Putting Reno on the sports map

When the chance to buy the Reno Bighorns NBA Development League basketball team presented itself last year, Stuart Katzoff, his father, Jerry, and business partner Herb Simon - owners of the Reno Aces - thought that the opportunity to own the two highest-level sports franchises in town was too good an offer to pass up.

"For us to control both major sports in Reno seemed like a positive thing," Stuart Katzoff says. "We thought there would be great synergies using our front office on the Aces to help manage and run the Bighorns. It just made sense to own both of them."

Taking control of the team in the middle of the season left the new ownership group with little control over many aspects of the team, but this season SK Basketball will oversee all features of the Bighorns, from making roster decisions to choosing concession vendors, Katzoff says.

"The first season went pretty well, I think we're at the top of attendance in the league. But we were in an awkward position," he says. "We sort of inherited a weird structure and didn't get a lot of marketing dollars spent and put into the Bighorns. We have changed that and now we put the same attention to them as we bring to baseball."

The Bighorns play at the Reno Events Center, a stone's throw from the Aces' new $50 million stadium at Second Street and Evans Avenue. Aces management is housed minutes away at 50 W. Liberty St. Katzoff's staff now works 11 months a year promoting and managing professional sports in Reno rather than a shorter summer season with just the Aces. And the many corporate partnerships formed with the Aces help the Bighorns as well.

"There are a lot of synergies on corporate sponsorships and on the ticket side," Katzoff says. "Leveraging that makes sense."

TJ Lasita, director of media relations for the Bighorns and Reno Aces, says the management team can assess what went right in the Bighorns' and Aces' inaugural seasons and apply those lessons to the second go-round.

"It gives us a chance to evaluate from the onset what kind of mark we want to make," Lasita says. "Being able to step back and have a view of the whole landscape and move forward from there certainly makes a difference."

Reno Bighorns' attendance last year over 21 home dates was 68,835, an average of 3,278 per game. The Bighorns rent the Reno Events Center from the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitor's Authority, and Katzoff says the ownership group has discussed the possibility of one day having their own venue. However, with just 24 home games, plans to develop a basketball arena may not come to fruition - unless another professional sports team also utilized the venue.

"It (the Reno Events Center) is sort of a multi-use facility," Katzoff says. "We have a little more control of the Aces since we own the ballpark. We have less control at the events center, but it is a nice space. There is a high level of basketball and it's a good product. It's not too big, so it still has good energy. We have found that it works out pretty well.

"I don't know if a stand-alone facility, with that few number of games, would pencil out," he adds, "but the newer the arena and the more custom it is the better. Maybe we could bring in hockey team or something else. That is always a possibility. We just want to keep developing downtown and keep people coming there. We think these sports properties are great for development down there."

SK Baseball is constructing several restaurant and entertainment venues at the neighboring Freight House district. They are scheduled for completion in early April 2010 and the developers expect they will benefit from a strong following of Bighorns' fans. Other businesses entities are capitalizing on the momentum created by the Aces and Bighorns as well. The real estate company Basin Street Properties also is adding retail space to the first floor of its headquarters building at 300 E. Second St., just across the street from the ballpark.

"It is a perfect example of how redevelopment works," Katzoff says. "If we hadn't put the ballpark in there would be no reason to put the rest there. With what we are doing and what they (Basin Street) are doing it is exciting to be there."

SK Basketball utilizes a local board of advisers comprised of northern Nevada business and civic leaders to help with parties and season ticket sales, a luxury not afforded the ownership group with the Reno Aces, because many aspects of the team are controlled by the Arizona Diamondbacks, the parent affiliate.

"There is a lot more hands-on interaction with our group on the basketball side," Katzoff says. "The players on the Aces side work for Diamondbacks."

The Bighorns also benefit from partner Herb Simon's long relationship with the National Basketball Association; Simon owns the Indiana Pacers and has served on the Board of Governors for the NBA.

"We get the whole infrastructure of the Pacers to do promotions and bounce ideas off of," Katzoff says. "We have access to one of top NBA infrastructures in the league. It is a great resource and he is a great partner."

Katzoff's hope for the Bighorns is that they become fan favorites and their games a must-see event. He says people who haven't yet seen a game will be surprised at the quality of play.

"I think people will find it is a value for what they are spending," he says. "I encourage people to come check out a game," he says. "My hunch is that they will have a good experience. Hopefully the product can grow in town and be a tremendous success."


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