wikimedia commons, fair use
wikimedia commons, fair use

One Sweet Severance Package & Other Tales of the ABA

wikimedia commons, fair use
wikimedia commons, fair use

"The NBA was a symphony, it was scripted; the ABA was jazz." —Ron Grinker

Rival leagues were all the rage in North American sports in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but none has had as lasting an impact as the American Basketball Association. The ABA's six-year war with the NBA resulted in a merger that brought four new teams to the larger league, but also brought innovations, financial gains (and one big cost), and significant star power that permanently altered American professional basketball.

The Spirits of St. Louis and Their Sweetheart Severance

How does a team that never played a single NBA game—and never will—manage to get four-sevenths of an annual NBA TV share every year? With a good lawyer and a little luck.

st-louis-spiritsThe owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, the Silna brothers, had no intention of joining the NBA—in fact, had the ABA played its 1976-77 season, the brothers were moving the team to Salt Lake City—but they negotiated hard, demanding entry into the larger league and threatening to hold up the agreement until they were satisfied. The Spirits' attorney and part-owner Donald Schupak "just wore everyone out with his demands," according to Mike Goldberg, former legal counsel to the ABA.

In exchange for going along with an agreement that dissolved the Spirits but allowed four other ABA teams to join the NBA, the brothers received $2.2 million up front, and receive one-seventh of the TV money received by each of those four surviving ABA teams ... in perpetuity. (In practice, it has turned out to be slightly more than a four-seventh share, as the merger agreement specifies that their share may only be split across 28 teams. The NBA has 30 teams at the moment, so the brothers receive 30/49ths of a share.)

In the NBA's current TV deal, that amounts to a $14.57 million check, every year, for doing nothing.

Each brother gets 45%, and Schupark gets 10%. I imagine this lottery ticket is in the back of the mind of nearly every alternative-league owner who has come along since the ABA-NBA merger.

The ABA Took on the NCAA, too—and Won

The NCAA, always looking for ways to limit student-athletes' rights, had a "Four-Year Rule" that prohibited college players from leaving for pro careers until they had played four seasons for their schools. The ABA decided to challenge that rule, and the Denver Rockets signed a University of Detroit sophomore named Spencer Haywood to a three-year deal worth $450,000 (with most of the money deferred). They chose Haywood because he was dominating his college competition, but also because they could argue that he was a "hardship case" and needed to earn money to support his mother and nine siblings.

After a year of lawsuits, a judge ruled that the "Four-Year Rule" had no basis in law—similar to this February's ruling by an Ohio trial judge that the NCAA's by-law prohibiting players from using agents was invalid. Haywood was able to suit up for the Rockets, winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards before jumping ship and signing with the NBA's Seattle Sonics for more money.

The ABA Had More Than Its Share of Hall of Famers

dr-j-netsThe ABA's destruction of the NCAA's rule preventing college players from leaving school early opened the door for the Virginia Squires to sign University of Massachusetts junior Julius Erving in 1970 as an undrafted free agent. (They paid the New York Nets $10,000 to settle a dispute over who had the rights to sign him.) Erving was a relatively unknown college player because college basketball at the time prohibited dunking, and dunking turned out to be the very thing that made Erving a legend, one later known as "Dr. J."

Erving was just the headliner among players who started their professional careers in the NBA. Fellow Hall of Famer Moses Malone played two seasons in the ABA, with Utah and St. Louis, before jumping to the NBA. George Gervin, also a Hall of Famer, started out with Virginia, moved to San Antonio, then stayed with the club as the Spurs joined the larger league. Rick Barry and Dan Issel both played in the ABA and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Larry Brown played in the ABA for five years, then began his coaching career there, eventually earning his way into the Hall of Fame as well. Seven-foot-two Art Gilmore made six NBA All-Star Games, and a dispute over his rights was the main reason the Kentucky Colonels (who were one of the top-drawing teams in the ABA, even outdrawing ten NBA teams on a per-game basis in 1974-75) were left out of the NBA in the merger agreement. In fact, despite always working as the smaller league, ten of the 24 players in the first post-merger All-Star Game had played in the ABA.

And while he never suited up—for obvious reasons—Bob Costas got his start in broadcasting as the radio play-by-play announcer for the Spirits of St. Louis.

