It takes a lot of resources to win a World Cup medal, and one of the driving forces behind the emergence of Canada as one of the leading basketball nations in the world has been Michael Bartlett, who became president and chief executive officer of Canada Basketball in 2021 and has worked to help the already competitive men’s and women’s programs find their way to the podium at the international level.
Bartlett joined Canada Basketball after a decade with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, taking over from Glen Grunwald. Under his watch at Canada Basketball, the women’s team qualified for its third straight Olympics in 2021 and finished fourth at the World Cup in 2022. The men’s team had its best-ever finish at the World Cup earlier this month, winning the bronze medal with a dramatic overtime victory over the USA. The men also qualified for the 2024 Olympics — the first time the program will play at the Olympics since 2000.
Bartlett’s mantra is that basketball can be the source of “Where were you?” moments for Canadians and believes the men’s recent success at the FIBA Basketball World Cup — played in Japan, Indonesia and finishing in the Philippines — is just the start.
Note: This conversation from earlier this week has been edited for clarity and length.
Sportsnet: How does someone get home from Manila after witnessing history?
Michael Bartlett: I was on an 8:10 a.m. flight the morning after the game (Sunday night in Manila), so I was at the airport by 5 a.m. or so, flew to Tokyo, had a few hours of layover there, and then flew Tokyo straight to Toronto. So, I ended up back home in Stratford at eight o’clock last night. I tried not to sleep on the plane too much so that I could sleep last night and I managed to, so I’m hoping I beat the jetlag.
SN: Did the team not have a charter back?
MB: No, because everybody was heading off in different directions. Chartering there made sense, but on the way back, everybody had different destinations. Some guys were going straight to their Euro locations. For example, Phil Scrubb went straight to Turkey because his wife is due in, like, two weeks, and was in Turkey waiting for him. Some of the NBA guys went straight to their NBA cities. … I will say I think a few guys went home a bit earlier, but I think a few people went straight from the (team) party to the airport.
SN: Have you had a chance to reflect on what went right, from an organizational point of view, that contributed to this result? What are you pleased about, bronze medal aside? It’s been a pretty intense couple of years.
MB: Yeah, I’m pleased about a lot. The culture shift we’ve had was really unlocked by permission we got from the board to be ambitious and to expect winning, but then the board and the organization weren’t afraid to invest in what winning needs to look like. So, ultimately, you know, an entrepreneurial definition of this is we’ve been in investment mode. And that’s actually how our board refers to it. And it happens in pro sports all the time. Sometimes the owner is willing to invest more than they have (in revenues) in the moment to unlock winning, which will then unlock more (financial) sustainability in the future.
And, for the longest time, Canada Basketball has probably been handcuffed a little bit too much by its financial state, but with some direction from the board and support from some very passionate individuals, we were able to unlock investments into very strategic competitive advantages.
SN: Such as?
MB: We can rhyme them off really easily: coaching and the way that we resource against our coaching tree. We’ve done it on the women’s side with Victor (Lapena) as a full-time coach and on the men’s side, whether it be (former senior men’s head coach Nick Nurse] or (current head coach Jordi Fernandez), the suite of bench coaches and support staff that carry different expertise within the game — big-men coaches, video analysis, NBA expertise, you name it. We’re not shorting ourselves on coaching. We’re not shorting ourselves on training camp and preparatory environments, so we’re investing in flying to Germany and then Spain to play top quality competition in advance of tipping off against France.
Like, if we didn’t have that top-quality competition going into that France game (Canada opened the tournament with a crucial blowout win), I don’t know if we get that outcome, because we didn’t have any time to get used to the tournament. We were jumping right into it against the (fifth-ranked) team in the world.
And a third (area of investment) is around the experiences for the athletes: Making sure that there’s a way for friends and family to be involved. That their training conditions and their travel conditions — for both the men’s and women’s teams — are at the “pro” level. That’s just the reality of it.
And I don’t mean that the athlete expects it of us. But in order for them to perform their best, that’s what they need. And because that’s just the reality of sport nowadays, and when they’re in their pro environments that’s how they’re treated, and they perform at their best. So, we were able to strategically invest, probably shift spending around the organization so that we were all in in some areas, pulling back on some others in order to balance it out.
And, ultimately, this World Cup tournament, and I will say for the women as well, last fall their World Cup tournament where they finished fourth, the results are a testament that the competitive advantages and those related investments are paying off.
SN: How have the player amenities changed? I’m old enough to remember training camps were at Humber College (in suburban Toronto) and guys were staying two-to-room in the dorms, now they’re staying at Hotel X.
MB: Yeah, so now we have single rooms at a nice hotel with a great meal plan and nutrition, workout facilities and all that. But also even strategically making sure that we were in Toronto through Caribana weekend because the guys also got to have some fun too, and we know that they want to be a part of that. So, making sure that we didn’t schedule our preparatory games in Germany until it gave everybody a chance to enjoy Toronto and reconnect with some friends and family that maybe they hadn’t seen for a while.
And we have the support of the Raptors, so they make (the OVO Athletic Centre) available to us as a training hub, and those workout facilities, their meal plans, video rooms, and then the court facilities there are best in class. We’re not slagging where we used to train, by any means, but pros — men and women — deserve pro-level training facilities.
So, having that support and being able to deliver that experience is a big part of making sure that the team is ready before they jump on a plane and fly off to compete.
SN: Without going line-by-line through your budget, what are we talking about when we say “investment spend?“
MB: I look back to the last time (the men’s team) were in the World Cup, in 2019, I think the operating costs for the entire organization that year was about $10 (million) or $11 million. This year, the operating costs will be closer to $18 million. Now, thankfully, we’ve figured out how to grow revenues at the same pace — not much more than the same pace I’ll say, but at the same pace — so we’re able to kind of get very close to break-even. But it’s been a significant spending increase for our high-performance programs. Every new dollar that we’re putting into this organization is going in two areas: High-performance competitive advantages or to create event properties like we did with Globl Jam. It costs money, but those two things are key to our financial sustainability for sure because they will create winning and create assets.
