The Friday Interview: 'Haifa was hungry for basketball'

Maccabi Haifa BC's American owner Jeffrey Rosen plans to inject some razzmatazz into Israeli hoops.

jeffrey rosen 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jeffrey rosen 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jeffrey Rosen was in Israel scouting the Israeli scene for a prospective baseball league back in the summer of 2006 when his mind moved towards the idea of buying a basketball team. Intrigued by the general sports market, he had his sights set on owning a franchise here and made significant inquiries into Hapoel Tel Aviv. After that didn't work out, Rosen was ready to go home. But on the last days of his trip, he received a lead from the league's commissioner - second-division Haifa was an option. "I was exploring the Israeli sports scene, and had a chance to go to Nokia [Arena]," Rosen tells The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview this week. "I enjoyed the game immeasurably. I got the kick that I would be interested in chasing and pursuing a basketball franchise in Israel." The decision was made in April of 2007, and Rosen signed the deal that July, taking over a franchise that was teetering on, or maybe falling over, the edge of obscurity. There was a time when the city's Romema arena would fill with die-hards, creating an atmosphere that engendered fear even in the stalwarts from Tel Aviv. But a year ago most couldn't even remember when the team had last been in the first division (it was 10 years). Rosen's touch proved magic. After just one season Haifa finds itself once again in the top division BSL, with a reignited fan base and an American nickname - the Heat. Basketball is beginning to matter again in Haifa. "I'm very excited, very pleased," Rosen says of his first season. "It was a year that met our maximum expectations. "My goal was to try to learn the ropes of owning a basketball team, and of course everybody wants to win, to have a good organization, a strong team, be competitive, and to be a playoff contender. "Naturally we wanted to go as far as we could. I must probably concede, while we publicly said let's go for first, it was a long hard road, and I felt very grateful very fortunate we were able to achieve such a high goal in our first year." With this kind of early success, it would be tempting to look to the success of Hapoel Holon, which won the championship in its first season back in the BSL for a number of years, and get impatient. Rosen said Holon's dramatic rise to the league championship this year was great for the league, and could represent a sea change in Israeli basketball. But he was quick to downplay any similar expectations for Haifa. "My hat's off to them. Their story was a brilliant success. If we could have anything half as good I'd be pretty happy. "We are by no means predicting that for our franchise. We have to reconstitute our organization, our team to make the [Final Four] playoffs and make Haifa a perennial playoff team. But I think Haifa was hungry for basketball." Rosen's honed his executive style in his years as the president of international operations and COO of Rose Art, a major manufacturer of stationery and art products, which he and his brother sold for $400 million, and says he is a very much a hands-on owner. "It's my style," he says. "I believe in hiring good people, I believe in giving them the authority to do their jobs. "It's a two-way street; guys who work with me need to respect I will talk and speak with them, but I need to respect them and let them do their job." Rosen is delighted at the response he's seen so far. "Apparently there's a wellspring of fan support in that city. My job is to unleash and release it, to bring more and more fans to Romema [arena]. Our goal is to occupy as many seats, to sell out the building in the future. It's a long goal but you have to have goals." The league's minimum budget is around $1.5m., and Rosen says he forsees a number of around $2m. for Haifa this year. In the second division, on the other hand, budgets tended to fall in the $300,000 dollar range, although Haifa spent about $500,000 last year. Rosen also aims to introduce a number of American-style marketing ideas, from promotional calendar to VIP seats. "It will be our plan to have something new and different at about 12-13 home games," he says. "We want to be very fan-conscious and see how we can get fans to join us at Romema. "Our whole marketing effort is focused on putting fans in the stadium and promoting our program. Of course we want a winner but we want to build a successful franchise." "We're pretty much on our own, we have to be innovative and challenging, and risk some marketing programs. I hope it will work in Israel. Obviously we have to tailor our promotions to the Israeli market, but we've got to try it. Rosen's company, Florida- based Triangle Financial, invests in sports enterprises around the world, including sponsorship of a semi-pro baseball team in Hong Kong, the Dragonfliers. He thinks that international sports are a burgeoning market, and that European basketball in particular is only getting stronger. "I think FIBA has done a beautiful job, I think the NBA missed the boat in Europe. But basketball didn't miss the boat. The quality in Europe has gotten much better. "Fine quality Americans who don't make the NBA play, some of them are outstanding. The Israeli league is a terrific league, one of the top 10 leagues in the world, and it's only getting better."