Former Ticat takes a shotat leading basketball league

Scott Radley - The Hamilton SPectator - MAY 2, 2018

Since he pulled off his shoulder pads for the last time, former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Mike Morreale has demonstrated that with his brawn came brains. He became head of the CFL Players' Association. He sold private jets, among other business ventures. He's worked in broadcasting. He's a smart guy.

So maybe he's the one who can finally figure out how to make professional basketball work in Hamilton. Heaven knows, others have tried.

The 46-year-old was introduced as CEO of the startup Canadian Elite Basketball League on Wednesday. The six-team loop will tip off next May with teams in Niagara, Guelph, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Fraser Valley. And, yes, Hamilton. Playing out of FirstOntario Centre.

"We've done our homework here," he says. "We're creating a model, fully funded league office and fully funded six-team league to start that is set up to weather any storm."

The fact that he mentioned the storms suggests he's aware of the historically less-than-fertile soil in which he's planting part of his operation.

Back in the early 1990s, the Hamilton SkyHawks had some success early in their time here but eventually fizzled. A decade later a minor pro league — OK, very minor — started across southern Ontario with a team in Brantford. The Ontario Professional Basketball Association didn't last long.

In 2008, talks that might've brought an NBA D-League — now the G League — to Hamilton never led anywhere. The next year an ABA franchise partially moved into offices at FirstOntario Centre before pulling out and never launching. And the Canadian Basketball League, created by former Toronto Raptors head coach Butch Carter, lasted one season in 2017 and had a team here but quickly collapsed.

All this would suggest the challenges facing any further startup are immense.

"No doubt," Morreale says.

So why will this work when others couldn't?

He says the CEBL is backed by deep-pocketed businesssman Richard Petko, owner of the Niagara River Lions of the National Basketball League of Canada, who's putting up millions of dollars to make it go. The 20-game schedule will be held in spring and summer when Canadians playing overseas and other pro-level guys will be between seasons. And when there's really no competition for the fans' eyeballs.

The league owns all the franchises, which will allow it to handle everything centrally — initially, anyway — and enable it to allocate players to whatever franchise makes best sense. However, all franchise executives will be local so they understand their market. There may be a Canadian quota, as in the CFL. Maybe even a Canadian draft. There will be some facets of Major League Soccer's business model thrown in as well.

And games will be played in arenas rather than gyms. In Hamilton, that'll be the 17,000-seat FirstOntario Centre. Morreale says the goal is to play in the best-available venues in each city. There will be DJs, cheerleaders, pre-game tailgates and post-game parties.

"We feel we can make it a great fan experience if done properly," he says.

There's no doubt that interest and participation in the sport is on the rise, thanks to the Raptors and an increasing number of Canadian players at the highest levels of the game. Playing when other leagues are dormant and you have the stage to yourself is smart, too. And the 10-team National Basketball League of Canada has shown that minor-pro hoops can work in some cases. It's lasted six years already, and London averaged over 5,000 fans a game this past year.

That said, the other nine NBLC cities average fewer than 1,500 fans. Numbers like that might work at the 5,100-seat Sleeman Centre in Guelph or the 5,300-seat Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, but will be lost in a facility as big as FirstOntario Centre. Meaning the task here will be harder than in some other places.

Having a former vice-president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment who was involved in communications when the Raptors were launched (John Lashway) as a league executive and president of the Hamilton team is wise, though. Bringing in Canada Basketball's head of men's high performance (Greg Francis) as the league's main basketball guy is smart, too.

When you combine all the pros and cons, can it really work? Across the country and here at home?

"100 per cent," Morreale says. "I have no doubt."

905-526-2440 | @radleyatthespec

Spectator columnist Scott Radley hosts The Scott Radley Show weeknights from 6-8 on 900CHML

905-526-2440 | @radleyatthespec

Spectator columnist Scott Radley hosts The Scott Radley Show weeknights from 6-8 on 900CHML

Darrin Conway