Canada: CEBL's rapid growth an example for potential women's domestic pro leagues to follow

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From left: Canadian Elite Basketball League Commissioner Mike Morreale, Memorial University President Vianne Timmons and Deacon Sports and Entertainment Owner Dean McDonald announced the arrival of the Newfoundland Growlers Basketball Club on Friday. It's the 10th franchise in the rapidly expanding CEBL. © Terry Roberts/CBC From left: Canadian Elite Basketball League Commissioner Mike Morreale, Memorial University President Vianne Timmons and Deacon Sports and Entertainment Owner Dean McDonald announced the arrival of the Newfoundland Growlers Basketball Club on Friday. It's the 10th franchise in the rapidly expanding CEBL.

"No fear of failure."

That's the biggest lesson Canadian Elite Basketball League commissioner Mike Morreale said he's learned since the league was founded in 2017.

For the 2022 season, the CEBL plans to add three expansion teams — the Montreal Alliance, the Scarborough Shooting Stars and the Newfoundland Growlers — bringing its total to 10 and making it the largest professional league in Canada.

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On Tuesday, it was announced Calgary would play host to a competitive window in the Basketball Champions League of America, the first Canadian city to do so in the CEBL's debut campaign in the FIBA Americas tournament.

In other words: the league's footprint is growing both nationally and internationally. And as calls for women's professional domestic leagues — not only in basketball, but hockey and soccer too — become more frequent, it's appearing clearer that the CEBL can serve as a blueprint.

"You've got to understand the people that pointed at me five, six years ago and said, 'Not a chance, it's going to fail. Everything else has failed. It's never going to work in this country. We've seen it happen over and over.' For me, that's like fuel. That's my energy," Morreale said.

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The CEBL was founded by former National Basketball League of Canada stakeholder and lead investor Richard Petko alongside Morreale, and is owned equally amongst the 10 teams. Players are paid on a per-game basis, with the average salary around $700 per contest and the option to be compensated instead in Bitcoin.

While eight teams are owned by the league, both the Growlers (owned by the same group as the ECHL club with the same name) and Shooting Stars (owned in part by Niko Carino, a founding member of Drake's OVO brand) will be run independently.

"I probably had 50 ownership discussions in the last three years. We're very selective in who we want to bring to the CEBL because we operate a certain way," Morreale said.

Each team played 14 games in 2021, all of which were broadcast on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem, though the schedule is likely to grow due to expansion for the upcoming season.

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Vijay Setlur, a marketing instructor at York University's business school as well as the CONCACAF soccer development department, said potential women's upstarts could use the CEBL as an example.

"Anybody who wants to establish a women's league would point to the CEBL as a model for how to start and sustain a national professional sports league in Canada, despite the obstacles. So they can look at that as a blueprint. However, will they experience the same kind of growth and success of the CEBL?"

Setlur said one reason for the CEBL's rise is self-awareness.

"They know what they are. They're a league that provides great entertainment for families and for young people at a modest price point," Setlur said.

"And they focus more so on providing an all-encompassing entertainment experience rather than trying to position themselves in the marketplace as top-level basketball because people know the NBA is that."

Weighing rapid expansion

Still, growing the league by 143 per cent in one off-season is a definite risk. Montreal was supposed to enter a year earlier, but the pandemic scuttled those plans.

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Morreale said he's not concerned about the talent pool shrinking, nor is he worried about travel costs incurred by a league now represented by both B.C. and the Maritimes.

He expects scheduling to be done in a manner that limits travel and for the league to eventually move to a divisional model when even more teams (listing Winnipeg, Calgary, the Vancouver area and Quebec City as possibilities) are added.

His main priority in growth is to ensure the localized gameday experience isn't lost.

"You can't lose sight of what got you here, and what got us here was our attention to detail," Morreale said.

For potential women's leagues to succeed, Setlur said that type of mentality would be key.

"It's good to have ambitions. It's good to have a long-term plan. But really, when you're a new league that's emerging in the landscape, it's important to understand what you are and what you're not," Setlur said.

Calls for women's leagues

Morreale has said the CEBL could help launch a women's league. Rap star Drake recently called for the WNBA to expand into his hometown of Toronto.

Denise Dignard, general manager of the fourth-ranked Canadian women's national basketball team, said she hopes one can arrive soon.

"Where there's a will, there's a way. But you've got to believe in investing in women's sport. And you look at women's hockey, women's soccer, ourselves, we're all kind of pining for that and is this the time now where we say, 'put your money in it to invest in the women's side?'

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"So [we're] praying to the sporting gods that we'll have a bit more momentum and Sisyphus will keep pushing that rock up."

Former Canadian national soccer team member Rhian Wilkinson, recently appointed head coach of the NWSL's Portland Thorns, has also said a domestic league is in order.

"I recognize I could not work in Canada if I wanted to, and same for our players. It needs to be said. It's been talked about for too long. Action is needed in our home country."

It would first take investment — on a model that hasn't specifically proven successful, despite the CEBL's progress.

Former Canadian national soccer team member Rhian Wilkinson, pictured in May as assistant coach of Great Britain, was recently appointed head coach of the NWSL's Portland Thorns. © Naomi Baker/Getty Images Former Canadian national soccer team member Rhian Wilkinson, pictured in May as assistant coach of Great Britain, was recently appointed head coach of the NWSL's Portland Thorns.

Financial viability in question

Setlur said any start-up would have to be extremely cognizant of costs.

"The consumer base wouldn't be enough to sustain the league, especially those with small attendances. But then small attendances are not going to attract sponsors. They're not going to attract any kind of a rights fee from broadcasters. So next thing you know, you've got three revenue streams out of the four big ones that are lacking."

Setlur said the fourth revenue stream, licensing and merchandising, is the smallest.

It's also not yet clear how large the consumer base would be, considering viewership for the WNBA's opening weekend in May 2021 increased 325 per cent over the previous year.

Is it an untapped market waiting to be exploited, or is there a reason the market remains untapped?

"It's a noble cause in the spirit of diversity, equity and inclusion. But does it have the ingredients in place for it to succeed financially? I don't know about that, but I would say right now, probably not," Setlur said.

The CEBL has proven it can operate successfully — through a pandemic, no less — while growing its business. It remains to be seen if profits are possible, but Morreale said there are positive signs.

"When I see the numbers on our viewership and our social media and our website and all that stuff, I know that we're trending in an incredibly good direction and growing by double digits, sometimes triple digits, year over year," he said.

Of course, money still talks.

"At the end of the day, we need revenue to continue to operate effectively, and that's going to come and we can feel it coming."

The bet is that short-term financial losses lead to long-term sustainability. In that sense, the CEBL hasn't been afraid to fail.

It's a guideline and lesson for women's leagues and potential investors to follow.

Montreal's CEBL team names two-time NBA champ Joel Anthony as first GM .
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