There will soon be basketball to watch again, and as a bonus it will include the Saskatchewan Rattlers.
The Canadian Elite Basketball League recently announced it will be playing a two-week tournament in St. Catherines, and while the arena seats will be empty fans will be able to watch games via CBC online, with select games on general broadcast.
Lee Genier, president of the Rattlers, the team that will enter the tournament as defending champions having won the CEBL crown in its inaugural 2019 season, said the decision to get back onto the court in some fashion was one the league saw as important.
“If you kind of work it back to the first season, it was very successful, a fantastic year,” he said, adding both the Rattlers and CEBL were looking on building on the momentum of year one this summer.
Then along came COVID-19 and by mid-March the CEBL season was on hold.
“Nobody knew what it would look like going forward,” offered Genier.
Planning began almost immediately to figure out a way to salvage the year, said Genier.
“Most leagues are trying to make something happen. We’re 99.9 per cent there,” said Genier.
Genier, added almost from the start in mid-March the league was focused on the idea of a hub city, settling on St. Catherines. He said the Ontario city was a good fit with four teams in Ontario, but there was still a lot of approvals to get, including the province, the city and the facility.
Then they had to have players buy-in.
“Ninety-eight per cent said yes to come back, that they’d ‘love to do this’ on the pretense they’ll be safe,” said Genier, adding they then need to work through getting non-Canadian players into Canada. “... That is not an easy process in the current climate with the border closed.”
It was a lot of effort, but Genier said the league saw to great an opportunity not to make it work. The tournament, set for July 15 to Aug. 9, will run over the same period that was supposed to be the Summer Olympics. In Canada CBC was to be the Olympic network, so were suddenly with a rather open schedule.
With the network already working with the CEBL to broadcast games last season on its online platform, the opportunity to fill time slots with basketball was too good to pass up, even with the costs and hard work.
Games “will be broadcast not just to Canada, but the entire world,” said Genier. “We may never get another opportunity like this. What is it worth to be on the world stage?”
The tournament will be a debut for the Ottawa BlackJacks the CEBL’s newest team -- the seventh.
Genier said the addition of Ottawa builds on the league’s “desire to go to 12 teams,” adding the interest in Ottawa has been fantastic.
While it might be expected COVID-19 would slow expansion, Genier said that is not exactly the case.
“The league is very close to adding an eighth team ... I’m very positive; 99 per cent, that there will be at least one more team in 2021,” he said.
In general Genier said there has been interest in a number of cities, mentioning Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, Montreal, the Maritimes and even Regina, citing that basketball is the fastest growing sport in North America right now.
“Maybe in the future Regina,” he said, adding that would be huge for the Rattlers too.
But right now Genier said the league is focused on the tournament, hoping it grows interest to a new level.
So is the event the silver lining on COVID-19 for the CEBL?
“It could be a platinum lining at this point,” said Genier, likening the event to “an Olympic-type format ...” creating a great amount of intensity in every game.
With 65 new players on CEBL rosters “the talent level continues to grow” in a league Genier said is “the best outside the NBA” in North America, so the tournament “is going to be very intense.
“We’re going to see some very exciting basketball.”