The story should have been of the Hamilton Honey Badgers lifting the trophy on championship weekend in Ottawa, capping a successful fourth season for the Canadian Basketball Elite League.
Instead, less than 24 hours later, on August 15, leaked word that a rival Ontario franchise was heading for a fresh start in Calgary.
The next day, CEBL Commissioner, CEO and Co-Founder Mike Morreale found himself in the unenviable position of issuing a statement confirming the rumor and announcing that the Guelph Nighthawks were indeed leaving for Western Canada.
Morreale was not happy to pivot the way he had planned to handle a sensitive situation involving the relocation of one of the league’s original teams.
Several weeks later, Morreale isn’t kidding with his thoughts on how things went for his professional basketball business.
“It’s more important than just moving the team,” Morreale told TSN. “That’s the heartbreaking part. I really appreciate the people of Guelph and the people who helped us have a team there for four years.
“So not being able to tell them properly and scare him away was not our way of doing business. That’s the one thing I think that bothers me more than anything. And the other fact is that it put a damper on an amazing championship weekend.. We should have talked about this, but instead we’re talking about a leak, and it goes past her and Calgary.. So if you want to quote me on anything, you can quote me on it.
In the release, the league explained that Guelph has only 46e-largest population and 26e-the largest media market in Canada. Additionally, the league said the Honey Badgers, as well as the Scarborough Shooting Stars and St. Catharines’ Niagara River Lions are nearby for Guelph fans to attend CEBL games in the future.
That said, Morreale takes on a bigger job than any particular market, and that is making sure his 10-team league thrives the way he envisioned years before CEBL came before the court.
“At the end of the day, I have to do what’s best for the whole business, which means playing in markets that are sustainable and allow us to grow,” says the Hamilton native. “I have to manage our growth and make sure we’re able to evolve into a divisional model and other factors of being on the west coast and all that. So everything is taken into consideration and knowing that our staff did anything and everything to make Guelph work, we just knew he wouldn’t be able to take that fire.”
The former CFL star, who later became president of the CFL Players Association, knows the professional sports landscape well
“Apart from attendance, you look at everything – fan engagement, social media, websites, newsletters. When you have a team that’s at the bottom and it just doesn’t get better not, or that it is limited in terms of growth and you just know at the same time [other teams] take off, sometimes you just have to make tough decisions,” he said.
“Coming out of COVID, we were looking at it like we were looking at all of our teams and how they bounced back out of COVID and how they were compared to 2019 pre-COVID and how they trended in terms of subscriptions and everything. Regardless of the numbers overall, you just want to make sure people are going in the right direction and things are keeping pace, and then you realize it just can’t keep pace.
Morreale grew out of a market that was simply too small for a league seeking global recognition.
“There is no local media from a print or current affairs perspective,” Morreale said. “We knew that. I guess we underestimated it a bit because it becomes very difficult to get your message across when you don’t have it. It was a great time. I saw some of the best basketball and the fans I got to see four years of amazing basketball I believe we’re going to leave Guelph a better place basketball wise At least I hope we do, and I hope that we did.
Morreale says most of the fans he’s spoken to in Guelph aren’t happy to see a professional sports team leave the community, but they understand the big picture of leaving for a larger population in Calgary.
“I’m upset we had to do it. I’m upset it didn’t go the way we planned. At the same time, I have to protect 500 [player and front office] works [league wide] and I have to make sure we play basketball the next day,” he said.
“I know the roadmap includes being in the major markets and that was a decision we had to make. It was a decision that benefited us on both sides. It gives us an opportunity in a very big market. and also on the west coast, and it helped in the Ontario market by just changing who is in that market, there are just a lot of teams concentrated in the small region and one of them was not performing very well So it’s a business decision.
As Morreale continues to search for suitable local ownership, he says the plan is in place to get Calgary up and running next season.
“We are talking to several groups in Calgary, but at the same time we are ready to launch the team as a league-owned team, as we have launched nine others,” he said.
“Our goal doesn’t change. We’re going to bounce a basketball in Calgary in May 2023 and it can be league or local property. Either way, we’re going to play on that date.”