YORKTON - There is little doubt the popularity of basketball is on a significant climb in Canada.
Anyone doubting that only needs to look at the recent TV listings for the national sports networks in this country. There are Globl Jam games highlighting top U23 players, a CEBL game of the week, NBA Summer League games with Canadian eyes on Toronto Raptors draft choice Christian Koloko, and the efforts of Canada national men’s team’s effort to qualify for the World Cup.
There has also been reports of continuing efforts to bring a WNBA team to Toronto, and talk of the CEBL expanding by five-or six more franchises over the next three-plus years, which of course is of interest here since the Saskatchewan Rattlers are part of that summer pro league. If you haven’t watched the Rattlers and CEBL it is recommended.
If you are a b’ball fan, and I have to admit the game has climbed up my list of favourite sports through the years from barely top-10 to solidly top-five, it’s pretty exciting times.
The next logical step would be for one of the networks to pick up Canadian college games to highlight the game played here in our country, but that is a rant I will leave for another day.
There is however a rather intriguing prospect for basketball fans in Western Canada, the possible arrival of the National Basketball League Canada.
The NBL has been around for a decade, with teams in Ontario and the Maritimes, although in its most recent season they operated with only four teams in Ontario – two Maritime teams had ceased operations and two others took a leave coming out of COVID.
Audley Stephenson, Commissioner of NBL Canada, said travel for just two Maritime teams was viable, but he anticipates four east coast teams back in the fold likely in 2024.
Their return will be part of a very ambitious NBL plan to grow to up to 25 teams stretching coast-to-coast.
“We want to grow. Absolutely we want to grow,” said Stephenson in a recent interview.
In fact, Stephenson said he fully expects two new teams in the fold when a new season launches this fall, and if the Maritime contingent of four teams happens for the 2023-24 season, the NBL would be at 10 franchises.
As for where teams might go, Stephenson said there are many communities he believes could support an NBL Canada team. For example, 18 Ontario cities are home to an OHL franchise. Only three of them have NBL Canada franchises, which he added suggested they could be good basketball cities too.
“Those markets could absolutely support NBL franchise,” said Stephenson, adding that they already have arenas to play in too.
With an eye to expanding west, that could suggest WHL cities will be among the options explored, and there are five WHL teams in Saskatchewan.
Stephenson did add growth west will require multiple teams to allow easier travel and regional match-ups, but that could include looking south to The Basketball League (TBL) teams to play too.
The regional rivals are huge in terms of building a fan base, suggested Stephenson.
“Fans can travel with teams if they want to,” he said.
Stephenson said the NBL focuses a lot on a team ingratiating itself into the community by being active in activities off the court.
“It’s one of the things we’re very mindful of. The strength of a team is the local community,” he said. “It’s how you really build up the fan base year-to year.”
So what does the NBL look like as a league?
Stephenson said they play FIBA rules – similar to the CEBL – with a few tweaks, including 12-minute quarters, not 10s.
“Fans want to see more points scored,” he explained.
The league is also a home for Canadian players with five spots per roster, again along the lines of the CEBL.
“The two leagues can compliment each other,” said Stephenson, noting the NBL is a winter league, so players can potentially play both. That he added is big for a Canadian player as they can essentially play all year in their home country.
“They can play year-round at home in front of family and friends.”
An example is Terry Thomas, a member of the 2022 NBL champion London Lightning, who then signed with the CEBL’s Newfoundland Growlers.
While the most recent season was 24 games, Stephenson said they have played as many as 40.
While the league was shrunk coming out of COVID it helped the league has a relationship with the American-based TBL which has 44 teams across the country.
Stephenson said playing TBL has provided fans with a bit of spice in the schedule, allowing for some old-fashioned Canada versus U.S. pride for fans on both sides of the border.
The NBL Commissioner sees potential to grow the relationship with the TBL, from a league-versus-league all star game, to tweaking schedules to allow for the champions to meet for a ‘champion’s cup.’
Whether a Saskatchewan team is part of the mix in the future remains to be seen, but with a new arena announced for Regina, an NBL team might be an intriguing option as a tenant.