CEBL hoping Championship Weekend will be launchpad to greater things

CEBL commissioner Mike Morreale (CEBL)

In November of 1996, Mike Morreale was concluding his second year in the CFL preparing for the 84th Grey Cup between his Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos.

The Argonauts ended up winning that Grey Cup, 43-37, but perhaps even more impactful than the victory was the atmosphere Morreale saw in his hometown of Hamilton during that 1996 Grey Cup week.

Morreale was 25 when he took part in his first Grey Cup week, and now, as the 48-year-old CEO and commissioner of the fledgling Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL), he’s looking to bring a similar vibe to Saskatoon this weekend.

“I’ve been part of Grey Cups as an athlete and I know what those events do beyond just the game itself,” Morreale told Sportsnet over the phone earlier this week. “It’s important to use that to get people together and grab their attention.”

Taking place this Saturday and Sunday, the CEBL will hold its Championship Weekend in Saskatoon where the host Saskatchewan Rattlers will take on the Edmonton Stingers in one semi-final, while the league-best Niagara River Lions will face off against the Hamilton Honey Badgers in the other.

The Saskatachewan Rattlers get ready before tipping off (CEBL)

For those unaware, the CEBL is a new Canadian professional basketball league that began operation this year. In addition to the four teams participating in the championship weekend, the league also features two more teams in the Guelph Nighthawks and Fraser Valley Bandits.

The CEBL is unique in the fact that it’s a summer league that will give players – particularly Canadians who play overseas – a chance to still play professionally during an off-season period where a lot of guys might be in between contracts, without interfering with the fall/winter time when most professional basketball resumes around the world.

This was a very deliberate choice by Morreale and the rest of the CEBL as a means of ensuring this league becomes a sustainably viable business endeavour.

“It also allows us to find more open dates in our venues that we play at because the spring and summer is usually a downtime for them,” said Morreale. “So there’s more availability, there’s less direct competition for basketball – although the Raptors went on their extended run but that’s OK because that will pay off in the long run – and it gives us a chance to do stuff like we’re doing this week and that is to throw a festival and a huge experience in the summer outside.

“All major festivals and sports-related events tend to be in the winter. So this is just another little wrinkle that tends to come by virtue of when we play. And I think, lastly, we’re not competing with the CHL teams or the AHL teams or other teams in the market that are playing at the same time and competing with the same ticket buyer, competing for the same sponsor, converting ice to a court and back again 10 times throughout the year.”

Trying to be more than just a flash in the pan is an important priority for Morreale and he feels this Championship Weekend is an important step in in the CEBL’s march towards long-term viability.

“The thought of having these five- or seven-game series to end the year for any of our teams who make the playoffs and not know, exactly, who that’s going to be and having to sell [a] huge amount of tickets in a week for semi-final games and final games, it just doesn’t make sense,” said Morreale. “It takes a lot of effort, it’s a lot of expense to pull together stuff last minute and ask ticket buyers to go out and buy for multiple events for weeks at a time.

“To me, it wasn’t a risk that was worth being taken, and in this case the chance to do what we’re doing here and to become a destination and all the eyeballs across the country had way more upside and legs for the long run.”

This is a point well made, because one of the biggest hurdles facing the CEBL is travel.

In case it wasn’t clear in that list of teams, this is a league that extends from Ontario all the way out west to British Columbia, presenting inherent logistical and financial challenges for the league. Flights aren’t exactly cheap and that’s a lot of extra mileage on players, most of whom had already played 30-plus-game seasons before joining the CEBL.

With that said, it seems like the league did do a good enough job this season to balance the schedule as much as they could for each club.

“Usually when we play on the West Coast they’ve done a good job of grouping those West Coast games together so that we’re not going to Fraser Valley and then going to play Guelph,” said River Lions point guard Trae Bell-Haynes. “We’ll go and play Fraser Valley and Edmonton on the same trip or something like that. So they’ve done a good job of organizing it in that sense.”

Added Bandits guard Joel Friesen, who was also the first-ever draft pick in CEBL history: “As far as the Fraser Valley Bandits franchise goes, we kind of have one of the tougher travel schedules in the league – I would argue that we have the toughest travel schedule in the league.

“I mean, the travel does take its toll on you but at the same time is part of being a pro and you’ve just gotta bring your A-game every time and take care of your body and just be prepared for anything.”

Morreale knows the system currently in place isn’t ideal, but there’s not much you can do with a six-team league. In the future, the CEBL would like to expand – and there’s already been talks of a seventh franchise joining the league from a province other than B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan or Ontario, Morreale told Sportsnet – but there’s very little that can be done right now.

And, in general, there’s very little the CEBL can do on any front with ambitions that extend much beyond what we see now unless it accomplishes some of its shorter term goals first.

“Every sports league, no matter who you are, has the same concerns,” said Morreale. “Revenue is huge and that’s sponsorships, that’s some sort of broadcast and that’s ticket sales. So we have to get better because that’s part of the mandate is to make us a sustainable league for a long time.”

This weekend will be a big test of all this and the CEBL will be banking on creating more of a party – with live DJ performances and CEBL-related community activities throughout Saskatoon – to aid in these efforts and make this Championship Weekend much more than just three basketball games going down at the SaskTel Centre.

And not just for the league itself — this Championship Weekend has, perhaps, even greater implications for the future of basketball in the country.

Canada Basketball has formed an official league partnership with the CEBL with the hopes that the league will help accomplish, according to Canada Basketball CEO Glen Grunwald, “[Canada Basketball’s] mission of developing Canadian basketball [that] will greatly benefit players, coaches, officials, and fans of our sport as we continue to work to grow the game domestically.”

This is important to note because, with the Canada Basketball-backing, there’s a little more at stake with the CEBL than other domestic pro and semi-pro basketball leagues that have popped up over the years within the country – such as the NBL Canada.

It’s important that the CEBL be a destination for Canadian players to continue to help grow their games and the game in the country, overall.

“It’s my first time playing in Canada in a few years – since high school – so it’s just been a really nice opportunity to finally meet other Canadian players who I haven’t been able to meet before,” said Bell-Haynes. “But in terms of the league itself, they treat the players really well, give us everything we need and the River Lions are a great organization, giving us a lot of gym time, giving us the opportunity to get better and for me as a young player that was definitely one of my priorities coming into the summer.

“Not just playing but having an opportunity to grow and learn as a player and I think the River Lions and the CEBL as a whole gives me an opportunity to do that.”

It’s been so far, so good for Morreale and the CEBL with the league’s biggest – and most exciting – trial yet to come over these next two days.

Whatever might happen, though, Morreale seems prepared for it.

“I always anticipated that just by default I would get in on the business side of football because it just made sense,” said Morreale, who also once served as the CFLPA president. “I knew it and I understood it and having spent time as a player and as an executive of the Players’ Association it seemed like a natural fit, but I soon realized that I was more enamoured in being involved in something that I can mold and create, and when the basketball opportunity came up, it just happened to be basketball.

“I’m glad it was because I really do believe that basketball is the future of sport in this country, alongside soccer, and it afforded me an opportunity to create something that’s never been done before in the way that we’ve done it.”

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