Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Potential Canadian hoops league eyes city

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IT has been a long time since a professional basketball team has called Winnipeg home. That could change in the fall of 2014.

A feasibility study done by the Canadian Basketball League (CBL) through sports marketing group Cosmos Sports has shown a pro hoops league could be successful in Canada and Winnipeg is on the CBL radar.

According to Cosmos president Cary Kaplan, his group was a little hesitant of the idea at first. But after many surveys, focus groups and meetings, he believes the league will work.

"If it's done in a certain way, with a certain business model and a certain basketball structure, then there's a huge appetite for a national basketball league," Kaplan said. "Naturally we started to get more excited about it. Particularly from Manitoba and west where there's an even bigger appetite for it."

The CBL is looking for a minimum of eight owners who will be willing to start up new franchises in cities across Canada. The league would be separated into two divisions in order to cut down on travel costs.

Kaplan believes the time is right for a national basketball league. Once Canadian basketball players leave the university ranks they are not left with many professional options in Canada.

"I think what happens is if you're a good Canadian basketball player, but not good enough to make the NBA then you're forced to go to Europe or play in a minor league in the United States. Why shouldn't there be a comfortable alternative in Canada?" he said.

Basketball Manitoba executive director Adam Wedlake agrees with Kaplan's claim. He said the country is falling behind among developed basketball nations.

"If you look at the Top 10 basketball nations in the world, a list that Canada is knocking on the door of as a Top 10 nation, we're the only country that doesn't have a domestic professional league," Wedlake said.

The league would be comparable to the CFL in terms of creating a national identity for the sport of basketball.

"There'd be Canadian content, a fair amount of Canadian players, there'd be controlled salary caps and budgets, too. The goal would be to make sure teams are profitable," Kaplan said.

Cosmos Sports will be holding a meeting with potential owners later this summer in order to gauge interest. He said they have interest from 10-12 prospective owners and are always open to having more in the mix. The league will only go forward if there is a minimum of eight teams.

Kaplan said it was too early to determine who Winnipeg's ownership group could be. But CBL has been in contact with and have invited True North Sports and Entertainment to their prospective-owners meeting. However, Kaplan is open to hearing from any potential buyers in the area.

Western Canada has shown a large amount of interest in the CBL. This leads Kaplan to believe that smaller cities could potentially support a basketball team.

Cosmos Sports believes team owners will need about 4,500 ticket sales to break even. This means cities with Western Hockey League teams -- such as Kamloops, Moose Jaw and Lethbridge -- would make suitable stomping grounds for a new basketball team.

"It's more a matter of a ready ownership group and a conducive facility," Kaplan said.

Locally, Wedlake thinks a Winnipeg team is a perfect fit. The city has seen two professional basketball teams, the Winnipeg Thunder and Winnipeg Cyclone (who closed up shop in 2001), come and go. But the decline of basketball in the city was due to participation in unstable leagues. Fan support was never an issue.

But if an ownership group is in place in Winnipeg and the team has a venue to play at, will the fans come? Wedlake thinks it will draw in crowds of both basketball and casual fans.

"The Cyclone and the Thunder did have a decent fan base to build off of. For example, we at Basketball Manitoba have a direct connection to about twelve thousand people that are currently involved with basketball," he said.

"There is a solid base of people that would support it. And that doesn't even address the general sport fan out there that will gravitate towards the venue for a night out with the family or something new to do."

kyle.jahns@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2013 D4

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