“Here we go it's the Skyhawks show! Love to see 'em fly around the Coliseum. Watch them soar as they score! Come on you Skyhawks lets go!. Look at them go, its the Skyhawks show.....”
Anyone remember that tasty morsel of a song from circa 1993-1994? Authored by GM Bob Knuckle, that was the official theme song of the Hamilton Skyhawks of the National Basketball League, a semi-professional basketball league that rose out of the ashes of the World Basketball league. It featured seven Canadian franchises located in Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Cape Breton, Hamilton, Halifax, Montreal and Calgary, with such noteworthy names as the Windjammers, Breakers, Skyhawks, Dragons, Slam, Thunder and Outlaws. A tip of the cap to any hard-core fan who can correctly match the nickname to the city. This time period represents the last significant attempt to bring some semblance of a professional basketball league to Canada.
Andre Levingston is the President and CEO of the Halifax Rainman, a professional team without a league after they and two other teams from Cape Breton and Quebec pulled out the Premier Basketball League due to unfair treatment by the officials. Levingston's issue, according to an article found on cbc.ca stemmed from the fact that the Rochester RazorSharks won the championships, which something of an curiosity given that RazorShark owner Dr. Severko Hrynyak is also the owner of the PBL. Conspiracies about preferential treatment forced the hand of the Canadian franchises. Mr. Levingston is hoping to turn adversity into opportunity as Halifax along with Saint John and Quebec plan on being the cornerstone franchises in an all Canadian Basketball League.
The initial reaction may be that of skepticism given the checkered and dubious past of Canadian professional basketball. The aforementioned National Basketball league lasted all of 1993 before folding. It was a unique league in that it featured only players who were 6'5 or smaller. This was in hopes of promoting high energy basketball. Hamilton, after a fast start out of the game in terms of attendance averaged a respectable 3 4000 fans but actually ended up folding towards the end of the regular season and moved to Edmonton. I remember the Skyhawks well, attended most of the home games and even made two road trips to watch the team play in Erie and Dayton. You can imagine the look of doubt on a border guard's face when I told him that I was entering the USA to watch the Hamilton Skyhawks play the Dayton Flyers. Perhaps it was a financial harbinger of doom, but when a friend of mine and I went to the Dayton offices to inquire about tickets, we emerged minutes later with centre court front row seats free of charge! The Skyhawks would try again in 1994 under the banner of the World Basketball League. This attempt was failed miserably. Attendance was scarce to say the least and that same friend and I went to attend the game, were picked out from the crowd and asked to officially score the game. Thus the promotion “Come to the game and be a part of the game crew” was born! Mercifully someone put a bullet in this league soon after launching.
Since that team several fledgling enterprises have harboured big dreams for pro-basketball in Canada, but were woefully short of both foresight and resources. Anyone remember the CNBL? Bill Crowdis, a Durham Region resident had big ideas and big dreams and lasted all of a very small number of exhibition games with going very gently into that good night. Another set of dreamers had the idea of the OPBA, which was to be a summer professional basketball league. They promised a couple of former NBA players, the most noted being former Atlanta Hawk Randy Livingston and the redoubtable former Toronto Raptor Acie Earle They got part of the way through the regular season before they realized that they were in over their head, both financially and in terms of work load. Franchises located in Barrie, Waterloo, Guelph and Niagara disappeared like thieves in the night. Rumours of an ABA franchise in Hamilton that was supposed to start playing at Copps Coliseum in 2008 quickly fizzled and after one article, there was nothing further.
With that sort of sordid history, is the CNBL doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past? That remains to be seen, but there are many, many more positives of this attempt at professional basketball in Canada. Lets take a look at the positives and challenges of this next venture.
- Cornerstone Franchises. Three franchises already have a track record and realistic vision of success. Halifax is an outstanding minor league, junior hockey, university sports town. They have not been tainted by the lure of big time professional sports and seem to have a genuine passion for the minor league basketball product. Armed with a tremendous amount of success in hosting AUS and CIS basketball, the Halifax Rainmen have a sustainable and manageable market and vision that has spread to Saint John and Quebec. This is a league that is not starting from scratch. They have established franchises, a key in any start up venture.
- 15 + years of NBA exposure through the Toronto Raptors: This has built a rabid, but loyal fan base Unfortunately the Raptors have not become Canada's team as of yet, but the basketball knowledge and exposure of this have been pretty high. Even though the Vancouver Grizzlies fled to Memphis, the West Coast got some solid exposure to the NBA. Anybody remember those games for the Naismith Cup between Toronto and Vancouver?
- Eager markets with a track record of hosting junior/semi-pro sports: Prospective locations include Ontario are Barrie, Oshawa and London, all markets with a track record of solid support behind local sports, but also large enough in terms of a population base to have some potential financial success. Depending on where they play, all have very, very solid facilities in terms of housing hockey. Whether or not the NCBL wants to roll the dice and play there or in college or university gyms remains to be seen.
