Friday, February 5, 2016

Rio Grande Valley Vipers 107 at Bakersfield Jam 117 (NBA D-League) - February 4, 2016

The most exclusive ticket in pro sports belongs to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League. The Jam used to play out of the Rabobank Center but could not compete with the Condors of the ECHL and the owners found themselves losing money. Rather than fold the team though, they came up with the idea to use their new practice facility as their home court and sell only corporate sponsorships to local businesses, who receive season tickets in return.

That was in 2009 and the fact that the Jam are still playing is a testament to the success of this business model. The venue, renamed the Dignity Health Event Center in 2012, is very difficult to get into without a contact in the Bakersfield business world as there is no box office for walk-up sales or online secondary market. Fortunately, my work for Stadium Journey allowed me to receive a media credential and I was able to watch the game last night between the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Houston's affiliate) and the Jam (Phoenix).

The venue is located in north Bakersfield on Norris Road and is difficult to spot for first-time visitors as only a few small signs indicate that there is a sporting event going on. Parking is free and more than enough for the crowd. After receiving my credential, I was given a tour of the facility, which is quite impressive. There are 120 courtside seats and a number of courtside suites which are tables that seat 6 but can accommodate up to 10 (below).

There are also four executive lofts above one end of the court - these are more like suites in your typical arena, with couches, food and beverage delivery, and memorabilia.

The view from the lofts is below.

This is the lobby for the lofts, more like an exclusive British club than a basketball arena.

There is also a cigar room, something you don't see at most sporting venues.

A local restaurant provides a buffet for all fans which is included in the ticket price. It is much better than your usual stadium fare, but if you are hankering for a pretzel or some popcorn, there is a lounge above the north end of the floor which sells those items along with beer and wine. There is also a charging station available here.

The lounge seats are quite comfortable and provide a great view. You can see the four lofts at the far end.

There is a single scoreboard above center court with only the score information, player stats are not available in real time but stat sheets are distributed to fans after every quarter.

The Jam maintain most of the traditional entertainment elements of the game, including a mascot, Swish (below). There are no cheerleaders, but three staff members, dubbed the Foxy Ladies, occasionally take the court to dance along with Swish. During timeouts, there are promotions on the floor that involve fans competing for a variety of prizes. In one instance, two fans rolled oversized dice, with the higher total winning a two-night stay at a Lake Tahoe resort, a much nicer prize that you will see at most pro arenas.

Overall, I was very impressed with the operation here. The fans in attendance are treated very well and there are many little touches that add to the experience, such as a cookie provided to all fans at halftime, a bingo game that keeps you focused on the events at hand, and a P.A. announcer who interacts with the crowd, calling many of them by name. With attendance limited to 550 per game and most of those regular visitors, the atmosphere is much more friendly than in larger arenas.

Unfortunately for most sports travellers, finding your way in will not be easy. All I can suggest is that you contact the Jam and mention that you are interested in seeing the facility during the game. The staff are extremely friendly and although single-game visitors are not part of the business model, they might be willing to work with you. If you live in Bakersfield, on the other hand, definitely see if your firm can become a Jam partner if it hasn't already; there is no experience like it in pro sports.

The Game

The Vipers were in town and boasting NBA veteran Donatas Motiejunas (below listening to coach Matt Brase), down from Houston on a rehab assignment.

RGV got off to a slow start, missing their first four field goals, allowing the Jam to take an early 7-1 lead. Surprisingly, the Vipers never tied it up after that, coming within a point at 21-20 late in the first quarter, but never drawing closer.

The first half ended 61-51 with Bakersfield outshooting RGV 56% to 33%. In fact, of the Vipers 49 attempts, 25 came from beyond the arc, with only 9 going down. The Vipers are known for this style of play as it is mandated from Houston's GM Daryl Morey, and the now-shuttered Grantland wrote an article on them a couple of years ago.

The Vipers sank their first three bombs in the second half to crawl within three points at 65-62, but a quick 11-4 run by Bakersfield re-established the 10-point cushion. Whenever RGV drew close, the Jam made a couple of key shots, and the third quarter ended 91-80.

The final frame saw Motiejunas scored eight points in just over a minute as the Vipers got it to within five, and the same margin was on the board with 3:42 to go and Bakersfield up 108-103. Over the next couple of minutes, the Jam went on an 8-0 run to clinch it, with Cory Jefferson sealing the game with a dunk.

The final was 117-107 in a game that was choppy due to the number of fouls. The refs were calling everything, with 49 total fouls leading to 58 free throws. Rio Grande Valley sank 15 of 43 from long-range, their number of makes just one less than the number of attempts by Bakersfield, who hit nine.  Terrico White led all scorers with 31 for the Jam, while Jefferson finished with 20 points and 14 boards. Will Cummings netted 29 for the losers with Motiejunas picking up 16 points in 22 minutes off the bench.


Midway through the second quarter, the official scorer seemed to make a mistake. I was sitting directly behind him and watching him use the computer to update the play-by-play. Anyway, there was confusion about the score and it took the officials nearly ten minutes to sort it out. In the end, a point was given to Bakersfield, but that was taken away at halftime when they had a chance to review the tape so the official scorer was right after all.

Update: The Jam left Bakersfield after the season and are now the Northern Arizona Suns playing out of Prescott Valley.

Next Up

I'm heading further south today to Ontario where the AHL's Reign will host the San Jose Barracuda tonight. Tomorrow is a doubleheader in San Diego with college hoops in the afternoon and more AHL in the evening. Check back daily for updates.



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