Canadian Elite Basketball League striving to be more than a 'shoestring business'

Frustrated with the National Basketball League of Canada's inability to become more than "a shoestring business," Niagara River Lions owner Richard Petko is aiming to create something better with the help of former CFL receiver Mike Morreale.

New pro venture set to tip off in May 2019

The Canadian Elite Basketball League has confirmed that six teams will play a 20-game season, spread over approximately four months, beginning in May 2019. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Richard Petko is taking his ball and going his own way.

Frustrated with the National Basketball League of Canada's inability to become more than what he calls "a shoestring business," the owner of the Niagara River Lions asked the league last May to consider hiring Mike Morreale as its commissioner.

In Petko's view, the former CFL receiver had strong ideas on how to market the league more effectively and generate more sponsorship revenue.

"Mike had a plan and a vision on how to fix the NBLC and how to make it better," Petko says.

Morreale didn't get the job, and a year later he and Petko are pushing forward with something they've talked about for years — starting a new league.

With Morreale as his CEO, Petko has founded the new Canadian Elite Basketball League. It's likely he will take the St. Catharines, Ont.-based River Lions with him now that his three-year commitment to the NBLC is complete.

"Since they hired nobody, and the board didn't even come up with a vision or a plan, that is what led to my displeasure with the way the NBLC and my partners run their business model," Petko says. "That's where the fruits and the seeds of [starting our own league] sprang from."

'A party wrapped around a basketball game'

Petko and Morreale have confirmed the CEBL will feature six teams playing a 20-game season, spread over approximately four months, beginning in May 2019. There will be teams in Edmonton, Saskatoon, Fraser Valley, B.C., and two more Ontario-based teams (in Hamilton and Guelph) expected to join Niagara.

Former Hamilton Tiger-Cats slotback Mike Morreale is now the chief executive officer of the Canadian Elite Basketball League and hopes the new venture will be able to compete with other entertainment options. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The River Lions' move from the NBLC to the CEBL hasn't been confirmed by either league, but an announcement could be made soon.

Petko, the CEBL's lead investor, would not divulge the specific amount he has put into the league so far, other than to say it's in the millions and that he thinks each franchise has a value in the range of $1.5 million.

For at least the first season, all franchises will be owned and fully funded by the league's corporate structure, although each team will operate individually under the guidance of a head coach and general manager. Beyond 2019, the CEBL is structured in such a way that each franchise could be sold off as an individual entity or as part of a full-league package to a major investor.

Morreale understands that teams will be competing against other entertainment options in their markets and says fans can expect more than a sporting event at CEBL games.

"It's going to be a party wrapped around a basketball game," Morreale says. "Because of our spring-summer start, we are going to try to take advantage of outdoor space prior to the game and try to implement things like tailgating and pre-game parties. When you get inside, there will be DJs, cheerleaders, dance teams, giveaways, loud music, a lot of excitement, halftime shows and post-game autograph sessions.

"We really want to make it something where we create a ton of value for the fans."

Canadian content

As for players, the CEBL wants to attract talented Canadians who play in other fall/winter leagues around the world when they return home to spend the spring and summer months in Canada.

Petko says a good example would be Brady Heslip of Oakville, Ont., who appeared in four pre-season games for the Toronto Raptors in the fall of 2016 and was on the roster for the Chicago Bulls' summer league team last year before signing with a Turkish club for the 2017-18 season.

While the CEBL won't likely be able to match the salary Heslip can command overseas, Petko believes there are other selling points he can offer a player of that caliber, who might typically spend the off-season training and playing for free in pickup games. 

"If player A is earning $30,000 per month in Europe, we may be willing to pay that player $10,000 per month to do the four-month season here in Canada and see if they are willing to take that opportunity to play at home, to play in the summer," says Petko.

Tough sell?

Will the new league work? It's hard to know at this point, with tip-off still a year away, 

London Free Press journalist Morris Dalla Costa, who has covered the NBLC since its inception in 2011, notes that league has struggled to get past survival mode. While he thinks the CEBL has made an effort to hire a strong executive team, Dalla Costa cautions that summer basketball can be a tough sell.

"I don't believe that a league that operates in that season is going to survive," he says.

For his part, Petko believes he has the ingredients to make his new league better than the NBLC. And he insists it's not about revenge.

"We've seen a lot of things that can be done better and that's what we're going to do," he says. "Some of the owners in the NBLC might look back and say, 'gosh, maybe we should have thought about some of the ideas that Richard brought to the boardroom table.'

"I do hope that happens because it would mean we have been successful." 


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