SN: What does it mean to be able to go to the marketplace 10 months out with both your men and (potentially) women’s teams having qualified for the Olympics? Does that create new opportunities?
MB: Yes, 100 per cent the knowledge that we are going to Paris is worth a lot to us, just from a planning perspective, from a brand confidence perspective. You think back to Victoria in 2021 (where the men lost in an Olympic qualifying tournament). If we had punched our ticket, we would have been in the Olympics three weeks later. There’s an IOC rule that a brand partner of an NSO (national sports organization) can’t associate with that NSO during the Olympic window if it doesn’t have a marketing campaign in market at least 40 days before the torch lands. Well, if you’re in a last-chance qualifier, you miss that chance automatically.
So, now we’re able to talk to brand partners and listen, there’s a lot of brands that jumped on board early and saw where we were going, and it was a bit of a trust exercise and a lot of credit to Sun Life there, and then many others that have come on board last 18 months.
But now with a proof of concept and the confidence that we are going to Paris … we hope to really ignite and unify the country by performing at our best, and I think brand partners will benefit from that undoubtedly just in the lead up and during those two weeks also.
SN: Do you see corporate Canada getting involved? Can basketball become a grassroots marketing sector like, say, soccer or hockey have in the past?
MB: Yeah, I do. And there’s already a proof of concept in the Raptors. What was their latest valuation? Did I see $3 billion for a basketball team in Canada? So listen, brands and the commercial marketplace know that basketball is a valuable property and a valuable asset. But there is a trust that needs to be created between an NSO and the commercial community. And, quite frankly, trust within that relationship between commercial and NSOs has been shocked the past 24 months. I get that and there has been some hesitation from brand partners as they suss out, “Is this an NSO worth trusting? Is it trying to win at all costs, or does it represent the values of the country while also providing opportunities to win?”
Brands like winners and I do believe Canada Basketball is well on its way to achieving that level of trust with brands. But the one unequivocal thing that we want to stand for as well — and I think you’ve seen the growth in our commercial strength over the last 18 months — is probably based on the fact that we are operating with core values of EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion). Basketball represents the diverse mosaic of Canada, and that is something that we need to reflect in the way that we operate but also in the brand partnerships that we create and be stewards of that value for the country as well. So, I think we’ve grown significantly because of the way that we operate, and the way that we equitably invest across our programs, the way that we pay special attention to our EDI initiatives and the way that we are hiring in our balanced representation and those are all trust exercises with the brand community. Now we can overlay a winning reputation as well and I think we know what happens in Canada to winning organizations from a commercial standpoint, we see it time and time again. So, it will unlock more opportunity for us for sure.
SN: When you joined Canada Basketball, Rowan Barrett was already in place, running the men’s program. How is your relationship with him and what has impressed you over these years together?
MB: Rowan and I didn’t know each other before I started with the organization. And we have become fast friends and partners through the exercise. What I needed to know from him was, what do we need to win? What does winning look like from a resourcing standpoint? And let’s forget any limitations. Just tell me what winning looks like. And then together, we can figure out in what order can we unlock those priorities.
So, my goal for Rowan and Denise Dignard on the women’s side is, I don’t really ever want to say “No, we can’t do that.” And that’s because I respect the outcomes that (they) are trying to create. I share those ambitions as well. I want nothing more than to help Rowan and Denise create winning programs so that we can create “Where were you?” moments for Canada. That’s the reason I get out of bed.
And Rowan is laser-focused on winning outcomes. He knows what it feels like, knows what it smells like and has found a great voice inside the organization to articulate what it needs to look like in order to remove the excuses. And, ultimately, I give him a lot of credit as well because he doesn’t make excuses when the resources aren’t there. He’s taking those bullets. And, you know what, he’s signed up for a tough job. And general managers are going to have their feet held to the fire when the outcome isn’t what people expect, but he doesn’t shy away from those expectations. And now, in fact, that we’re evolving the way that we are, he isn’t hedging those expectations, ever. It’s always about bigger and next and bigger. He’s a great teammate.
SN: What was it like for you watching at the World Cup, knowing how much the organization had invested in making the Olympics and getting on a podium?
MB: I won’t lie: This accountability for the sporting outcome, it’s kind of new to me, right? Like I’ve always been, for the last 12 years, been involved in producing the event around the sport. I don’t think I’ve ever been more anxious than I was walking into the arena against France (for Canada’s World Cup opener), because no matter what we were going to know, whether we were fooling ourselves or not, by the outcome of that game. And I don’t think I’ve ever left an arena as happy as I was that night. And I’ve been a part of like, I’ve been in arenas as a fan and as a professional, where there was lots of reasons to be happy, and I don’t think I’d ever felt the joy as I did because I realized, “OK, we weren’t fooling ourselves.”
(And) when the buzzer goes off against Spain and we’ve qualified (for the Olympics), it all just came out of me. Like, just the emotion, everything. I’m not ashamed to say the tears, everything, just washed out.
Like, we’ve put pressure on ourselves (to win) and we’re not shying away from it. But at the end of the day, we don’t take the shot. We don’t control the outcome. You know, the players have to play and the greatest joy I had throughout the tournament was just seeing how much these guys got out of bed for each other. It was really cool, like, they were such a team … and then to wrap it all up with a win against the USA, you couldn’t have scripted it better — well, you could have scripted it to be the gold-medal final — but yeah, it was just a wonderful way to wrap.