They Almost Merged Sooner

The ABA's intention from the beginning was to force some kind of merger or other financial settlement with the NBA, and in the offseason between the 1969-70 and 1970-71 seasons, they nearly succeeded. The NBA had pooled its resources to keep several players out of the ABA, including Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, after which the ABA filed an antitrust suit. The ABA had written documentation of the NBA's plan to rig its entry draft, and used it to force settlement talks.

The NBA at the time didn't sign underclassmen, leaving that group of players entirely to the ABA, triggering another set of lawsuits but also pushing the NBA to come up with such a plan to prevent a talent drain. This gave the ABA substantial leverage in their negotiations with the NBA.

The reason the merger failed, according to ABA co-founder and legal counsel Dick Tinkham, was that the players opposed it. Oscar Robertson led a Players Association lawsuit that argued that the merger would create a monopoly (technically, a monopsony—a single-buyer market for the services of players) and thus artificially restrict player salaries and flexibility. The U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee held a heading where Robertson and John Havlicek testified - no word on whether Havlicek stole the gavel - and the committee's terms for approving the merger were unacceptable to the NBA, scotching the deal.

They Presaged Expansion/Relocation

The four teams that jumped from the NBA to the ABA (Denver, Indiana, San Antonio, and New Jersey) weren't the only changes made to the NBA map, as the ABA placed franchises in several other cities that eventually housed NBA teams.

Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Memphis, and Miami all hosted ABA franchises at some point in the league's history. Charlotte hosted some of the Carolina Cougars' home games, along with three other cities in North Carolina. And San Diego proved a flop in the ABA, which didn't deter the owners of the Buffalo Braves from moving the team to San Diego in 1978, renaming them the Clippers, only to move north to Los Angeles after flopping in San Diego too (although the team's lousy performance was probably the main reason).

utah-starsThe Utah Stars showed the viability of an NBA team in Salt Lake City, with a first-year attendance average of 6,246 fans, setting a record for a new franchise in either the ABA or the NBA. The Stars lasted until early in the ABA's final season—even averaging over 8,500 fans per game in their final full year—but owner Bill Daniels ran out of cash and the Stars folded just 16 games into the 1975-76 season after missing payroll. The NBA finally took advantage of the fertile market four years later, when the New Orleans Jazz moved to Salt Lake City, creating one of the most absurd team names in American professional sports.

More ABA Nuggets

George Mikan agreed to be the commissioner of the new league ten minutes before the introductory press conference, when owners finally capitulated to his demands (a three-year, $150,000 deal). Mikan's major contribution, other than the credibility he brought to the endeavor? The red, white, and blue ball. According to Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, over 30 million red, white, and blue balls were sold. Mikan also championed the three-point line, an idea taken from the defunct American Basketball League.

Of course, Mikan also may have torched the league's best chance to achieve some measure of equality with the NBA by botching negotiations with UCLA star Lew Alcindor—better known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—in a story recently recounted on ESPN.com by Bill Simmons.
*
oaksPat Boone was a part-owner of the Oakland Oaks franchise, and helped the team recruit disgruntled San Francisco Warriors star Rick Barry away from the NBA. Barry had to sit out the ABA's first season after a judge ruled in favor of the Warriors by upholding the "reserve clause" in NBA contracts, the same type of language challenged by baseball's Curt Flood three years later.
*
The first president, Gary Davidson, was largely a figurehead, but ended up a key player in the founding of the World Football League in the 1970s, another alternate league that failed to achieve the ABA's result of a merger with the stronger rival.
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According to Loose Balls, the ABA's franchise in Houston, the Mavericks, reportedly drew a crowd of just 89 fans for one home game. A "home" game for the Memphis Tams, held in Jackson, Mississippi, had an announced crowd of 465. Of course, attendance records from the ABA remain a bit dubious; Indianapolis reporter Dave Overpeck overheard the GM of the San Diego Conquistadors, Alex Groza, tell a staff member, "Oh, let's say the attendance is 1,764."

For more on the ABA, check out Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, a biography of the league with quotes from players, coaches, executives, owners, broadcasters, lawyers, and writers.

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.

