Semiprofessional basketball: Cary Invasion

Cary Invasion owner talks strategy, marketing and scheduling

mblake@newsobserver.comJuly 24, 2013 

Professional and semiprofessional teams have been picking up steam in western Wake County.

The Carolina RailHawks have led the way as the area’s only professional sports team.

A new Coastal Plain League baseball team is coming to Holly Springs, where it will become one of two summer collegiate teams in the area.

The Cary Invasion is the area’s only basketball team, and it’s becoming established after a third straight season that ended in a minor-league basketball championship game.

Invasion owner Mark Janas talked about the future of the team and how the first three seasons went.

Q: What was attendance like this season?

Attendance overall has risen in each year we have played in Cary.

The gains would have been more significant this year, we believe, if we could have avoided games on less optimal days, such as Mother’s Day. We accepted a few of these home dates in order to help address other league schedule conflicts. We have plans to avoid these dates next year.

When we have had the appropriate time to market individual games, and they have been spaced out in a reasonable way, we have been able to mostly fill our 450 seats.

Q: How much local support does the team get?

We feel good about the growing support in the Cary community overall. It’s definitely “organic” growth in many respects, but in our experience that’s the best way to build a lasting fan base.

Q: One of the goals was to form a bond with Cary’s downtown. Do you feel that has happened?

Even though we have more work to do, we are pleased with our progress in developing relationships with Cary’s downtown.

It’s an ongoing process that has to constantly be worked on several levels. Doc Thorne’s involvement (as general manager) has certainly helped in that regard.

We definitely foresee increasing engagement with the downtown community next year and beyond from sponsorships, cross-promotions and other means. We believe we can create significant exposure opportunities for downtown Cary businesses.

Q: Is there some sort of secret to success that some franchises have found that others lack?

Of course, it depends on what you define as “success.” If you want to win, you have to put together an organization that is attractive to the area’s best minor league talent.

In Cary, we have worked hard to be as professional a “single-A” minor-league organization as we can be, which includes simple things like NBA-quality uniforms, trainers and physicians on the sidelines, professional and experienced referees, proper insurance, enthusiastic support staff and volunteers and comprehensive statistics that help our players get looks from other higher-level leagues.

We also try to provide a complete minor-league experience at our games that gets fans, particularly kids, engaged. The players see and appreciate that.

They also appreciate the nominal compensation they get for playing, but ultimately no one is in the minor-league basketball business for the money.

To be successful on the business side of minor-league sports requires the same thing as any other business. You have to budget carefully and make sure you understand your revenue opportunities. Because of the tight budgets at this level, you have to get the most bang for your buck in your marketing efforts in particular.

Above all, if just starting out, you must be prepared to mostly spend in your first few years, often getting creative as you try to find your spot in the community and try to differentiate your sports entertainment product from others.

Q: What changes did the franchise make season? What worked and what didn’t?

(First-year head) coach Eric Vaughn, of course, did a great job for us this year, and we expect continued success on the court. Bringing Doc Thorne in as general manager also helped strengthen our ties in the community.

The new jerseys were a hit this year from a design perspective, but more importantly, through a new program we tried, we attracted a few sponsors whose logos were prominently featured on the jerseys. It is likely you will see a few more sponsors on the jerseys next year.

Our pre-game kids camps taught by the players also worked out well this year. We brought some new young fans in, and it was great seeing them in replica Invasion jerseys at each game.

The $1,000 half-court shot sponsored by Pepsi was also a big hit. One lucky fan hit that shot in our last home game this year.

Too many Sunday games, including one on Mother’s Day, were the biggest challenge for us this year. We couldn’t bring in one of our most popular concession sponsors, Chick-fil-A, on those days, and in general, those games were tougher for families to attend.

We expect to solve this in the next season with the new league structure that will allow us to spread games out over a longer period of time and to choose the dates that work best for us.

Q: Does this mean extending the season next year?

In a short answer, yes.

But the specific details will be determined in a league meeting later this summer.

Many teams are finding significant revenues in camps, leagues and individual training and believe that being able to play more meaningful games year-round, or at minimum over the course of six to eight months, will better support these efforts.

The added benefits are more flexibility in home-game scheduling that allows you to avoid undesirable dates and the ability to stay “relevant” over a longer period during the year.

It is possible that there could be more player turnover mid-season as players come and go from overseas leagues, but we think the benefits will outweigh the costs. As an example, we have a weeklong kids camp this year at the Herb Young Center July 29 to Aug. 2 that will include an exhibition game at 6 p.m. as a finale to the camp against another TRBL team, the Bull City Legacy.

Next season, that game might count in the point standings.

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