When Basketball Gave Way to Gator Wrestling
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The basketball experience in NBA venues today originated with ABA teams you’ve never heard of.
By Gary Thompson
As soon as the final buzzer sounded on yet another nail-biting loss — this time to the Denver Rockets, 119–116 — the Floridians fans filed out of the Miami Beach Convention Hall. But they weren’t headed for the exits. Instead, they made their way to an adjacent auditorium where their $5 ticket to the basketball game granted them entry to the second half of this sports extravaganza: a boxing match. “It’s a unique basketball-boxing doubleheader!” the Floridian program exclaimed with little fear of contradiction. “The Ellis fight doesn’t begin until the game ends.”
In one of their many attempts to put fans into seats, the promotions team had drummed up a heavyweight bout in the Convention Hall Annex featuring Jimmy Ellis and Peruvian Roberto Davila. Ellis did better than the Floridians that night in November 1970: He won by a technical knockout in the seventh round of a 10-rounder.
Having an advertising guy as an owner led to more creativity — more willingness to take risks.
Terry Pluto, author, Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association
This odd bit of marketing razzmatazz was business as usual for the scrappy, try-anything South Florida franchise. In fact, it was the hallmark of the entire upstart American Basketball Association, which lit up arenas from 1967 to 1976. Throughout the course of its existence, the ABA fought a bitter war with the established National Basketball Association that extended across players, fans and the media.
The ABA was the “outlaw” league with its attention-grabbing red, white and blue basketball, towering Afros and wild promotions — bear wrestling in Indiana, halter-top night in Denver and Playboy bunnies in Kentucky. It was the league that invented the three-point shot and made dunking cool. While the NBA relied on its historic franchises like the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks to dominate markets and TV deals, the ABA promoted its high-flying superstars like Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Connie Hawkins, George “Iceman” Gervin, David Thompson, George McGinnis, Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone.
When it came to wacky promotions to sell tickets and entertain fans, few franchises outdid Floridians owner Ned Doyle, who would seemingly stop at nothing to introduce indifferent South Florida to the excitement of pro basketball. “It was a franchise with its own special lore,” says Rudy Martzke, the Floridians’ PR director. “I don’t know if it was the warm weather and people feeling like they could do anything they wanted, but there were a lot of crazy stories coming out of there, even by ABA standards.”
A college football player and avid sports fan, Doyle was co-founder of the storied New York advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, which created the “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen and the “We Try Harder” tag line for Avis. In 1967, his bid to buy the New York Jets for $11.5 million was rejected; three years later, he bought the Floridians. “Having an advertising guy as an owner led to more creativity — more willingness to take risks,” says Terry Pluto, author of Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association.
Doyle wasted no time putting that boldness to work. Before the team took to the court for the upcoming season, he transformed it into a “regional franchise,” dropping the Miami distinction and lining up “home games” in gyms around Florida, including Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and West Palm Beach.
Next up: a fashion refresh. Doyle ordered a shift from a relatively modest look to a wild magenta, orange and black palette paired with a uniform that featured off-center vertical stripes running from the top of the jersey to the bottom of the shorts.
But the real fun kicked in once the season started. Promotions that poured from the mind of Ned Doyle ranged from the humorous to the odd to unbelievable. Giveaways included 50 pounds of potatoes to one lucky fan on Irish Night, 40 pounds of smoked fish, free pantyhose to the first 500 women through the door and a live turkey on Thanksgiving. For halftime, how about some old-fashioned gator wrestling?
But the greatest — and most sexist — promotion of them all? The Floridian Ballgirls. “What is more symbolic of South Florida than a girl in a bikini?” asks Ken Small, the man charged with organizing the team’s promotions. With newspaper ads, mall contests and referrals from modeling agencies, the franchise recruited a squad of scantily clad cheerleaders who went on to become more popular than the players. They took photos with fans before the opening jump ball, danced during timeouts and served refreshments at halftime. And, to distract opponents at the free-throw line, they posed provocatively on the sidelines directly behind the basket.
In 1971 the ABA hosted a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. The Floridians received an invitation, with one caveat: “You have to bring the Ballgirls,” league officials told Small. “If we said no,” Small says, “they didn’t want us.” The Ballgirls also proved to be the most enduring legacy of the Floridians. When HBO made a documentary about the ABA in 1997, Long Shots, most of the footage on the Floridians focused on their bikini-wearing star attractions.
After the two leagues merged in 1976, the elder circuit grudgingly adopted some of the less-extreme aspects of the ABA’s promotional pizzazz. So the next time NBA fans cheer on their hard-court heroes in a music-blasting, T-shirt-cannon-firing spectacle, they can thank Ned Doyle and the other desperately inventive owners of the defunct ABA.
- Gary Thompson, OZY Author Contact Gary Thompson