Written by: Dan Gladman

Follow: @dgontheroad

Professional men’s basketball in Canada has had its iterations, but no league has truly caught on like the Canadian Elite Basketball League, established in 2019. Having launched in the shadow of the Toronto Raptors’ historic NBA championship campaign, the CEBL now returns for its sixth season, beginning with an opening night tilt May 21 in Alberta through to its Championship Weekend in August in Montreal.

Like all start-ups, the league has faced unpredictable challenges, none more difficult than the COVID pandemic which limited the 2020 season to a 3-week bubble, and slowed the return to in-seat attendance in 2021. A tape delayed semi-final rolled on a Saturday afternoon on CBC might not have helped matters.

But the 2023 season showed signs that the summer basketball league showcasing Canadian ballers and talented American and international pros has financial viability and staying power.

In their debut season in the league, the Winnipeg Sea Bears broke and set numerous CEBL attendance records, including for full-season attendance and for a regular season game. The team really turned heads when 10,580 fans showed up for a post-season Play-in game against the Edmonton Stingers at Canada Life Centre in August.

“Like most Canadian sports we’re a gate-driven league supported by partnerships, merchandise and off-season events like camps and clinics for kids,” said CEBL Commissioner and co-founder Mike Morreale.

Thanks to the tremendous local fan support, Winnipeg was recently announced as the host for Championship Weekend in 2025.

Another big maneuver for the league was switching its broadcast deal to TSN from CBC. First and foremost, this ensured that all featured games were to be carried live throughout the regular season and playoffs. It also created space for the games to be telecast on a sports-only channel, and during prime time, when devoted and casual sports viewers are more conditioned to look for games.

“TSN exposure is huge,” said Morreale. “Any linear exposure elevates your brand. We’re talking about exposure of players, for fans be able to watch them.

“You have to be seen, you have to be available. Our approach from day 1 was to expose the brand.”

Smartly, the CEBL brought back luminous TV names from the early days of the Toronto Raptors to be the play-by-play announcers of the TSN broadcasts. Chuck Swirsky, the legendary Raptors play-by-play man during the mythical Vince Carter years, and Rod Black, an iconic Canadian broadcaster and TSN host during the 2019 NBA title drive became the national voices of the league, giving viewers a simultaneous taste of nostalgia amid something brand new. Their experience, energy and presence as live event announcers lends a huge boost in selling the legitimacy of the league.

Thirteen regular season games, the playoffs and Championship Weekend will be broadcast live on TSN this year, and all games will be available via team-produced webcasts on TSN+ as well as the league’s dedicated streaming service called CEBL+.

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Sean Miller-Moore of the Calgary Surge drives down the lane against the Ottawa Blackjacks. - Source: CEBL

Corporate sponsorships are key for any Canadian sporting entity, regardless of the size of the business. One only needs to look at NHL rink boards or the Toronto Raptors jersey. The CEBL has partnered with New Era, Spalding, Foot Locker and others, and, much like the quickly evolving process in all North American sports, has brought aboard legal gambling platforms. The broadcasts and webcasts prominently display Bet Victor across the screen throughout games. Recently, the league announced Lotto Max and Proline had come aboard as official partners.

For the league’s 10 teams and its six owners – co-founder Richard Petko owns five of the teams at present – the partnerships have to be seen as a true indicator of the health and viability of the business. While the CEBL prides itself on running a cost-effective and efficient business, the infusions of corporate cash and branding help keep the business running while giving the league that look that all major sports leagues have.

“When I look at the future I know that how we orchestrated the business has given us the possibility to be successful,” concluded Morreale.

Only time will tell how far this Canadian basketball venture can go, but as year six tips off, many crucial business categories are in place. It’s now up to the players to continuing providing enthralling summer basketball, and the fans in 10 Canadian municipalities to show up and be a part of it.

The season starts with Calgary Surge hosting the Edmonton Stingers at Scotiabank Saddledome on Tuesday, May 21. The game will be televised live on TSN at 9:00 pm eastern time.