- A realistic and effective introduction: Andre Levingston and his support staff have not come out and promised the world. They had a very effective media conference and have utilized social media tools to their advantage. Livingston himself seems to be the perfect guy to be the front man or spokesperson. He is articulate, enthusiastic but also seems to be firmly grounded in his belief in the viability of the league.
- Good timing: Basketball is one of the top, if not the top participation sport in Canada. The grassroots are there and the level of play at the club, high school, college and university level has never been higher. A quality product is something thing that any enterprise should deliver. I have not doubt that if you follow this league, you will see a high-level and very competitive level of basketball and you should be able to get many Canadian stars to commit to the home league rather than other professional leagues overseas
- Skepticism: Lots of people are from Missouri on this venture. “Show me” is the natural and understandable reaction of the skeptics. The track record in Canada is not good, and that is being kind. This league must work overtime to convince the skeptics that this league will not be like the other attempted ventures.
- Finances. Its the elephant in the room on any minor league venture. Sustainable capital will be an issue for this league. Franchises will really have convince the corporate base in their markets to sponsor and invest in this league. The Toronto Raptors and Canada Basketball all must be on-board to offer both their financial and marketing support
- Name recognition: Basketball is a star driven venture. The NBA can define eras through star nicknames and acronyms: Larry, Magic, Kareem, MJ, Lebron, Kobe, D-Wade, just to name a few You need to have recognizable players. This is not to mean you look to washed up stars looking to make a name. I'm talking about taking those players that you have and marketing the heck out of them. The quality of play will not be in an issue. Knowing who those players are will.
- Media: Small-Market ventures depend on their local media for support. The newspaper, radio station, local TV stations all have to be part of the promotional vehicle. These mediums are looking for content. This league will have to provide it.
- Travel. So far you've got two east coast teams, and one from Quebec. Several teams from Ontario are likely to jump on board. In order to build rivalries and keep teams in the news, travel must be manageable and financially prudent.
FIVE MODEST SUGGESTIONS
- One name that the league should look at is Jack Armstrong, be it as a league spokesperson, coach, GM. Jack is the type of effervescent personality that the league needs to get off the ground. “The Coach” is a favourite in basketball circles for his enthusiasm and outgoing gregarious personality. He can help sell some seats in whatever position he is in.
- Leo Rautins should coach in this league. He's Canada's national basketball coach,and like Armstrong is a prominent and visible figure in basketball circles for his work in the media and in coaching.
- Heck, while we are at it. Canada's national team should be in the league. Why not have the national team playing a semi-full schedule in order to help prepare themselves for international competition and to keep key players in the country. One downside is that if the team is losing on a fairly consistent basis, what does that say about our international hopes?
- Canada Basketball should be the NCBL's best friend. I'm sure that they have thought of this, but a nice one/two tandem promoting the heck out of this venture will help build the profile of the league. Plus, Canada basketball has really cool sharp clothing in terms of hats, shirts, golf-shirts etc.
- If you are on TV, they will come. There are lots of great media options in this 500 channel universe. Raptors TV, CBC, Sportsnet, The Score are but a few of them. If you check out some of the ratings of the CIS (then CIAU) Basketball Championships, they were far higher when there was a consistent TV presence. The OUA(A) had its Game of the Week on CHCH TV which was great for building interest and giving universities a consistent presence. Ratings dropped when there was no consistent TV presence. It is tough to do a one-off tournament and expect big ratings. The CBC should be your friend here. Challenge them to cover the sport as Canada's national broadcaster. Along with that, get credible media voices and coverage. Respected voices and authoritative voices will help build your credibility.
(Cheap plug alert: I do have many, many years of radio/TV play by play experience....just sayin'! )
This is going to be a challenge. Make no mistake about it. However, this particular venture has a couple of things its predecessor did not have. They have some stability and modest franchise success in Halifax, Quebec, and Saint John. They do love their basketball out on the East Coast, so it is a big positive to have two of the early franchises in a place that has a passion for sports. Halifax, in particular, has had tremendous success in hosting the CIAU/CIS Men's Basketball Championships, a tournament I have attended eight times. Should the league be smart in picking their markets, they can build momentum to the point in which the league sustains itself.
Canadian basketball fans have waited and hoped for this moment for a long time. Maybe now it can come to fruition.
Oh, and you might be able to unshackle the copyright restrictions on The Skyhawks song.
Steve has covered basketball since his 2nd year of university. He has been the radio voice of the McMaster Marauders for nine CIAU/CIS Basketball championships and has done basketball play by play on TV for York University McMaster University and Canada Basketball.