Amid constant turnover, CEBL still fighting for its place in Canadian pro sports

Hamilton Honey Badgers guard Caleb Agada loses control of the ball after being fouled by Scarborough Shooting Stars forward Kameron Chatman during the 2022 CEBL Finals. The Honey Badgers have since relocated to Brampton, one of three cities to lose their teams since the end of the playoffs. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Hamilton Honey Badgers guard Caleb Agada loses control of the ball after being fouled by Scarborough Shooting Stars forward Kameron Chatman during the 2022 CEBL Finals. The Honey Badgers have since relocated to Brampton, one of three cities to lose their teams since the end of the playoffs. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

If the constant change in the Canadian Elite Basketball League isn't quite enough to cause whiplash, it's at least worth the raise of an eyebrow.

Only three teams remain in name from the league's rookie 2019 season to now, in between its fourth and fifth campaigns: Saskatchewan, Edmonton and Niagara.

Fraser Valley, another founding franchise, has rebranded to Vancouver. Ottawa entered in Year 2 and has stuck around. Scarborough and Montreal joined last season.

But in the last couple of months alone, Guelph relocated to Calgary and Hamilton to Brampton. Newfoundland folded, giving way to an expansion Winnipeg franchise.

Now the league consists of 10 teams — more than the CFL. Still, if we're measuring by relevance, then the CFL is ahead by (more than) a century. It remains to be seen whether the CEBL can ultimately earn a permanent share of Canadian sports fans' eyeballs.

John Lashway, who was part of the team that helped launch the Toronto Raptors in 1995, now serves as an executive vice president for the CEBL and as president of the Brampton Honey Badgers.

He said the CEBL intentionally started out in smaller markets with less competition. A quick glance at the league's current homes shows a shift in strategy to larger cities.

"This league has grown much faster, much bigger than we thought that it would," Lashway said.

Commissioner Mike Morreale, a former CFL player, laid that bare upon announcing the Guelph move to Calgary.

"Relocating a franchise from our smallest market to Canada's third-largest city will allow the team to remain financially competitive as our league continues to experience tremendous growth," he said.

WATCH | Honey Badgers win 2022 CEBL title:

Recent relocations

Hamilton's move to Brampton wasn't supposed to be part of the plan. The reigning champion Honey Badgers were one of the CEBL's greatest successes — Lashway said there was a 29 per cent attendance increase and double the sponsorship sales from its only other non-COVID season in 2019.

"We didn't want to make the move. As upset as the fans are, I could assure people we are more upset. We just can't talk about a lot of things publicly and [that] doesn't do any good anyway," Lashway said.

They'll now start from scratch in Brampton, where Lashway says the team is already struggling being four months behind on ticket sales. He curbed expectations for 2023, calling Brampton a "long-term play" — though not one without risk, considering the ECHL's lack of success there.

"We're super excited about Brampton," Lashway said. "I mean, anybody who knows anything about basketball knows that Brampton is as good a market as there is in this country."

There is also already a budding rivalry between Brampton and its GTA counterpart Scarborough after the Honey Badgers beat the Shooting Stars in the 2022 Finals.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Honey Badgers, with a roster assembled of various 2022 CEBLers, will begin play in the Basketball Champions League Americas on Friday when they meet host Libertadores de Queretaro of Mexico in Queretaro City. The competition will come to Brampton in February.

In Newfoundland, Lashway said the underwhelming arena conditions, which didn't include either a box office or concession stands, left the league with little choice. He said the fanbases in Guelph and Newfoundland weren't offended.

"St. John's was crickets. I don't think anybody was surprised. … The fan base in Guelph was disappointed, but [understanding]. … And I'm glad they're disappointed. It means the team meant something to them."

Big-picture success

In the big picture, given how hard it is to develop a pro sports league — a lesson multiple football startups in the U.S. have learned, and one that soccer icons Christine Sinclair and Diana Matheson will soon face in Canada with the announcement of a Canadian women's pro league in 2025 — the CEBL could already be viewed as a success.

"When you watch these new leagues, if they get past two years they've got a good chance of surviving," said Marvin Ryder, an associate professor who specializes in sports marketing at McMaster University in Hamilton.

"Those who fail tend to fail in their first two years, and keeping in mind COVID was in there, it really is quite an amazing feat they've been on the ground this long."

Like Lashway, Ryder — who taught Morreale at McMaster around 20 years ago — said he doesn't view the turnover as upheaval.

"You have to experiment, you've got to try some things, and you try these things knowing that not every experiment is going to be a success," Ryder said.

However, the constant experimentation could also cause the league to lose credibility. One couldn't blame a Niagara River Lions fan for looking around and wondering about the future of the St. Catharines, Ont., franchise.

"[The CEBL is] going to have to keep investing in awareness building and you can say, 'Well, I've been around for four years, you should know about me now,' — but you can't," Ryder said. "They're going to still need to work to get their story out, to get the teams known, to get a player or two that people really want to follow."

Increase in individual ownership

While Ryder said he'd aim for stability at 10 teams, Lashway said the league was "certainly going to continue to add," though not rapidly.

Five teams (Scarborough, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Niagara and Calgary) will be individually owned in 2023. The league operates the remaining half. Lashway said the league could sell more teams right now but is careful about the people it brings into the fold.

"We need to be really thoughtful and strategic as to how fast we grow. Will there be one or more new teams in 2024? I would say it's highly possible if people want in on this and that's a really great position to be in," Lashway said.

Lashway and Ryder agreed that Brampton's 5,000-seat CAA Centre was appropriate for a league of the CEBL's ilk, which draws around 2,000 fans per game. Montreal, which is still operated by the league, was tops in 2022 attendance.

Ryder cautioned that there is work to be done before the CEBL can claim its place in the Canadian sports landscape.

"They're like a fledgling still in the nest. They've still got to have some care and feeding. But the fact that they've gone four years, especially with COVID, speaks volumes about their tenacity," he said.

Lashway was optimistic about the league's future.

"Of all the leagues in this country, the one that's got the momentum happens to be us. It's the CEBL. It's not the CFL, it's not the CPL or anything else. So we feel pretty excited about that."