Grizzlies a financial failure

Billboards around Vancouver are plastered with the Vancouver Grizzlies slogan: Here, now!

Change that to here today, gone tomorrow.

The question being asked by many fans is what happened?

NBA commissioner David Stern's decision to allow Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley to begin searching for a city to move the franchise to has resulted in acrimony and finger pointing.

Professional basketball's marriage to Vancouver is on the rocks and both sides blame the other.

Dick Versace, the Grizzlies president of basketball operations, says the Grizzlies losses -- predicted to be $40 million US this season -- are too staggering for Heisley to carry any longer.

"What's happening here is a business is not working, it's failing," Versace said Tuesday. "The reality of this whole thing is it's a financial disaster."

Both Stern and Versace blame the red ink on a lack of support from Vancouver's corporate community.

In other NBA cities, the cost of players' salaries are covered by local television revenues, cable deals, corporate advertising and businesses buying luxury boxes at games, Versace said.

When Heisley first bought the Grizzlies, he believed that support existed in Vancouver.

It never materialized, Versace said.

Darcy Rezac, of the Vancouver Board of Trade, said the Grizzlies were looking for support at a time when Vancouver's economy was struggling.

"You're asking somebody that has a cold to participate in a 100-yard dash," he said.

Other business leaders accused of the Grizzlies of never seeking advice or assistance.

They argue a better team would have drawn more corporate support.

"Do they expect the business community to turn up irrespective of the quality of the team?" asked Colin Jones, a University of Victoria professor who specializes in sport economics.

"The way to attract people to any sport, you have either a winning or a competitive team. They don't have a very good team.

"No matter how much razzmatazz they put on there's not much inceptive to get involved."

When the Grizzlies joined the league in 1995, they were prevented from picking first overall in the draft for three years.

They also faced salary cap restrictions.

The same rules were applied to the Toronto Raptors, yet the Grizzlies' eastern cousins drafted superstar Vince Carter, advanced to the playoffs last year, and play before a packed house.

Heading into Tuesday night's game against the Boston Celtics, the Grizzlies were 13-36 this season.

During their six years, the Grizzlies have lost three times as many games as they've won, have seen their season-ticket base plunge to 4,800 this year from 12,626 and play before thousands of empty seats.

Versace argues Toronto's future hinges on whether Carter stays with the Raptors or jumps to another team. "Toronto is one year away from the position we're in.

"Whether he (Carter) stays or goes, they are in trouble. If Vince demands a huge salary, which he's going to, then their payroll is going to go up dramatically.

"They are just probably breaking even or making a little money, right now."

Raptors CEO Richard Peddie said in Toronto he could not understand how the Grizzlies are losing the kind of money Heisley says.

"He's got a $48-million (US) roster. That's about $10 million more than me and I cannot get to $50 million (in losses). I just don't know how you do it."

The foundation for Vancouver's current woes was laid during the five years former general manager Stu Jackson operated the franchise.

Jackson made Bryant (Big Country) Reeves the Grizzlies' first-ever draft pick, then signed him to a $65-million US, six-year contract extension in 1997 that put the Grizzlies in a salary cap squeeze.

It was Jackson who drafted Antonio Daniels, who failed to develop into a starting point guard.

It was Jackson who traded for Otis Thorpe, who hated Vancouver, for a first-round pick the Grizzlies still owe Detroit.

"There have been some strange trades," said often-injured Doug West, who includes himself in that category.

Versace said Heisley "inherited a very difficult and complicated situation."

Current management added to the problem by paying salaries to Versace, general manager Billy Knight and consultant Chuck Daly.

They signed free agent Tony Massenburg for $1.5 million US, then left him sitting on the bench after trading for Isaac Austin and his $5.5 million US salary.

The promotional campaign for this season began late and season ticket subscribers say their invoices were mailed late.

"I think there's a major rush to move the franchise," former owner Arthur Griffiths told the Vancouver Province.

"This franchise has lost a lot of money, a lot of games, and they seem to go hand in hand."

By Jim Morris