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Despite being directly affiliated with one of the most successful and profitable sports leagues in the world, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the National Basketball Association Development League (NBADL) struggled to find its financial footing. Turning around a franchise in this state would be a difficult challenge for a seasoned executive, but it took the hard work and dedication of a former volunteer assistant coach who worked his way into the president’s office to bring the Vipers back into the black.
The Vipers – the NBADL affiliate of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets – is the first team in the Rio Grande Valley area to be affiliated with one of the four major sports leagues in North America. In 2009, the franchise became the first team in the NBADL to serve as a hybrid single affiliate, sending players to the Rockets.
Today, while the Rockets run the basketball operations for the franchise, President Bert Garcia oversees day-to-day operations of the team from its McAllen, Texas, front office headquarters. Despite not having the same financial resources, big-city attractions or crowd sizes as his NBA counterparts, Garcia and his staff aim to provide the same level of entertainment for the roughly 5,600 people who come to every game.
“The Vipers work hard to provide the same quality entertainment as the San Antonio Spurs or the Houston Rockets,” Garcia says. “We offer a complete package of basketball and family entertainment to all of our fans. We are a community-driven organization and include local bands, cheer and dance teams, and nonprofit organizations throughout our game presentation.”
The Rio Grande Valley Vipers have found success by mirroring the Houston Rockets as much as possible, while appealing to residents of the Rio Grande Valley area, as well. The organization has designed its uniforms and court to resemble Houston’s branding. The team also brings the Rockets’ mascot, Clutch, and the Rockets Power Dancers to Hidalgo to perform regularly.
The team holds numerous community-related events and promotions to keep fans coming to games and sponsors excited about the franchise. Tailgate parties are thrown by the team before most home games. The team, along with the city of McAllen, has partnered with local restaurants to offer park-and-ride services to the majority of home games. For the price of a meal at one of these restaurants, Vipers fans can take a bus back and forth to State Farm Arena.
The Vipers players make approximately 170 appearances a year throughout the Rio Grande Valley at places such as local hospitals, libraries, community centers and schools. The team also works with almost 50 nonprofits in the area. Garcia says it is important to give back to the community that supports the team. These initiatives fall under the NBA Cares program that addresses issues such as health and wellness, education and youth development.
Sponsors have responded with strong support for the team and the arena, Garcia says. This season, Pepsi branded approximately 720,000 cans of their products with Vipers information. Participants of this promotion received one free ticket to a Vipers game by bringing their can to the arena’s box office.
“We have great fans and great sponsors, but like any sport, it is a daily challenge to keep everyone interested and maintain relevance,” Garcia says. “We’re in a market saturated with entertainment options – high school sports, local restaurants and charitable fundraisers challenge us.
“This means we must stay involved with the community to continually engage our fans,” Garcia continues.
“This not only helps us build and strengthen relationships within the Rio Grande Valley, but we can also receive feedback to improve our product. Our niche in the community is by far the best value for our stakeholders.”
A career in the sports industry often requires working unconventional hours in the evenings and weekends, and with an organization the size of a typical NBADL franchise, employees often perform multiple roles. Like many in professional sports, Garcia’s career ascent involved working long hours and performing multiple duties. In building his front office team, he seeks employees who are willing to make the same commitment to the franchise that he did.
“Our staff enjoys being involved with the community,” he says. “Most of them were raised in the Rio Grande Valley, so they understand the importance of giving back to the community that contributed to their success.
“The high level of passion for our jobs and our community is what sets the Vipers staff apart from other offices,” he adds. “Working in the sports industry is a fun career, and we all feel incredibly lucky to be doing what we love.”
Passion is one thing, but finding the proper work/life balance is also important to Garcia.“We encourage time management to balance work and personal life, and are open to being flexible as long as our goals are being reached,” he adds.