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iStock
The Popcorn Company That's Creating Jobs for Adults With Autism
iStock
iStock

A New Jersey-based gourmet popcorn company is dedicating its profits to creating new employment “popportunities” for adults on the autism spectrum, A Plus reports.

Popcorn for the People, founded by Rutgers University professor Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier and her husband, radiologist Dr. Steven Bier, is a nonprofit subsidiary of the couple's charitable organization Let’s Work For Good, which focuses on "creating meaningful and lasting employment for adults with autism and developmental disabilities." Recognizing the lack of skilled employment options for adults with developmental disabilities, the Biers decided to create jobs themselves through this popcorn venture, with all of the profits going to their charitable organization. According to the site, every tin of popcorn purchased "provides at least an hour of meaningful employment" to adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, who perform jobs like making popcorn, labeling products, and marketing.

The couple developed the idea for the business and the nonprofit in 2015 when their son, Sam, grew tired of his job at a grocery store. Sam, 27, is on the autism spectrum, and after six years of working as a “cart guy,” he decided he was ready to try something new. Employment opportunities were scarce, though. Jobs that provided enough resources for someone on the spectrum tended to consist of menial work, and more skilled positions involved a tough interview process.

“Some companies mean well, but they are limited in what they can offer,” Steven Bier told TAP Into East Brunswick in 2015.

Unemployment rates are especially high among adults with autism. Last year, Drexel University reported that only 14 percent of autistic adults who use state-funded disability services are employed in paid work positions. And while high-functioning autistic adults are often perfectly capable of working in technical careers, the actual process of getting hired can be challenging. People with autism tend to struggle with understanding nuance and social conventions, which makes the interviewing process particularly difficult.

Enter the Biers' popcorn business. What began in 2015 as the Pop-In Cafe (which still sells popcorn and deli items at its New Jersey location) now distributes flavored popcorn all over the world. In three years, the organization has gone from a staff of four, with one employee on the autism spectrum, to a staff of 50, nearly half of whom are on the spectrum. In July, the organization plans to expand to a larger production facility in order to keep up with demand.

The company provides an environment for employees to learn both hard skills, like food preparation and money management, and what the company describes as “watercooler life skills.”

"There just aren't many programs that teach these sorts of things in a real-world environment, with all that entails," Bier told My Central Jersey. "These are skills that the kids can use here, and elsewhere."

According to A Plus, you can now buy Popcorn for the People in person at locations like the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and the Lyric Theatre in Times Square. The organization sells 12 flavors of popcorn (including cookies and cream, Buffalo wing, and French toast), all created by Agnes Cushing-Ruby, a chef who donates 40 hours a week to the company.

“I never thought that the little pop-up shop would grow into this,” Sam told A Plus. “It makes me so happy to see we have helped so many people.”

[h/t A Plus]

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IHOb Restaurants
10 Strange Publicity Stunts by Major Food Brands
IHOb Restaurants
IHOb Restaurants

Celebrities have always loved doing crazy things for press—but these days, even corporations will go to extreme lengths to get the word out about their products. Case in point: IHOP's recent attempt to create a little mystery, and sell some burgers, as IHOb. Below you’ll find 10 of the weirdest stunts done to promote mass-produced food items.

1. COLONEL SANDERS RAPPELS DOWN A HIGH-RISE

It’s hard to imagine KFC’s elderly Colonel Sanders doing much outside of eating and talking about his “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken. But in 2011, a man dressed as the Colonel strapped on a harness and rappelled down Chicago’s River Bend building. The Colonel didn't stop at rappelling down the 40-story building; he also handed out $5 everyday meals to window washers. What was KFC’s concept behind this dangerous promotion? They wanted to show the world they were taking lunch to “new heights.”

2. THE WORLD'S LARGEST POPSICLE

Sometimes being the biggest doesn’t mean you’re the best. In 2005, Snapple wanted to make the world’s largest Popsicle to promote their new line of frozen treats. Their plan was to display a 25-foot-tall, 17.5-ton treat of frozen Snapple juice in New York City’s Union Square. However, their plan ended in a sticky disaster. The day Snapple tried to present the Popsicle, New York was experiencing warmer than expected temperatures. The pop melted so quickly that a river of sticky sludge took over several streets. In a city already congested by traffic and tourists, this made Snapple enemy No. 1 that day to the people of New York City.

