July 19, 2006: Perspective
By Alexander Wolff ’79
Alexander Wolff ’79 is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton, and president and general manager of a new minor-league basketball team, the Vermont Frost Heaves. For more information, go to www.vermontfrostheaves.com.
More than anything else, people want to know why someone would start a pro basketball team in Vermont. Yes, NBA scouting director Marty Blake complained to me one day about the minor-league American Basketball Association, whose wild growth left him unsure where to send his scouts. (“Apparently you can get a franchise for $10,000,” Blake had said. To which I replied, “For that, I could start a team.”) Moreover, Plimptonian journalism is in vogue at Sports Illustrated, where colleagues recently have spent time coaching with the Phoenix Suns and playing in spring training with the Toronto Blue Jays. Our editors love any gruel for our high-metabolism Web site, so I knew that they would kindle to a proposal to launch and write about a team called the Vermont Frost Heaves.
But if Marty Blake planted the seed and SI would nurture it, Vermont itself brought the idea to full-grown harvest. I knew the state from a childhood of family vacations and summer camp. Its intimate scale and community-mindedness had long beguiled me as much as the landscape. In 2002, when I settled with my New Englander wife, Vanessa, and our two preschoolers in the orcharding town of Cornwall, I didn’t yet know the definition of a frost heave (an upthrust in the roadbed caused by the refreezing of moist soil). I had just spent a year traveling the world for my book Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure, which took the measure of the global reach of hoops; I couldn’t imagine a more rewarding way to become rooted in my new home than to tackle a basketball project as intensely local as the previous one had been wide-ranging. A few hours with the book Wandering Home, by my neighbor Bill McKibben, sent me forth: McKibben describes our patch of Vermont as an incubator for ideas that reconcile the old with the new, and demonstrates how, by thinking small, people can begin to riddle out solutions to big problems.
With the Frost Heaves, we’re taking on two unrelated challenges. One is sprawl, which threatens the vitality of life in Vermont’s signature village centers and downtowns. The other is a widely held perception, shared particularly by people here who grew up on the synergistic stylings of the Boston Celtics, that something about pro basketball is broken. Ask people anywhere whether they like basketball and they’re almost sure to say yes; but ask them if they like the NBA, and many begin to hem and haw. Pressed, they’ll tell you that they don’t like the soulless arenas, the unaffordable tickets, or the remote players.
The Frost Heaves will address these problems when we tip off our 36-game schedule in November. By filling classic, Depression-era auditoriums in Barre and Burlington during the winter, we’ll bring life back to downtowns and offer fans a chance to watch professional-caliber players in intimate, 1,600-seat buildings marked by a Hoosiers feel. A family of four will be able to enjoy a game for less than $30, thanks to the ABA’s business model, which caps a team’s entire player payroll at $120,000 per season. (A common bumper sticker here — “Moonlight in Vermont, or starve” — only slightly exaggerates the implications of our payroll cap.) Yet because we won’t be able to pay our players enough to afford a Cadillac Escalade, no Frost Heave will be able to hide behind its tinted windows. Instead they’ll be out in the community, staging clinics, filming public-service announcements, and supplementing their incomes with sponsorship sales as if they were, dare we say it, role models. Indeed, by purchasing renewable energy credits to offset our carbon emissions, the team will take role modeling in a direction both highly topical and characteristically Vermont.
As we fill those antique downtown buildings, we’ll meld the old Vermont with the new, using the Web as both a bulletin board for my postings and a means to empower our fans. One in 12 visitors to the Internet plays fantasy sports online; we’re using technology to do fantasy sports one better, giving fans a chance to make real decisions about a real team. When we announced that we would give members of our online community, the Bump in the Road Club, the chance to choose between two finalists to be our coach, enrollment in the Bump Club doubled over the two weeks leading up to the vote. (As much as I was tempted to offer as a candidate a disciple of Pete Carril — or Carril himself, who seemed suddenly available when the NBA’s Sacramento Kings declined to renew his contract in May — the Princeton system is ill-suited to the ABA, whose rules reward full-court pressure defense and limit the number of half-court sets.) The Bump Club now numbers more than 1,600 — and because they’ve had a chance to participate in a kind of New England town meeting of pro sports, every member is invested in us. Founding investors (Vanessa and me, along with a handful of other partisans of Vermont or basketball or both) intend eventually to make equity available in small lots to fans.
Minor-league baseball long ago figured out the value of defining itself as the fan-friendly, affordable alternative to its major-league counterpart. We believe that basketball can do the same, especially in Vermont. The game is stitched into the fabric of life in the state, where generations of families have grown up dreaming of a victory in the state finals in “the Aud” in Barre, one of our home venues. With the men’s basketball team at the University of Vermont having recently pulled a Princeton with its upset of Syracuse in the 2005 NCAA tournament, basketball fever isn’t likely to break soon. The Class A Vermont Lake Monsters baseball team, and even the minor-league Vermont Voltage soccer team, are sustainable enterprises and community happenings. At the same time our name is proving to be just whimsical enough to attract the curious around the country, in the same way that the Lansing Lug Nuts and Macon Whoopees do. In keeping with the wintertime driving challenges that all Vermonters face, as well as the Yankee adage that “you can’t get there from here,” the uniform of our mascot, a moose named Bump, is graced by the eponymous Day-Glo orange road sign.
I’d like to be able to say that the Frost Heaves’ name sprang from months of painstaking market research. It didn’t. But through February and March, as “Frost Heaves Ahead” signs bloomed along the roadsides, I felt like the Che of guerrilla marketers for having circumvented Vermont’s anti-billboard law, the toughest in the nation. But as I write this, it’s springtime. The frost heaves have subsided and those road signs have come down. As we head through the summer and into the fall, it may be time to splurge on a few newspaper ads paraphrasing the Vermont poet Robert Frost: Stop by our hardwood on a snowy evening.