With its compelling combination of ex-NBA superstars stars like Allen Iverson and a new 3-on-3 format, the BIG3 pro basketball league quickly gained a following..
But The Answer is gone – and the novelty has worn off a bit. Now the startup sports league co-founded by music legend Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz is wrestling with tough decisions. Call it the growing pains for a league trying to crash the overcrowded U.S. sports market.
The BIG3 is drawing crowds of around 10,000 fans per game this season. But well off from its average of 14,000 last season. And still down from averaging 11,500 during its first season in 2017.
The young league also raised eyebrows by “deactivating” ex-NBA stars Baron Davis, Bonzi Wells, Lamar Odom and Jermaine O’Neal for the remainder of this season, while fining Glen “Big Baby” Davis for an on-court tantrum. O’Neal was a special case: He has a heart condition. But the other three were either hurt or not playing.
The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all ruthlessly jettison former stars who can’t bring it any more. If BIG3’s going to survive, it has to take the same bottom line approach, according to Kwatinetz, the league’s chief executive officer.
“They weren’t contributing. And ultimately this is a professional, competitive league,” he said in an interview with Front Office Sports. “People want to win. The coaches and players of these teams? They want to win.”
Starting a pro sports league from scratch is no joke. The big four American pro leagues suck up most of the attention, as well as ticket sales, TV ratings and sponsorship dollars. Only a handful of startups like MLS and UFC, both founded in 1993, have truly broken through.
The specter of startups that started strong before crashing and burning – like the Alliance of American Football – haunt new leagues like the BIG3.
With two strong seasons under its belt, the BIG3 expanded from eight to 12 teams this season. But this season’s attendance figures are worrying.
Kwatinetz thinks ticket sales will rebound. BIG3 attendance tend to accelerate over the course of a season, he said. But making live games more affordable for families is one reason why the league teamed with sponsor Adidas to offer half-priced tickets, and reduced service fees, the rest of this season.
This year, the league also switched TV partners, moving to CBS/CBS Sports Network from Fox Sports/FS1.
From a TV standpoint, it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison. This year’s BIG3 game telecasts air during the day, while last season’s games aired in primetime.
Over recent weekends, BIG3 games averaged a 0.5 rating on the CBS broadcast network. That’s not great. But close to the 0.7 rating and 1 million viewers it drew for its second championship game in 2018.
The deal with CBS is only for the 2019 season. But Kwatinetz is thrilled to be in business with CBS, America’s most-watched TV network.
“If we were interested in maximizing media dollars, there were a lot of other choices including the new media. The Twitters, Facebooks and Amazons of the world,” he said. “Ultimately for us it’s a young sport. I think for the health of any sport you need a wide audience. CBS is the No. 1 network. It wasn’t a short-term financial decision. We could have thought short-term – and made a lot more money. The problem with that is we wouldn’t be around for Year 10. Ice Cube and I don’t do anything short-term. It’s all about long-term.”
The good news for BIG3? A league consisting of grizzled 30 and 40-something players, some with greybeards, has become surprisingly popular with millennials and Generation Z, both on TV and social media.
Now BIG3’s eyeing events in China and countries where basketball is growing.
“It is amazing when you think about it. We have the oldest players — and the youngest audience,” Kwatinetz said.
The corporate sponsors are paying attention too..
Automotive giant Toyota came aboard this April as official vehicle partner of Season 3. BIG3 added a “RAV4-Point Circle” to the playing floor as one of the spots where players can hoist 4-point shots. The league also signed an exclusive jersey patch deal with cbdMD.
Most importantly, said Kwatinetz, the level of competition continues to improve.
The BIG3’s current leader in scoring and assists, 38-year old Joe Johnson, is demonstrating why he made seven All-Star teams in 17 NBA seasons.
The 36-year old Amar’e Stoudemire is using BIG3 to try and claw his way back to the NBA. Ditto for 28-year star Royce White, whose NBA career was short-circuited by mental health issues.
The outstanding level of play shows 3-on-3 is a real pro sport; not a pickup league, said Kwatinetz. If you want exhibition basketball, go watch the Harlem Globetrotters. If you want the goods, watch BIG3.
“I mean Joe Johnson is putting on a show. He’s showing what happens when a seven-time All-Star takes a year off and just trains for the summer,” Kwatinetz said.
Marketing consultant Allen Adamson of Metaforce thinks BIG3 is smart to focus on competition and quality of play.
Other startup leagues like the original XFL in 2001, and AAF, folded mostly due to the lousy play on the field.
The bottom line? BIG3 has to give hoops fans a good reason to buy tickets, or tune in to their TV’s, during the NBA’s long summer off-season.
“The table stakes are the quality of the product,” said Adamson. “As a startup, they’re already fighting a lack of authenticity. They have nothing else to fall back on. If they can’t put on an exciting game, then nothing else matters.”
Starting a sports league in an oversaturated market is “not for the faint of heart,” Kwatinetz admitted. Still, he reminds himself BIG3’s only in its third season.
“Yeah, we pulled off something nobody’s done in 20 years. But that doesn’t mean we’re successful. The NBA is two years away from celebrating their 75th anniversary. Baseball has been around since the 1800’s. Football has been around 100 years. We’re in our third year. We’ll be successful when we’re in our 10th year — and growing,” he said.
His partner Ice Cube continues to think big. He told Andrea Kremer of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel he has a “wish list” of 20 retired NBA stars he wants to get back into uniform for BIG3, including: 40-year old Kobe Bryant, 43-year old Kevin Garnett and 42-year old Vince Carter (if he ever decides to retire from the NBA).
Can you imagine the Black Mamba firing 4-pointers from downtown while the Big Ticket has a hand in his face?
“Some people just want to get fat. They don’t want to play no more. That’s fine. You can come sit by me,” Ice Cube told Kremer. “But if you want to play, we’ve got a place for you.”