Many start-up sports operations have finished Year 1 wondering if there will a Year 2. For the National Basketball League of Canada, whose first season wrapped last weekend with the London Lightning winning an exciting final over the Halifax Rainmen that went the distance, the big question is how to grow in a smart, sustained way.
It is pretty easy to tick off all that pratfalls the NBL of Canada had to dribble through during its first season. It tipped off with seven teams scattered across five provinces in a country which has too much geography and not enough history. were also questions about how the league's predominantly American players would adapt to life in Canadian communities as small as Summerside and how the communities would embrace the players. The fly-by-night nature of some minor pro hoops operations south of the border probably played into some cities' reluctance to let basketball into their arenas. There were also some nationalistic concerns about only requiring each team to carry two Canadians on a 12-man roster.
Yet the league, it must be said, prevailed. The scene on Sunday in London, with 5,106 people in the stands, would never be confused with the NBA. But that's not where the bar is set. The bar is pretty simple. Did the league get some traction? It seems it did. Perhaps it's apples-to-pomegranates, but the crowd for the deciding game of the championship series was larger than that for the Canadian Interuniversity Sport men's final two weeks earlier. That's no mean, considering the CIS final was held in Halifax for the 25th time in 28 seasons.
From Morris Dalla Costa:
The salesmanship and the success on the floor worked. The Lightning became a daily part of the sports conversation in the community. It has whetted the appetite of the sports fan, with many already looking forward to a second year.
If there was one word most fans used after the final game it was "class." The players went into the stands to thank as many fans as they could.
As the season progressed, crowds increased, culminating in the 5,000-plus for the final game that turned the JLC into a cauldron of noise and celebration.
"Electric," Lightning forward Eddie Smith said. "Electric atmosphere . . . It was the best atmosphere of any of the championships I've played in." (London Free Press)
Under former NBA point guard Micheal Ray Richardson, who's found a second life in the sport, the Lightning have become the model for the league's Ontario franchises. They did have one built-in advantage. London's John Labatt Centre was already equipped for basketball (the Toronto Raptors have played preseason games there), so getting green-lit didn't require convincing municipal politicians to spend six figures on a hoops floor. Not every team was as wildly successful, but that is usually the case with independent minor leagues in any sport. As the oracular Alex J. Walling pointed out, just having every game on the schedule be completed by teams with a full roster is a minor miracle:
The story is this newly formed league of seven franchises that made it through the season without a stumble.
Oh, I am sure there were some, but this fledging league kept whatever concerns to themselves. No teams folded. No games cancelled. No showing up on the court with six or seven players. Don't laugh; this was the norm in the other minor pro leagues that Halifax, Quebec and Saint John went through. (TSN..ca)
In the above-linked CTV London feature, NBL of Canada president and CEO Andre Levingston mentions possibly expanding from seven to 10 teams for the second season. It is certainly doable if each new ownership group is stable and fairly liquid. It does seem the key will be to go slowly and steadily, lest it affect the league's fledgling stability.
From Chris Cochrane:
The $150,000 team salary cap should be retained. Increasing the cap to attract better players could help, but only if all teams could afford it.
The league should definitely keep the two-player Canadian-content rule. It was a winner in every market, and most teams were able to showcase at least one local university graduate. The Halifax Rainmen's ties to the community were strengthened with [former Saint Mary's Huskies star] Joey Haywood and [St. Francis Xavier graduate] Christian Upshaw on the roster.
The NBL has to be smart about expansion. There are still Maritime markets such as Sydney that have either a good pro hoops history or the potential to host a viable franchise. There are also new opportunities in Quebec and Ontario. The league should take a serious look at any ownership groups in these areas that can meet entry standards. (Halifax Chronicle-Herald)
The mention of Haywood provides a good segue. The Vancouver native not only showed CIS grads could hold their own but is also a team captain for the all-star game this weekend in Halifax. In fact, 30 per cent of the participants in all-star weekend are Canadians in a league which only requires them to hold 16.7% of all roster spots. The all-stars include two CIS alumni, former Windsor Lancers swingman Isaac Kuon (Saint John) and ex-York Lion Tut Ruach, a blur of a ballhandler for the Oshawa Power (with York, Ruach once had the Carleton Ravens on the business end of 39-point deficit halfitime deficit).
Ideally, there will be more where that came from. For the league to be a place where more Canadians play, it has to prove it's here to stay. The NBL of Canada seems to be off to a promising start.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.