN report – to make playing in the minor league a more attractive option than going to college or even playing overseas.
Whether these changes will happen or if another solution will present itself remains to be seen, but in its current form, the D-League appears doomed for at best continued mediocrity.
At worst? Well, Springfield just experienced it.