Growth of the CEBL

Xavier Moon carries the ball across midcourt at the Staples Center. He kicks it out to a teammate on the wing, who immediately passes it back. A Clippers teammate sets a screen, and Moon takes it. He drives to his right, quickly finding himself with space. Without hesitation, he pulls up for the mid-range jumper. An opposing Nets player makes the read and tries to close out, but he’s too late. The shot is up, and after what must feel like an eternity for Moon, crashes back down through the net. No backboard, no rim. The kid from Goodwater, Alabama, finally has his first NBA points, and it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the Canadian Elite Basketball League.

It’s hard to believe that could be possible – let alone true – for a league that started just three years ago. Yet here we are, with the CEBL seeing five of its players graduate to the NBA this season.

“It’s been kind of surreal,” league commissioner Mike Morreale said. “To see those players go on to live their NBA dreams and know that the CEBL played a part in that.”

Still, that is the vision league co-founders Morreale and Richard Petko had in mind when they founded the CEBL in 2017. Petko, then owner of the Niagara River Lions in the National Basketball League of Canada, was unimpressed with how the league was operating and suggested bringing in Morreale – a former player in the CFL – to help better market the league. When the board of governors declined, Petko and Morreale decided to start their own league, with the latter acting as both commissioner and CEO.

The CEBL played its inaugural season in 2019 with six teams and has since expanded to now feature ten teams across the country, making it the largest professional Canadian league. While the league is hoping to continue its expansion in the coming years, those in charge already have an idea of how many teams they’d like to see, and where they would call home.

“I think we’ve always looked at 14 to 16 teams being ideal; 15 might even be the magic number,” Morreale said. “That way you can split things up into divisions and have a west, a central and an east…

“Of course, we’re looking into moving out west; Winnipeg, obviously Calgary is a place we’d like to be, maybe even have another team in the Vancouver area. We’re looking at moving into the Maritimes. But I think we’re done in Ontario.”

A large part of the success of the league has to do with Morreale’s willingness to study the business structure of other sports leagues in the country and learn from what they did right and how they can be improved upon. Most importantly, instead of trying to venture out on his own, he reached out to Basketball Canada and agreed upon a partnership that would see the CEBL represent the country under the FIBA umbrella. This has given the league access to not only additional funding, but also more publicity towards fans and players alike.

“It’s been huge,” Morreale said of the partnership. “No other league had developed a relationship with Basketball Canada. No other league had developed a relationship with FIBA. No other league had developed a relationship with U SPORTS.”

“There are different styles of the game that are being played,” he added. “The NBA is the only league that plays the NBA game. Overseas and in Europe, it’s the FIBA game. And unfortunately, we’ve never had a professional league play with FIBA rules in Canada before.”

In addition to following the FIBA rules, the CEBL has almost carved out it’s own niche with the introduction of the Elam ending. What started out as a necessity during the 2020 Summer Series bubble, the sudden death nature of a target score creates a whole other level of excitment towards the end of games. Instead of the last two minutes of a contest ending with fouls and free throws, the Elam ending allows teams to continue to play in the flow of the game and coaches to continue to run their offensive and defensive sets. The end result makes the possibility of a comeback more likely, and a more intriguing product overall.

Another key to the success of the CEBL has been the decision to have all the teams start off under the ownership of the league. We’ve seen a countless number of times how poor ownership can single handily sink professional sports franchises and leagues. Just in Ottawa alone we’ve seen the SkyHawks of the NBL fold after a single season, as well as the Rapids, Fat Cats and Champions baseball franchises all have short-lived existences. By having the teams operate under the league’s ownership, it allows the CEBL to ensure each team has a competent front office and proper marketing in their respective regions. This allows the teams time to build a solid fanbase and gain a foothold in the market before being bought by prospective groups.

Though the two of the newest teams in the league – the Scarborough Shooting Stars and the Newfoundland Growlers – will begin their operations under private ownership, Morreale said that’s not necessarily going to be the standard for the league moving forward.

“That’s definitely the way the teams are set up; to be able to operate on their own,” Morreale said. “We’re not going to just sell teams for the sake of selling teams. Obviously, we’d like to be able to partner up with groups who already have roots in their communities. But we could also have more teams start under the CEBL.”

But in order for teams to grow a following they first have to get into the public eye, and that’s where the league has been lacking.

The easiest way to get the attention of the casual fan is through the media. Even if someone is unaware or uninterested in the CEBL, having the outcome of the local game appear in their morning paper or social media feed brings awareness. Unfortunately for the league, even something that simple wasn’t the case last season.

Of the 14 regular season games each team played in 2021, the major local news outlets covered an average of five games. While teams in a less saturated market, like the Fraser Valley Bandits and Saskatchewan Rattlers garnered much more attention, the league struggled to get coverage in the more crowded markets.

Morreale is happy with the media partnerships the CEBL has made along the way but admits it’s an area where the league still has more work to do. Still, as he put it bluntly, its something that is out of the league’s hands.

“At the end of the day, that’s up to the outlets to decide what they want to cover,” Morreale explained. “And I want to commend the CBC for all that they’ve done… But we’ve had conversations with other outlets, and they know where we stand. We might be getting close to a point where it’s either you jump on the bandwagon, or the bandwagon is going to pull out of town.”

Indeed, everything appears to have set this season up to be a banner year for the CEBL. The additional fanbases and attention the league has drawn from the success of its players is paramount for that. But Morreale is being sure not to put the cart in front of the horse just yet. The popularity of the league has brought it into unknown territory; sure, the NBL deserves credit as it prepares to enter its tenth season. But no basketball league in Canada has been able to gain as much traction as the CEBL has, let alone in just three short years.

For Morreale, he points to the vastly different landscape of Canada basketball now as opposed to 10 years ago. The level of talent the country has put out since then, as well as the overall popularity of the sport – headed by the success of the Toronto Raptors – has improved tenfold.

“Basketball in Canada has never been what it is today,” he said. “You have the old school fans who grow up in the Vince Carter era, and now you have the younger fan who grew up with Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, and now Fred Van Vleet.”

“It’s hard to say [why a league hasn’t gained traction before],” Morreale added. “I know we have our own business model that we do which is different from what others have tried.”

Regardless of how the league has gotten to where it was, you best believe Morreale is determined to build it up even more. He expects the additional teams, the Edmonton Stingers appearance in the BCLA tournament, and the league’s new International Player spot to help grow the reach of the CEBL even more. And lest we forget, the season will cumulate with Championship Weekend at Landsdown Park in Ottawa, which Morreale called “the best sports complex in North America.”

Undoubtedly, the CEBL has grown exponentially from the humble seeds from which it was sowed. But if Morreale and the fans have anything to say about it, this is still just the beginning. There’s a belief that this league can be one of – if not the – best in FIBA.

And it all starts in May.

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