Long before becoming Commissioner and CEO of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, Mike Morreale focused on professional football.
For the Hamilton native, that meant playing in the Canadian Football League.
As a teenager, Morreale attracted the interest of universities in the United States and across Canada.
Morreale felt that to achieve his goal of turning professional, he would be best served by choosing a school that offered playing time from the start.
In the end, Morreale found the opportunity he was looking for in his own backyard. He made the decision to attend McMaster University and went on to have a hugely successful playing career as a running back for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts.
Morreale, now 50, sees many parallels between his experience and promising Canadian athletes who aspire to play professional basketball.
With the likelihood of playing in the NBA exaggerated, he sees Canadian universities, which use FIBA rules, and the CEBL – fully a FIBA professional league – as a gateway for players to find jobs. in FIBA’s top leagues. the world.
“If you want to be a professional basketball player, everyone should understand that the ability to play in the NBA is very limited, but that doesn’t mean you can’t carve out a great career playing overseas, FIBA basketball “, says Morreale.
“To do that, you have to learn the FIBA game. If you go to the NCAA, you’re not going to learn this game and maybe you’re not going to play until your sophomore, third or fourth year. For me, playing was far more important than going to a (strictly) winning institution.
The CEBL, which requires each team to fill the majority of its roster (six out of 10 spots) with Canadian players, allocates the bulk of its marketing dollars to growing brand awareness among fans in Canada, including a online subscription service called CEBL+ which allows interested viewers to watch live matches from anywhere in the world.
However, the decision to play by FIBA rules is getting more attention abroad than at home.
“The respect for the style of play that we play and the athleticism of the way we play, we’re always going to be compared to the NBA here, and we don’t want to be compared to the NBA. We’re not the NBA,” he said. said Morreale “We want to be compared to the best FIBA leagues in the world, including the NBL Australia, the Chinese Basketball Association and of course the EuroLeague. That’s our goal and I think a lot of people here are so focused on the NBA and everything around the NBA, that they don’t realize the high level basketball that’s played in FIBA in general, not to mention the CEBL.
So far, the CEBL has advanced its vision of being a world-class FIBA League despite the challenges presented by the global pandemic.
“In many ways our strategy was thrown out the window with COVID, but at the same time it also helped us in a weird shape,” Morreale said. “But the thing is, we still have to get people into our buildings. We still need to get people involved in our players and teams and buying merchandise and everything that comes with operating a game. We’re still going to keep working. Now we are in three new markets. Now we’re coast to coast and there are more teams on the horizon. The league has not finished being built.
Entering its fourth season with a schedule that spans May through August, CEBL will launch three new franchises in St. John’s, Montreal and Scarborough, Ont., and has grown from six to 10 teams since its inception in 2019.
CEBL, which also has teams in Langley, British Columbia, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Ottawa, Hamilton, Guelph, Ontario, and St. Catharines, Ontario, made headlines on several fronts this past offseason.
Back-to-back champions Edmonton Stingers have represented Canada in the Basketball Champions League Americas. Although the Stingers did not advance to the Final 8 of the tournament, they posted a pair of wins in Calgary over clubs from Nicaragua and Puerto Rico to finish 3-3 in the final window of group play.
The CEBL also saw former Stingers guard and three-time MVP Xavier Moon sign a two-way deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. Xavier Sneed, who played for the Niagara River Lions, and Canadian Lindell Wigginton, who played for the Hamilton Honey Badgers, also signed two-way deals with the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks, respectively.
Morreale includes these achievements when reflecting on how far CEBL has come in such a short time and in the context of bigger and bolder ambitions for the future.
“I really believe there are a lot more opportunities to keep growing and improving,” Morreale said. “I guess to put it in perspective, when we were looking at this six years ago, I anticipated one day in the future that we might get a player to the NBA, or we’ll probably be at 12 teams at our apogee.
“Now I look back and say, wow, I guess maybe we underestimated ourselves or didn’t realize we could do what we’re doing now. The truth is, we know who we are and because we know who we are, I think it’s been easy to stick to that game plan. We recognize that we’re not the NBA, but we also recognize that we’re the best basketball played outside the NBA in this country.
Calgary, Winnipeg and Quebec are among the major population centers that have been mentioned as possible locations for future franchise expansions.
Morreale acknowledges that other teams are on the way, but the league will wait until the time is right.
“We will bring the teams in as they are ready or when we are ready. We don’t have to be cookie-cutter and say, oh, we need an equal amount, because then we have to have that schedule,” he said.
“We have adapted to just about everything. We will continue to make the best decisions at some point. So whether that means adding a team next year or no team next year or three the following year, we’ll do what’s best at that time. And if we have to jump through hoops to find a schedule because it’s unbalanced or not equal, that’s weird. We’ll just make it work. We have done it before and we will do it again. »