Nova Scotia

Money problems force Cape Breton Highlanders to 'opt out' of basketball league

The Cape Breton Highlanders won't play the next season in the National Basketball League of Canada, but the owners still hope the team will rebound in future seasons.

Highlanders made playoffs last season, but falling attendance stuffs plans for return

Tyrone Levingston said he tried to draw more fans to games, but attendance declined. ( George Mortimer/CBC)

The Cape Breton Highlanders won't play the next season in the National Basketball League of Canada, though the owner still hopes the team will rebound in future seasons.

Just before midnight Thursday, team president Tyrone Levingston sent out a news release saying the team hasn't secured enough capital to return to the court so they'll "opt out" of next season.

"The Highlanders ownership group plans to spend the next several months refining the marketing [and] business plans for the team and meeting with prospective investors to determine if there is a viable option to re-start operations for the following season," the late-night email said.

The team made the playoffs last season, but were eliminated by the Halifax Hurricanes.

During its first season three years ago, the Highlanders attracted an average of 1,475 fans per game. But the number dropped to 1,238 in 2018-19.

Raptors bump didn't materialize

Speaking on CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton Friday, he held out hope investors would come on board to revive the team.

"We've always prided ourselves on giving our community and our fans an entertainment they can be proud of and enjoy. It's becoming very difficult for us to put that show on," he said.

He said they were operating on about $225,000 a year, which he said was half of what most teams in the league spend. 

The Cape Breton Highlanders made the playoffs last year, but won't return to the league. (Vaughan Merchant/Cape Breton Highlanders)

He said the first season drew decent crowds, which he credited to the novelty of the team and the media coverage. He had hoped the rise of the Toronto Raptors would drive up attendance, but that didn't happen.

Levingston previously said the team has 10 investors, including Levingston, Membertou First Nation and a number of Cape Breton business people.

That leaves the league with nine teams based in Atlantic Canada and Ontario. 

Fans will miss team

David Farmer was a super fan who went to every game. "It's incredibly disappointing. The team has been a mainstay in the community for the last number of years, and the product that's on the floor is phenomenal," he told CBC News.

He said the players, especially the ex-NBA players, created exciting and excellent games.

Chris MacPhee, executive director of Basketball Cape Breton, said the Highlanders regularly inspired the hundreds of kids playing the sport.

"They were great to us. They let us carry around the flags at the games ... they gave us ticket deals to get the kids in there," he said. "The kids were huge fans."

Eldon MacDonald says downtown businesses will notice a drop in business because of the team's absence. (George Mortimer/CBC)

Eldon MacDonald, councillor for downtown Sydney, said his season tickets took him to many thrilling games.

"Buzzer games, three-point shots, coming down to the last shot [with] everybody on their feet cheering," he said. 

MacDonald said downtown restaurants, bars and hotels will notice the reduction in business without the games drawing crowds.