Hoop Dreams: Six-team Canadian Elite Basketball League set to tip off

With the new Canadian Elite Basketball League about to tip off, chief executive officer Mike Morreale is brimming with the same energy he used to have before playing a big CFL game.

“I certainly have some nerves because it’s the athlete in me I think,” said Morreale, a two-time Grey Cup champion. “I just want them to start playing some basketball and see it happen live. It’s been three years of my life and now it’s just time to get it started.”

Play in the six-team league kicks off Thursday at the SaskTel Centre as the Saskatchewan Rattlers entertain the Niagara River Lions. Later in the evening, the Guelph Nighthawks will visit the Fraser Valley Bandits.

The Edmonton Stingers and Hamilton Honey Badgers are also on board for the inaugural regular season, which continues through mid-August.

The CEBL, which will adhere to FIBA rules and regulations, is collaborating with the national basketball federation to serve as a Division 1 league. Each club has a 10-player roster with a Canadian-player quota similar to the CFL.

“It’s to showcase these terrific pro athletes that we have that are Canadian,” Morreale said. “It’s to grow and develop the next wave of professional basketball players that are Canadian. It’s to help build the U Sports foundation of basketball through are U Sports relationship. And it’s to welcome international players from all over the world to Canada to play in a true domestic league that is partnered with Canada Basketball.”

Lineups were stocked after a 13-round entry draft last March. Of the minimum seven Canadian players on each roster, one must be a U Sports developmental player.

Lower-tier domestic pro sport leagues have had mixed results in Canada. The CEBL will have a two-week overlap with the National Basketball League of Canada, which wraps up its post-season this month.

“For me, it’s about providing that really high-level game-day experience for the fans week in and week out,” Morreale said from Saskatoon. “So if we do what we have planned to do and we execute like we’re planning to execute, I don’t think that there will be an issue whatsoever.”

The league will use single-entity ownership — Canadian Basketball Ventures — to operate teams and handle ticketing platforms, national sponsorships, marketing and live-stream broadcasts.

By playing in the spring and summer, the league hopes to take advantage of the downtime on the international basketball scene to attract talent. It’s also easier to book venues with fewer conflicts than the fall-winter period.

“It allows us a little bit more flexibility and it allows us the time to really hone in on the best players we can possibly get,” Morreale said.

Morreale made the transition to basketball a few years ago after a chance meeting through a different business led to an introduction with Richard Petko, who owned the Niagara River Lions of the NBL.

They established a friendship and their conversations about the sport eventually turned into a business plan, Morreale said.

The Niagara franchise announced last year that it would leave the NBL and join the CEBL. Petko became the upstart league’s owner and founder.

Morreale, 47, played 12 CFL seasons before retiring in 2007. He later served as marketing director for the CFL Players’ Association and had a two-year term as president, experience he feels will serve him well.

“I was always privy to the other side,” Morreale said. “So whether it was team-related finances, or rules, or the CFL and how they operated on all different levels, and how all of the pieces fit together.

“As the president I was able to see financial documents and get a pretty good solid understanding of how that particular sport operated from a business perspective. That’s what I kind of leaned on in this role.”

Each CEBL team will play a 20-game regular-season schedule. A single-elimination playoff format will be used ahead of the Aug. 25 final.

Morreale hopes the league will expand to 12 teams within the next two to four years. Tickets start at about $16 and range as high as $85 for courtside seats.

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