Sports

Friday, Jul 17 2009 10:09 PM

Slam dunk or long shot?

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    By Alex Horvath

    Alex Horvath / Californian file Jam Owner Stan Ellis

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BY ZACH EWING, Californian staff writer zewing@bakersfield.com

Minor-league sports typically are the land of cheap tickets, goofy mascots and vendor food.

And then there's the Bakersfield Jam, the local NBA Developmental League team that folded briefly this spring and has re-opened as entertainment for the elite.

The D-League accepts players from -- and promotes players to -- the NBA. The Jam's big-league affiliates are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, based in Oakland.

But this is no longer your typical minor-league team. The Jam announced last month that, upon returning this fall, it would vacate spacious Rabobank Arena and instead play in its cozy practice facility on Norris Road.

Jam owners Stan Ellis and David Higdon further unveiled Friday their revamped business model for the franchise, and it includes $40,000-a-year suites for 12, a cigar room, an open bar and dinner served to all 550 guests at the Jam Center.

That's right, only 550, and if you can't pay for a 21-game season ticket -- the cheapest season seats range from $3,000-$4,000 -- you'll have a hard time getting in.

Jam chief operating officer Gary Hunter said the team plans to include a per-game seating section, but the number of those reserved seats depends on pending fire-code regulations.

"There will be a chance for families and the general public to get in to get a taste of D-League basketball," Hunter said.

Ellis also said the team will have group sales with the price of a ticket supplemented by the Jam and business sponsors. Those prices haven't been finalized, but he said a group of 30-40 could expect to get in for anywhere from $25 to $200 a person.

All season tickets include parking, catered dinner served before the game, access to an open bar on the arena's planned third level and access to the cigar room on the second level. Suite holders also receive four tickets per season to an NFL game, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers and San Francisco Giants game, a round of golf at Riveria Country Club in Pacific Palisades, membership at the team's fitness center, concierge service and various other benefits that the Jam hopes will justify the high price, both on game day and between games.

"It's a pretty nice deal," said Ellis, the majority owner. "And what it's for is the business owner who wants to bring clients in."

Ellis estimates that low attendance figures and high overhead cost at Rabobank in the team's first three years cost him roughly $1 million a year. With that in mind, he's not concerned with pricing out the average fan.

"You get tired of it, frankly," he said. "... You get tired of going out there to the community and killing yourself ... and at the end of the day, you've got nothing. So if anybody wants to give us any (trouble) for just being a private business, I'll say, 'Well, where were you supporting us when I was spending a million bucks a year?'"

Ellis said that with two-thirds of the courtside seats and all of the second-level suites sold, he and Higdon are already close to breaking even with their expenses. They hope to sell the rest of the seats by the time the season begins in late November.

But it's not all about the high-rollers.

A couple of suites, Ellis said, have been purchased for charity, and their buyers plan on allowing various youth groups to use them. The team also will use some profits to fund an after-school program it's founding for at-risk youth.

The team also will play two Saturday games at Rabobank Arena, where tickets will be much more affordable. If the team becomes and stays popular, Ellis said, the franchise might eventually move back to the bigger venue.

"We do want to serve the public to some extent," Ellis said. "The first objective, it's sad to say, but we've got to make profit. We make profit, guess what? Then the after-school program, all that other stuff, that takes care of itself.

"(I know) the flak I'll take for making this elitist. I don't want to do that. That's not the goal. The goal is to make it profitable but let everybody enjoy it."

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