New pro basketball loop dreaming big with possible expansion to Calgary
Eric Francis - Calgary Sun - MAY 2, 2018
Pro basketball is returning to Western Canada next summer.
And this time there will be no height restrictions.
In an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Toronto Raptors and related growth of the sport, the Canadian Elite Basketball League was introduced Wednesday.
The six-team summer league will begin play next May with a four-month schedule that will see each team play 20 games plus playoffs.
A Calgary team will not be included in the three original western teams, which will comprised of squads based in Edmonton, Saskatoon and Fraser Valley, B.C.
In Ontario, the teams will be based in Niagara, Guelph and Hamilton.
More than a quarter-century after the World Basketball League’s Calgary 88’s made their final layup with players that had to be under 6-foot-5 (later changed to 6-foot-7), a spokesman for the new league says Calgary is on its radar for expansion.
“If we had an 8,500-seat arena that would fit this, I’d say Calgary would be perfect,” said the CEBL’s Calgary-based president and COO western operations Lee Genier, a former executive with the Calgary Stampeders and the NLL’s Saskatchewan Rush.
“Down the road, it would be a great option. The thing is to make this thing successful in those buildings. You want to be prepared if you go to a larger venue, and you have to be pragmatic and know you are starting at a certain point and growing it fast to be in the larger venues like the Saddledome.”
The focus now is to fill mid-sized venues like the 7,000-seat Abbottsford Centre and Edmonton’s Expo Centre at Northlands by offering up an inexpensive, family-friendly product that will rely heavily on selling the sizzle.
“When I brought the Rush to Saskatchewan, I didn’t go in selling lacrosse – I went in selling an amazing experience. That’s what fans want. They want to be entertained,” said Genier, whose experience in Saskatoon has the basketball league believing it can consistently sell out the 15,000-seat SaskTel Centre.
“It’s a back-and-forth sport with constant energy, and add that with a cheer team and music, it will all add to the experience.”
The promise is to have pre- and post-game parties that match the energy of the fast-paced games.
As far as the product is concerned, the promise is to capitalize on the ever-growing number of top young basketball players in Canada by ensuring a “large part” of players on every 12-man team will be Canucks.
They also plan to draw on players from Europe and the U.S. at a time when other basketball loops are dormant.
“With basketball surging in popularity in Canada, we focused on communities that are rich in grassroots community fan support and share a passion for fast-paced action,” said league CEO Mike Morreale, a former CFL receiver who ran the CFLPA before becoming an executive in corporate Canada.
“We bring decades of rich experience in sports and league management to ensure our league becomes one of the best and most competitive basketball leagues in the world.”
Quite a promise.
“I was surprised when I joined the group a month ago that they’ve really done their homework and know the fan base is hungry for this,” said Genier.
“Soccer and basketball are growing exponentially. Look at a Raptors game and the energy off of that.”
The multi-million dollar question is why? Why could this survive when past leagues couldn’t?
“With millennials today, you look at the crowd and how popular basketball has become – that is one of the mitigating factors,” said Genier.
“The sports landscape is certainly changing compared to when you look back 20 years. There’s a certain recipe. We’re going to have a ton of talent because we have a huge pool to draw from. We’re talking about an affordable family experience with tickets starting at $25 and ranging upwards to $75 for a suite ticket, and we’ll have the party going before, during and after the game.”
Former university coach and international player Greg Francis will be the head of basketball for the league and cites the fact 13 Canadians currently play in the NBA, with plenty more on the way.
“Many of our home-grown talents head to Europe to find elite basketball competition in the summer, but now they will have an opportunity to play here in their own backyard with other international stars,” said Francis.
The World Basketball League lasted from 1988-992 when the 88’s played at the Saddledome as one of the loop’s best teams on the court and at the box office.
Playing weak European teams as part of their schedule, the 88’s lost in the final two years in a row to the Youngstown Pride. In 1992, the league folded mid-season due to an embezzlement scandal involving the Pride’s owner.
The CEBL will be owned by basketball enthusiast Richard Petko, who is fronting a group that plans to sell expansion franchises as early as 2020.
That’s assuming it lasts that long.