Former Toronto Raptors head coach Butch Carter has spent the last year crafting a detailed business plan for a domestic professional basketball league that would help groom Canadian talent while also attracting quality players from abroad.
If the Canadian Basketball League develops according to his plan — 10 Ontario-based teams, followed by six in western Canada — it will thrive by providing affordable entertainment in mid-sized markets while allowing hopeful pros on modest salaries to nurture NBA dreams.
There is a problem however.
The National Basketball League of Canada already does all of those things, and isn’t prepared to cede market share to Carter’s proposed circuit.
Still, Carter believes in his business plan and is pressing forward with hopes to start play this autumn. He has already secured a 20-year broadcast partnership with CHCH TV and thinks television exposure plus basketball’s growing popularity will lead his league to success where it counts most.
Then there is the issue of the balance sheet.
“We need television that’s in high definition and low on the dial,” says Carter, who coached the Raptors from 1997 through 2000 and now lives in Toronto. “We’re not selling (investors) the concept of a league. We’re selling the concept of a profit/loss statement.”
The past two decades have seen several minor pro basketball leagues appear and then vanish in Canada. The seven-team National Basketball League lasted less than two seasons before folding in 1994, and a decade ago the Ontario Professional Basketball Association didn’t even survive its first campaign.
And if you weren’t aware they’d ever existed, well, that’s the point. Starting a pro sports league requires deep-pocketed owners who are patient enough to lose money for a few seasons, as well as a long list of eager sponsors. Pro basketball start-ups in Canada often fail on both fronts.
“What every one of these things come up against is that they’re completely underfinanced,” says sports sponsorship consultant Brian Cooper, CEO of the S&E Sponsorship Group. “They’re reliant on ticket sales. They’re selling not the top level of basketball but the second level in markets outside of the core, avid fan base of basketball in this country.”
Since its founding in 2011, the National Basketball League of Canada has tried to work a similar mid-market niche, putting franchises in cities like London and Moncton and staying away from urban centres like Toronto and Montreal.
The league has found innovative ways to promote its product online, streaming games live on YouTube, and enabling fans to embed highlights in social media posts during games. This season’s games are also broadcast on the Al Jazeera-owned specialty network beIN Sports.
Attendance, however, remains spotty. The season opener in London drew a league record 8,500 spectators but games in Mississauga sometimes draw fewer than 500 fans, while low attendance helped the Windsor franchise lose nearly $400,000 two seasons ago.
Without a consistent audience, the league has struggled to attract top-tier sponsors, and commissioner Paul Riley says the proposed Canadian Basketball League would have to solve the same dilemma.
“Whatever Mr. Carter is trying to, God bless him. It’s a hard endeavour to start a pro basketball league in Canada,” Riley says. “To build a brand, to get attendance to games, to get corporate sponsors – that’s hard. If he thinks he’s going to come with an upstart and try to usurp our fans or our corporate partners, good luck to him.”
So what would distinguish the league Carter hopes to build?
Exposure, he says.
While CHCH is based in Ontario it’s available in 7.5 million homes across Canada, giving the proposed league a national platform immediately. And while past efforts at domestic pro basketball leagues have floundered, CHCH executives are sold on CBL’s growth potential.
“We’re big proponents of news, and one of the things that is new all the time is sports,” says Cal Millar, president of Channel Zero, CHCH’s parent company. “It’s important to look at things in the long term. You want to spend a lot of energy making it work, then have it yours for the foreseeable future.”
Carter says a national TV audience opens up sponsorship opportunities NBL Canada hasn’t been able to access.
Mock-ups of the proposed league’s courts show sponsor logos on the playing surface – the NBA allows them next to team benches but not on the court. And contrary to basketball broadcast orthodoxy Carter proposes placing team benches on the same side of the court as the main camera, allowing maximum air time for ads placed on the opposite sideline.
Carter also says that, unlike NBL Canada teams, CBL clubs won’t play in hockey arenas. Costs accrue quickly when teams pay to convert hockey rinks to basketball courts, Carter says. And as secondary tenants, basketball teams can’t sell ads on rink boards – hockey teams already own those rights.
While basketball’s Canadian fan base continues to grow – Yahoo Sports reports Raptors viewership is up 137 per cent over last year – the two domestic leagues would still compete over a limited number of sponsorship dollars. Cooper says that’s not feasible for either outfit.
“I don’t think both of them will survive,” Cooper says, adding that the regional nature of minor sports leagues makes attracting national sponsors difficult.
Riley says he would welcome Carter as an owner in his league, but that several NBL Canada owners have rejected offers to join the CBL. He says the league is set to expand next season.
Meanwhile, a CBL ownership group in the Niagara region met with NBL Canada first but declined to join it, citing the league’s financial losses.
“I’m not looking for owners who love basketball,” Carter says. “I’m looking for owners who love math.”