Saturday, November 27, 1999

Kirchhofer knows his stuff




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Doug Kirchhofer doesn't need sellouts. What he needs is something to sell.

        The secret to the arena business is not capacity crowds, but a jam-packed schedule. If the Cincinnati Stuff never shows a profit, they are bound to be better than an empty building.

        If this sounds like faint praise, it is much too early to gush. The latest local attempt at professional basketball debuted Friday night before a crowd of 6,681 curiosity-seekers at Firstar Center. Cautious optimism would be appropriate. Definitive declarations would be premature.

        “I think the challenge is for us to get people to come down and watch them play a couple of times,” Kirchhofer said before the tipoff. “Once people do that, you'll be pretty surprised.”

        Many of those who ventured out for Opening Night were surely surprised to be standing on their feet at the finish. But there they were, shrieking in support of the home team as Lenny Brown grabbed the rebound that secured a 104-103 victory over the Richmond Rhythm.

        “I think if the games continue to be close ... word of mouth is going to get out that this is good basketball,” said Stuff coach Joby Wright. “I see good things happening for this league.”

Daring to dream
        The IBL's prime selling point is players who are both familiar and hungry. The Stuff's roster consists largely of former Bearcats and Musketeers and Wildcats, all of them determined to prolong their dreams.

        No, the IBL players are not nearly as polished as NBA stars, but the show is reasonably slick (if you can overlook some of the opening-night glitches) and the play is pretty competitive.

        The pivotal question about the Stuff's prospects involves pricing — whether this tightwad town will buy into minor-league basketball at $10-$16 per ticket. Gut instinct says no — that families of four will rarely go downtown for this product, particularly when the weather worsens — but gut instinct has a miserable record against Kirchhofer.

        Kirchhofer, remember, is the man who made minor-league hockey work in a market where it had persistently failed. He dressed up the Cincinnati Cyclones with light shows and loud music, made games a cheap date, promoted relentlessly, and developed a niche market no one else knew existed.

Dates are the key
        Now, Cincinnati has two hockey teams, and the dreary Coliseum has been smartly refurbished and twice renamed. In the spring, Kirchhofer promises, Bruce Springsteen will be back. (No dates, Kirchhofer said, but no doubts.)

        Between big-name concerts and Cyclones games, basketball gives Kirchhofer at least 32 additional dates to sell soda and souvenirs, popcorn and parking. Since the league's salary cap is fixed at $522,000, the business model requires only modest attendance. Kirchhofer says he has sold approximately 1,000 season tickets, a base that should cover at least of his player payroll. His bottom line may well be determined by how much rent he charges himself.

        One of the people on Kirchhofer's payroll said he has more faith in the Cincinnati franchise than in the league at large. This is an important point. For the Stuff to survive, Kirchhofer's creativity and commitment must be matched by the people who operate the Baltimore Bayrunners and the New Mexico Slam and the Trenton Stars.

        Which begs the question: How much more basketball does America need?

        “Look at the number of quality players that are coming out of college with not enough opportunities, not enough places to go,” Kirchhofer said.

        OK, but look also at the number of games on television, and the long-term loyalties fans hold for individual college or NBA teams. It's hard to imagine many UC or Xavier fans devoting significant dollars to a second-tier team with one day of history.

        “I think it's an impulse buy,” Doug Kirchhofer said. “It's kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

        It is the stuff that dreams are made of.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        Stuff 104, Richmond 103