Mike Morreale would love to bring professional basketball back to Calgary
The commissioner of the Canadian Elite Basketball League believes in the market. He sees a fanbase that’s itching for some pro basketball and knows that Calgary has always had a reputation for supporting its teams.
In an ideal world, the CEBL would expand to Calgary soon.
There’s just one big obstacle: The fact that there’s no mid-sized arena the likes of which the six-team CEBL generally tries to operate in.
“Calgary has been, for a long time, a great sports market. I think they certainly support their sports teams quite well and it’s been a great basketball market,” Morreale said. “The only thing I would say at this time (is missing) is the proper venue. The best spot for us is that midsized arena of 5,000 to 7,000 and I think this is an issue that’s not just specific to Calgary.
“It’s something we’re presented with in many of our markets, especially the bigger ones. Time will tell what happens with that situation but it can work in larger venues, no doubt. You just lose that intimacy (in an NHL-sized arena) unless there’s 10,000 plus people in the stands.”
There are some in Calgary who will certainly remain skeptical about the viability of a professional basketball team in the city. They will point to defunct franchises that came and went quickly like the Calgary Outlaws or Calgary Crush.
There’s reason to believe a CEBL franchise might be different. All six of the league’s teams are centrally-owned, and with teams already playing in Edmonton, Regina and Fraser Valley, British Columbia, there is already a growing base in Western Canada.
Besides, 2020 is a very different time for basketball in both Calgary and Canada as a whole.
In 2016, the Toronto Raptors sold out the Scotiabank Saddledome in seconds for a pre-season game.
The University of Calgary Dinos won the national men’s basketball championship in 2018, and last year huge crowds gathered both in bars and in the streets to watch the Raptors win their first-ever NBA title.
It’s not a bad time to be building a professional basketball league in Canada.
“What we do is we know our sweet spot,” Morreale said. “We know we’re not the NBA but we believe and we think, quite confidently, that we’re the best basketball played in this country outside of the NBA.
“(Our fans) can at least be fans of their own teams, rather than from a distance, so they can buy-in and celebrate and be a fan of a local team and watch pro basketball in their backyard and watch the top Canadians who you may or may not have heard from in the last five to 10 years because they’ve had to go overseas. We’re bringing those players back.”
That’s not dissimilar to what Cavalry FC has done over the past two years for soccer in Calgary, and anyone doubting that a new team could make its mark on the Calgary market needs to look no further than the Canadian Premier League franchise that plays its home games — when we’re not in a pandemic — at Spruce Meadows.
Through smart marketing, a terrific on-field product and the buy-in of a dedicated group of supporters, Cavalry almost immediately drew big crowds to their ATCO Field home.
That stadium was a huge part of the appeal, though. They had a venue that was the right size for the audience they were pulling and didn’t need to draw 20,000 fans to make it feel like a Cavalry home game was the place-to-be.
That’s one thing the any Calgary CEBL franchise is unlikely to have, although that may not be a total dealbreaker for bringing pro basketball back to the city.
“There are other options, it’s not to say we can’t play in existing options, but right off the bat we’d have to make some adjustments,” Morreale said. “We’d have to make a larger venue much more intimate. With the new arena, we don’t know if it’s scale-able and you can have smaller events and it’s more intimate than, let’s say, the Saddledome is.
“There are alternatives to what we do. They involve a different type of thinking but we’re not going to say no to interested parties who want to see a team in the Calgary area. I believe we can make it work, even if that means making it work differently when you start but with the goal of doing it the way you want a short time thereafter.”
ERIC FRANCIS - MONTREAL GAZETTE - 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.
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