In March 2005, David Stern announced plans to expand the National Basketball Development League into a true NBA minor league system. The league was renamed and rebranded as the NBA Development League with plans to add seven franchises, reaching a total of fifteen. Since Stern's announcement, the D-League has taken off. Agreements with CBS Sports, YouTube, and Versus have led to increased exposure, while the league itself is seeing more and more of its alumni make the jump to the NBA.
But even as the D-League grows and improves, it lacks a large fan following, appreciated storylines, and downright importance to its parent league. As of the 2013-2014 season, average attendance across all seventeen D-League teams was less than 3,000. Compare that with an average attendance of over 4,000 for all 160 minor league baseball teams. While neither league is selling out every game, why is minor league baseball able to sustain fan attendance and support the existence of 160 different teams? The answer is a paradox. Minor league baseball stands independent from its parent league, yet is crucially intertwined with it.
The average major league baseball player spent multiple seasons in the minor leagues. For a star it might only be one or two, but for most big leaguers it's four or five seasons in one of the fourteen different minor leagues. Compare that with the D-League where only 38% of NBA players last season had seen time in the minor league system. Since 1970, only around 20 MLB players bypassed the minors to make their major league debuts. Sport-specific player progression aside, the consistency of players from year to year on minor league teams and in minor league systems give fans a devoted interest in their teams. Without returning players, a team is just a collection of uniforms. For a fan, the real reward is when a player forms a relationship with a city and a team. That will happen frequently when they spend 3 or 4 seasons there, but quite rare if other leagues are available or league rules encourage movement across teams. In order to capture a fan base, the D-League must find a way to ensure players stay on teams. It's unlikely that the majority of NBA players will ever spend extended time in the NBADL. But for the players that do, multiple seasons in one place will help create an affinity between fans and the team that will drive attendance and interest.
The first step toward linking players and a team for multiple seasons is to create clear paths for player progression. Currently, D-League teams are comprised of players that are signed by an affiliate NBA team and those that are just signed to the D-League team. Making matters worse is the fact that the flexible assignment system allow multiple NBA teams to have players on the same D-League team. While this type of flexibility is good for the NBA, it drives fans away from the minor league system. A fan of the Canton Charge and Cleveland Cavaliers can go to a Charge game to see young prospects play, only to realize a star player is actually on assignment from the Chicago Bulls. In minor league baseball, fans are drawn to see "the next big thing" and that feeling is magnified with the knowledge that the player will likely one day end up on their major league baseball team. Not only that, but the relationships between players become a key point of interest. It's exciting to see a pitcher and catcher in the minor leagues and envision them as the future core of an MLB team. This is a dynamic that the D-League could truly benefit from and easily market to their advantage. The draw of "the future backcourt of the Miami Heat" is sure to grab the interest of a Heat fan and likely other basketball fans as well.
The most attended games in any sport and at any level are rivalry games. When the Red Sox play the Yankees or when the Celtics play the Lakers, the stands will be full. Those rivalries don't translate well in the D-League. Games between the Maine Red Claws and LA D-Fenders aren't any different because the players on each team are unlikely to be involved in the rivalry on an NBA level, and the fans aren't concerned with checking out competition that won't ever wear their enemy's uniform. For MiLB, the opposite is true. When the Trenton Thunder take on the Portland Sea Dogs, fans attend games because they can compare it to being at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, and at a much cheaper price. If the D-League can find a way to create or mimic these rivalries, fan attendance will spike.
Perhaps the reason why none of these changes to the D-League have occurred yet is because the NBA doesn't need it. The D-League is certainly nice to have, but it doesn't represent an elite minor league option that can't be found overseas. The NBADL allows coaches to keep watch on top prospects, but players like Ryan Boatright can often find more money and more playing time elsewhere. The main incentive to stay in the D-League is the proximity to the NBA. But that can be fixed. Minor league baseball is the top development option for almost any player in the world because of its tiered system. Single-A affiliates are developmental, while Double-A and Triple-A teams are preparation for the MLB. And because these players are all signed into a single system, the path for their development is clear. Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the bigs. The D-League needs to create a place for tiered development. With only five players on the court at once it's even more important for a basketball league to have multiple options. With playing time available overseas, many talented players will leave when they get the chance, and who can blame them. Sitting on the end of a D-League bench isn't helping anyone. But if these players are provided an alternative in the U.S. most of them will take it.
Even with the overseas competition and a dissonant player progression system, the D-League has found success. The league is growing rapidly and fan attendance is improving. But it is a far cry from becoming a top draw for fans and players. Like minor league baseball, the D-League must become the only option for player development to its parent league, while developing the structure of an independent entity. If the league can do these things, it stands to become the only option for basketball players outside the NBA.