3. COFFEE CUPS ON CAR ROOFS = FREE COUPONS

A cup of Starbucks coffee
Wikimedia Commons

Starbucks believes in rewarding those who embrace the holiday spirit. In 2005, the Seattle-based coffee giant developed a campaign by which brand ambassadors drove around with replicas of Vente Starbucks cups affixed to their car roofs. If anyone stopped the ambassador to warn them about the coffee cup on their roof, that person received a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Starbucks wanted the world to know being a good samaritan really can pay!

4. MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Imagine walking the beach and finding a sealed bottle of Guinness. But instead of finding beer inside, you find a note from King Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. In 1959, that happened to people along North America’s Atlantic coast. Guinness wanted to build brand awareness in the area, so they dropped 150,000 sealed Guinness bottles into the ocean. The bottle contained Neptune’s scroll announcing the House of Guinness’s Bi-Centenary as well as a document instructing the reader on how to make a Guinness bottle into a table lamp. While no one got a free beer (boo!), they did walk away with an arts and crafts project.

5. EAU DE FLAME-BROILED

Who can resist the smell of flame-broiled burgers? The answer is most people—at least when it comes in the form of a body spray. Burger King’s 2008 campaign promoting the “scent of seduction” may be one of the weirdest ideas on this list. The fast-food company thought they could capture the world’s attention by creating and advertising a meat-scented cologne called FLAME by BK. Though select New York City stores actually sold the scent, all of this was a tongue-in-cheek campaign to make the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic laugh.

6. HERE COMES THE SUN

London commuters experienced an unexpectedly bright morning during January 2012. Tropicana worked with the art collective Greyworld to create a fake sun promoting their “Brighter Morning” campaign. The "sun," made up of more than 60,000 light bulbs, rose over Trafalgar Square at 6:51 a.m. on a particularly chilly morning. The sun set at 7:33 p.m. Tropicana continued to promote their sun day, fun day by having Londoners sit under the sun with branded sunglasses, deck chairs, and blankets. 

7. AIRPORT STEAK DELIVERY

Some of the craziest publicity stunts can’t be planned. We live in a world of 24/7 social media, and when the Twitterverse gave Morton’s Steakhouse an opportunity, they seized upon it. Before flying from Tampa to Newark, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and author, jokingly tweeted at Morton's Steakhouse that he wanted a porterhouse steak to be waiting for him when he landed. As Shankman was a frequent diner and social media influencer, Morton's Steakhouse saw the opportunity to start a conversation—and they went for it: When Shankman touched down in Newark, he was greeted by his car service driver and a Morton’s deliveryman. If only all travelers could experience that happiness in an airport.

8. BUYING THE LIBERTY BELL

April Fools Day gags can be great for brands … or an embarrassment. In 1996, Taco Bell took out an ad in The New York Times saying they bought Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. The ad also informed people of the bell’s new name: "Taco Liberty Bell." Back in the mid-1990s, people couldn’t go on Twitter or Facebook to find out the truth. Instead, they wrote the publication voicing their outrage. The hoax may have worked in getting press coverage (650 print publications and 400 broadcast media outlets publicized the joke), but what does that say about your brand when people actually believe you would rename a historic monument for your own gain?

9. CREATING THE LARGEST MAN-MADE FIRE


Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, the Costa-Mesa based chain El Pollo Loco sent out press releases saying they planned to create the world’s largest man-made fire. Why would they create a fire? El Pollo Loco needed to get the word out about their new flame-grilled chicken. Spectators attending the event were shocked to see that this stunt was actually a commercial shoot for the brand. The chain says they really did attempt to break the record. But many publications have stated the whole promotion was a fraud. Note to brands: When trying to pull off a publicity stunt and a commercial simultaneously, tell everyone your plan in advance.

10. KFC IN SPACE

KFC may just be the king of wild publicity stunts. In 2006, the company created an 87,500-square-foot logo at Area 51 in Rachel, Nevada. The company wanted to be the first brand visible from space. And it was no coincidence they picked a spot near “The World’s Only Extraterrestrial Highway.”

“If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” said Gregg Dedrick, former president of KFC Corp. The world is not enough for KFC. They need the entire universe hooked on their Original Recipe.

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