Fledgling pro hoops league plans to bounce into Saskatoon
Kevin Mitchell - Saskatoon StarPhoenix - MAY 2, 2018
After lacrosse, after soccer, came basketball — which is where Lee Genier found his latest sweet spot Wednesday.
“If my voice sounds a little hoarse, it’s because I’ve been on the phone since seven o’clock this morning,” Genier said late Wednesday morning, on the heels of an announcement that the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League will make Saskatoon one of six inaugural franchises.
Genier — who was instrumental in the success of the National Lacrosse League’s Saskatchewan Rush when they relocated from Edmonton in the summer of 2015 — is the CEBL’s president and COO of western operations. He’d previously been involved in trying to bring a Canadian Premier League soccer franchise to Saskatoon, but left that initiative last month in favour of the pro hoops league.
“The response I’ve seen today … it’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen, to be quite honest,” Genier said. “From launches of Grey Cups (during his CFL days) to when we came to town and launched the Rush, my phone has not stopped buzzing. It’s incredibly encouraging.”
The new league, which says it will begin play in May 2019, also includes franchises in Fraser Valley, Edmonton, Hamilton, Niagara and Guelph. Teams are owned by the league, whose chief investor is Ontario businessman Richard Petko. Former CFL player and businessman Mike Morreale is the league’s CEO.
Former Hamilton Tiger-Cats slotback Mike Morreale, shown after winning the CFL’s Tom Pate Memorial Award for community service in November 2000, is the CEO of the Canadian Elite Basketball League.RYAN REMIORZ / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Saskatoon’s history with professional basketball is long, and often sordid. Three different teams have played in four different leagues since 1990, with two of those leagues folding in mid-season. The last franchise, the Saskatchewan Hawks, collapsed after the 2002 campaign.
Genier points out that those basketball forays happened a long time ago. It’s a new era, he says, and he makes the following bold pronouncement: The new team will sell out SaskTel Centre, which seats just over 15,000.
Genier made the same prediction about the Rush when they first moved into Saskatoon, and they did just that.
“There was a lot of skepticism when I first came to town with the Rush, and I spent a lot of long hours just going around, trying to sell how exciting the product was going to be,” Genier said. “I don’t think it’s any different this time around. If anything, I have a lot of equity in the market, with people delivering on that (promise).
“When I said I was going to sell out the building, I know a lot of people laughed at me and asked if this guy was crazy. It was good to prove everybody wrong, and fill up the building.”
Lee Genier is the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s president and COO of western operations. GREG PENDER / SASKATOON STARPHOENIX
The CEBL says teams will include mandated Canadian talent, in addition to players from elsewhere. Teams would play 20-game seasons between May and August, with an eye to expanding after the inaugural 2019 campaign.
Genier said the priority for NEBL teams is the same as for the Rush: Making game-day about more than just the actual contest.
“You’re not going in and selling just basketball,” he said. “You’re going in and selling the experience. Fans nowadays are looking for that. You’re going to have a great product on the floor, and have an amazing fan experience around you. We’re going to stick with that model, and be very aggressive in doing so.”
Greg Francis, who played with Canada at the 2000 Olympics and went on to coach at the university level, including stints in Alberta and Waterloo as well as with Canada Basketball, heads up the league’s on-court operations. He’ll lead the NEBL’s coach and player recruitment strategy.
Genier said local management should be in place across the league in the next month, which will then give them a year to launch.
“I want this to be Saskatchewan’s team; another part of the Saskatchewan sports landscape,” he said.
A timeline: Saskatoon’s pro hoops history at a glance
Feb. 6, 1990: World Basketball League announces Saskatoon’s entry into the world of professional hoops.
May 11, 1990: A WBL-record crowd of 8,276 watches the host Saskatchewan Storm lose 117-115 to the Las Vegas Silver Streaks in their season opener
Aug. 1, 1992: The StarPhoenix reports that the WBL has folded in mid-season, with Dayton Wings owner Milt Kantor making a public announcement during half-time of his team’s home game against the Storm.
Jan. 29, 1993: The National Basketball League forms and brings Saskatoon into the fold.
Sept. 8, 1993: The Saskatooon Slam win Saskatchewan’s first and only professional hoops championship with a 109-107 victory over Cape Breton in the NBL final.
July 11, 1994: The NBL folds in mid-season.
Jan. 9, 2000: Ted Stepien announces he’s moving his International Basketball Association franchise from Youngstown (Ohio) to Saskatoon in mid-season. He sells 70 per cent of the team to Tom Tao, and later drops out of the ownership picture.
Sept. 28, 2001: A few weeks after bailing out of the defunct IBA and joining the Continental Basketball Association, Tao vows the team is “definitely here to stay.”
Dec. 5, 2001: The Hawks draw 6,733 onlookers — all there with free tickets — for their season opener. Tao, meanwhile, has disappeared and nobody knows where he is. The league and a First Nations investment group eventually take control of the squad.
May 1, 2002: The Hawks fold after ownership talks between the CBA and the investment group collapse.
April 5, 2007: Troy Burns announces plans to put a Saskatoon franchise in the International Basketball League.
May 1, 2007: Burns pulls out of Saskatoon after an investigative report by the StarPhoenix reveals his tangled web of financial improprieties. He lands in Edmonton, changes his name to Troy Barns, gets an IBL franchise there, and disappears during the team’s season, leaving numerous jilted creditors in his wake.
June 14, 2013: The proposed Canadian Basketball League announces that it’s looking for investors willing to buy into a Saskatoon franchise. The league never gets off the ground.
May 2, 2018: The Canadian Elite Basketball League announces plans to play in 2019 with six teams, including a franchise in Saskatoon. Key league management figures include Lee Genier, who was instrumental in the off-field success of the National Lacrosse League’s Saskatchewan Rush.