Gary Steelheads to sit out 2009 IBL season
Steelheads head coach Rob Spon speaks to players during a timeout last season at the Genesis Convention Center. The Steelheads have opted to skip the upcoming IBL season, citing tough economic conditions.

GARY | With the national economy having jumped the tracks and unemployment at the highest level in 16 years, the Showtime Sports & Entertainment LLC ownership group had no other choice.

Their Gary Steelheads won't be lacing it up for the 2009 season in the International Basketball League.

"That's fair to say," said attorney Jewell Harris Jr., the Steelheads' chief operations officer. "We don't want to field a minor league team in this economic climate. It's just not feasible.

"People are concerned about paying their bills every month and not buying a season-ticket package or a sponsorship of the team. And with the way minor league basketball is structured, it's not difficult for us to sit out a season and come back. We wouldn't lose anything by doing that."

The eight-year-old Gary franchise, plagued by financial woes since its inception, originally competed in the CBA and then the ill-fated USBL before signing on with the IBL last season.

"We're not league-shopping right now," Harris said. "The IBL is the league we're in."

He hopes a year's hiatus won't dull the fans' enthusiasm.

"It's a risk," Harris said. "But you just have to deal with reality. These are the cards we're dealt.

"We will spend that (off) year signing up sponsors and ticket holders for the following season. We're not taking the year off to throw in the towel and not do anything."

Harris said the ownership group remains committed to having professional basketball in the Region.

IBL Commissioner Mikal Duilio doubted Gary's relationship with the cost-efficient league would be affected.

"(Harris) did what the league suggests when a team is falling behind (financially) and that's to shut it down after a season," Duilio said. "The league will continue running ... probably 18 teams, half of 'em efficiency-based teams, the other half your standard powerhouse teams."

The IBL's final deadline for teams to join is Jan. 11, although Harris said it's "99 percent" certain Gary won't field a team this season, which runs from April to early July.

"We're adjusting," Duilio said. "Dues went down this year for the owners' sake. Travel is going to be tight like it always is. And, boy, when I talk about a volunteer head coach, this would sure be the year to listen.

"In a bad economy, your choice is to either fold, sit out, or to really cut down."

The Steelheads' home court is the 8,000-seat Gary Genesis Center, where average attendance was barely 1,500 last season. The Steelheads and nine other franchises opted out of the playoffs, citing financial concerns.

Harris said the team has had "healthy discussions" with The Fieldhouse basketball complex in Merrillville and developer Mark Leyden to possibly use the new facility for games, practices and camps once it continues operations.