Saskatoon’s Hemant Naidu loves basketball.
“I was excited when I heard this league was starting up,” Naidu said. “I bought season tickets just to support the league.”
Naidu is talking about the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL). The season tickets were for the hometown team the Saskatchewan Rattlers.
“I was surprised about the quality of the basketball,” he said. “It’s very fast paced.”
Season one success
The Rattlers finished third in the start-up league winning 11 games, enough to earn them a spot in the CEBL’s big championship weekend, set to tip-off in Saskatoon. So, although some important games remain, both the league, and the Rattlers are taking stock of year one.
“It’s gone almost exactly as we have planned,” said CEBL commissioner Mike Morreale.
“There are a lot of things we need to do better, but truthfully we were able to get our brand out. The awareness is out there and people respect and like the basketball and the events around the basketball so I feel like we did a tremendous job.”
Locally, the Rattlers have made some good moves in an effort to win over a city where other professional basketball leagues have come and gone. The team has some local talent, including Michael Linklater, a well-known Indigenous athlete. The team’s bench and office boss Greg Jockims, a former head coach at the University of Saskatchewan is also local.
“All of our teams have done a great job responding to what makes their local community special and then kind of delivering that message,” said Morreale.
The Rattlers also step off the hardwood to make their presence felt in the community. For example, the team did its best to make sure outdoor basketball courts had nets up on the rims. It’s a simple gesture — but one that resonates with young basketball players.
Friday night hoops
The inaugural season wasn’t perfect for the Rattlers. The fan base for the team is modest, but loud and loyal.
Still, even the most enthusiastic crowd of a few thousand people can get lost in the vast expanse of the 15,000 seat SaskTel Centre.
“I think when they first did their projections I think they were hoping for more fans simply because they saw what the Rush had done and I think that maybe made them a little more optimistic about what they could put into Saskatoon,” said Kevin Mitchell, sports editor of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
It’s a problem that has captured the attention of Morreale, who is promising change. Morreale said the CEBL and the Rattlers are working on ways to close off parts of the arena to create a better atmosphere for the players and the fans, and they’re doing it right away.
“The look and feel of our championship weekend will be a lot more intimate and tighter,” he said.
Morreale said the league is also considering adding some Friday night games to the schedule.
“I know we’ll lose some people to the cottage; it’s that type of city. People want to escape and take advantage of the summer but there’s going to be a lot of people to stay back and they want to have a good weekend and they want to kick it off the right way so I can see us moving toward that.”
The continuity concern
There is another concern, one that might not be as easy to fix given the nature of the CEBL, and its goal of attracting top players who may have commitments with other teams, but who can come to a city like Saskatoon and play and make money while on break.
We want to follow these players throughout their time in the league and on the team.– Hemant Naidu
“I think one thing they need to address and it did hurt the Rattlers … was just having some guys come in who were very good players and the fans start to get to know who they are and start to feel a certain passion for these guys and then they leave because they have to get ready for their European season,” said Mitchell.
It’s something Naidu noticed as well.
“We want to follow these players throughout you know their time in the league and on the team. And you know when that’s constantly moving it is pretty hard to you know get that connection.”
Still it appears the CEBL has the momentum needed to get to a second season. First though, the league must get through its first championship weekend.
The Rattlers begin their quest for the title in a semi-final on Saturday against Edmonton. The final will be held on Sunday.