YORKTON - The Canadian Elite Basketball League is about to kick-off its fourth season May 25, including the Saskatchewan Rattlers hosting the Niagara River Lions.
Mike Morreale, Commissioner and CEO of the league said it is exciting to be on the eve of a new season, a season that feels far more normal than the last couple.
COVID-19 created challenges for the relatively new league in 2020 and 2021, with a season in a bubble in 2020, and various rules and restrictions facing teams in 2021. Morreale said they expect this year to closer to the old norm.
“I think so. That’s what we’re preparing for. We think the worst is behind us,” he told Yorkton This Week in a recent interview. “The future looks really bright.”
That does not mean the CEBL came through COVID easily.
“It was extremely difficult to generate revenues,” said Morreale.
But, being new Morreale said the CEBL recognized they would need to invest through the early years to grow the product “so in some respect we were prepared” to spend dollars.
It helped that the teams have all been league owned, added Morreale.
“We can make decisions very quickly. That helped us during the COVID years,” as they do not have various owners at the table to come to decision, he said.
Certainly the CEBL has emerged from two years of COVID restrictions as a more robust league, adding three expansion teams for the current season; Montreal Alliance, Scarborough Shooting Stars and Newfoundland Growlers.
Expansion has always been planned, said Morreale, adding it was an important step in league growth becoming a coast-to-coast league. It was also a goal to get teams in Toronto (Scarborough) and Montreal.
Being able to add teams at this time “is proof the concept (of the CEBL) works,” said Morreale.
The league now sits with 10 teams, but Morreale said the CEBL fully expects to add more franchises, hinting at 15 or 16 teams at some point.
“But, we’re not going to rush to get there,” he said.
In fact looking short term, expansion might be on hold, as Morreale said “maybe zero (teams) for 2023,” although he didn’t rule out a team might be added too.
If the CEBL doesn’t grow next year, Morreale did suggest there would be “multiple teams in 2024.”
One thing Morreale said is not a concern moving forward is accessing talent.
“There’s tons of Canadian talent,” he said, adding players and their agents are now calling the league.
“The phone doesn’t stop ringing.”
When teams are next added, the CEBL will be focusing on filling in a picture of a truly national league, building natural rivalries in the process.
For example, a second team in B.C. is likely to go with the Fraser Valley Bandits; likely in Vancouver, Kelowna or Victoria, said Morreale.
Another team in the Maritimes is coveted to create a rivalry with the new Growlers, with Halifax or Moncton the likely locale.
Quebec City is seen as a nice match for the Alliance.
Winnipeg is likely “as a bridge team” essentially connecting the eastern and western teams, said Morreale.
And, Calgary is also on the radar, having has something of a test flight as a CEBL city, hosting the Basketball Champions League of Americas (BCLA) games hosted by the CEBL representative Edmonton Stingers.
Participating in the BCLA itself was huge for the CEBL, said Morreale.
“It was a real tremendous opportunity,” he said, noting it was a chance to represent not just the league on an international stage, but Canada as well.
“FIBA (International Basketball Federation) was very excited to have us on board.”
The Stingers won three and lost three, but missed advancing on points, but it was still important to show the legitimacy of the CEBL.
“It was a great way to expand our brand,” said Morreale.
Another step is growing the league internationally is having each team adding an import player to the roster. Not only does will that build connections abroad, but it will give players here another avenue to better understanding the FIBA game, said Morreale.
Morreale said international players “have played the FIBA game their whole life.” So by adding one player to each roster “it really helps us look at the intricacies of the FIBA game.” He added, “99 per cent of the basketball played in the world is FIBA.”