As the inaugural Canadian Elite Basketball League season wraps in Saskatoon Sunday and a champion is crowned, commissioner Mike Morreale already has lofty expansion plans for the future.
The championship weekend starts with two semifinal games on Saturday. The host Saskatchewan Rattlers play host to the second-seeded Edmonton Stingers. The second game features the fourth-ranked Hamilton Honey Badgers playing the league-leading Niagara River Lions. All games will be played at the Sasktel Centre in Saskatoon.
The winners of the semifinals play in the CEBL championship game on Sunday. Fans can watch all three contests live streamed on CBC Sports.
Morreale sat down with CBC Sports to reflect on the opening season and look ahead at what’s to come for the CEBL.
CBC Sports: Championship weekend is here, so how are you feeling as you look back on your inaugural year?
Mike Morreale: Awesome. Tired. Excited. It’s hard to believe we’re at this point right now. At some point that feeling that overwhelms you will set in. I’m just so proud of what we’ve been able to do. This is all hands on deck. It takes a lot of guts. It takes a lot of crazy. And here we are.
CBC: Would you call this first season a success?
MM: I look at this as an investment into the future of Canadian basketball. We all know what happened with Raptors and the celebrations. That was tremendous and will have a lasting effect. Many of our players in this league grew up during the Vince Carter era. That’s what got them playing basketball. They are now living out their dreams finally at home at a time of year when they’d be hanging out or training during the summer. To see them getting excited and perform in front of the hometown fans is so encouraging. I would definitely call this first season a success.”
CBC: Is there a moment that happened during the season where this all made sense to you?
MM: I know exactly the moment. It was game two, we had just left Saskatoon to go to Edmonton. It was the first game ever in Edmonton. If anything could go wrong, it did. I’m out on the court during timeouts with a suit on throwing balls into the stands and getting the crowd fired up. We had our challenges. The place was packed. It came down to a last-second shot to put it into overtime. That thrill and the noise and excitement, I turned to our VP and said this is lightning in a bottle. Even though the remainder of the year had its trials and tribulations, there have been so many moments like this. It’s emotional. I get goosebumps thinking about it. I knew we had something in that moment. There’s a ton of work to do and we’re already planning for 2020 and we just have to get better.
CBC: There are going to be people out there probably expecting a league like this to fail. Why is the CEBL not going to fail?
MM: It’s not going to fail because we’ve done this the right way, every step of the way. We’ve spent the time and we’ve done our research. We did what I think are all the right things. But you’re right, the question I get more now is, ‘Are you back for 2020?’ And I’m like, absolutely. We have an owner in Richard Petko who’s put his money into something that he believes in. It wasn’t that he wanted to make money. That’s not going to come immediately. It’s about more to him than that. It’s about a legacy of basketball in this country. When he said that and took away all of the things about money I knew this would work. It was about doing this the right way from staff to players.
CBC: What can we expect for expansion?
MM: We are close. I hope to have definitive answers in the next three or four weeks regarding another team. The good thing is it’s not a one and done on whether it’s 2020. One team for 2020 is what we’re banking on now, but I have a list of 13 potential teams across the country. A lot of new markets – Winnipeg, Vancouver, Red Deer, Calgary, Quebec, Ottawa, Maritimes. The plan was always to grow this and then have local ownership.
CBC: What was the idea behind championship weekend?
MM: Like everything [we] did with this league, we looked at what works and tried to replicate it. So we took the Final Four model, and they certainly do a great job, and took the Grey Cup Festival type model and went from there. We also looked at the barriers that we would have had. So if you played the final game of the season and didn’t know if you were making the playoffs travel became an issue, venues, selling tickets, the expenses, the time. We eliminated that. And we wanted to create a brand. We had the summer to our advantage. We’re happy with where we’ve landed.
CBC: What have you been hearing from the players?
MM: The feedback during training camp told me we were doing this right. Players were telling me how professional this was. It started there. It was the little things: the uniforms, the socks, the meals, the travel. You don’t have to do a lot to leave an impression. Some of these guys come from places where that doesn’t happen. Maybe the bar was low, but I think we made them feel this was a pro as this gets. And they get paid on time. It’s been nice to have people thank me. When someone thanks you for something it means you’ve done it right. And that makes me proud.
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