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Superior Basketball League Tailors Its Pro Status

By Gabrielle Paese

October 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Salary caps, luxury taxes, revenue sharing and free agency. Puerto Rico's Superior Basketball League came clean and admitted it was a pro sports league three years ago and since then, the only constant has been change.

After years of unbridled spending, the summer basketball league's 13 franchise holders have finally woken up to face the sobering pool of debt that threatens to drown the weakest along with the strongest.

Like recovering alcoholics, the league's franchise holders are beginning to take steps to spend responsibly. The first step was admitting that money moves the league, which will enter its 76th season in 2004. The move cost the league the participation of Puerto Rico's NCAA players (In 2002, the NCAA banned Division I student athletes from playing in the SBL). SBL president Henry Neumann at the time said the NCAA decision cut through years of the SBL's tangled web of lies. We're a pro league and now everyone knows it, Neumann said in 2002.

The SBL is a pro league, alright, albeit an ailing one. Of the current 13 teams, four (Bayamon, Ponce, Santurce and San German) so clearly dominate that the dichotomy between the big and small-market teams makes the league downright boring for lack of competition.

Last month, Neumann and the franchise holders sat down an hammered out an eight-point plan culled from leagues like the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. The plan doesn't go into effect until Nov. 7 for a season that doesn't start until March of 2004, yet the impending changes already have basketball fans abuzz and the Players Association threatening a walkout.

The proposed changes include revenue sharing, a minimum ($300,000) and maximum ($500,000) team budgetary cap, a March 6 to July 1, 2004 season and guarantees that all its coliseums are brought up-to-date. The new guidelines also call for a $60,000 individual player salary cap and changes to the reserve clause. To participate, each franchise must pony up at least the minimum $300,000, and an additional $300,000 as a "security deposit."

"From now on, no franchise has any historic right to participate in the league," Neumann said upon unveiling the plan in obvious reference to the Quebradillas Pirates.

The measures spell the end for small-market teams like Morovis, Isabela, Cayey and Arecibo.

"In our league we don't want $150,000 teams versus million dollar teams," said the former Guayama Brujos franchise holder. "That's not the kind of spectacle we want."

As of right now, at least three of the league's teams are in dire financial straits and face contraction.

Neumann admits the SBL is headed toward being a 10-team league, which he said is deemed to be the healthiest for Puerto Rico, according to marketing studies. Still, he said he hopes the other three teams will survive the cut.

How will a league that has spent 72 years lying to itself about its own amateur status even begin to come clean on its spending?

Even after the four "big market" teams agree to cut their nearly $1 million budgets in half for the 2004 season, who is going to be the watchdog that makes sure they don't ultimately spend the other half a million under the table?

Player's Association president Jose "Cheo" Otero said he doesn't necessarily buy into the league's plans to police its own teams and doubted the league would be able to keep the teams from going over the $500,000 ceiling.

"It's like sending a goat out to guard the lettuce," said Otero. "The league won't be able to evaluate its own franchise's budgets. An independent auditor should be brought in."

Nor does Otero like the idea of an individual player salary cap, even though it wouldn't apply to players already making over that sum.

"The salary cap, free agency and the reserve clause are not negotiable," said Otero. "We signed a contract about this last year and if the league insists, they could face a player strike."

Otero said the individual salary cap is the one issue on which the Association won't budge and the two sides seem headed for a standoff.

"The salary cap is an economic reality," said Neumann. "We can't continue this pattern. Right now, 19 percent [or 26 players] of the league is earning more than $60,000 for three months of play. We can't have more situations like Quebradillas," said Neumann, in reference to the ailing Pirates' franchise, which will likely fold this season. "How much signage does that team have to sell to pay Richie Dalmau's $90,000 salary in a coliseum that seats 1,500 people? And in a town with a 29 percent unemployment rate?"

Caguas point guard James Carter said he thinks the players should consider a temporary salary cap, for maybe two or three years until the league gets back on its feet. He said he didn't think the idea of a $60,000 individual player salary ceiling for three months of work was completely unreasonable, as long as post-season bonuses were exempt.

"That's not fair because if you make it to the post season, you're playing extra games and you have to be paid accordingly," Carter said.

One franchise holder estimates that Santurce Cangrejeros star Jose "Piculin" Ortiz makes $250,000 per season while the team's coach, Julio Toro, pulls down at least $100,000.

Otero said the Player's Association board agrees that some of the changes, including the team budgetary cap, are a good idea for the league.

But unless the league can police its own franchises and make sure they don't go over their spending cap, the new measures will do nothing to balance out the big and small market teams and ultimately leave the league even more tangled up in its current web of lies and debt.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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