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Starting at the end of October, Canada will have its own basketball league, the National Basketball League of Canada. As surprising as it may be, the country has never had a national basketball league. The league currently has seven teams, located in large cities like Halifax and Quebec City, mid-sized cities like Oshawa and London, and smaller cities like Moncton (population: 97,000) Saint John (90,00), and Summerside (14,500). This is a very modest beginning, but this league could eventually rise to become a viable alternative to the NBA. What chance does this league have to thrive and what impact will it have on the NBA?
Fledgling professional leagues need to start very small if they want to eventually thrive, so the NBL seems to be starting off correctly. They can build slowly, because Canada has shown the ability to support a variety of professional sports. The NHL and the CFL are of course the most notable examples. There are a number of large cities that can support basketball, and they all have large hockey arenas. Those arenas need to be filled on off nights, and if the NBL plays its financial cards right, it could find a home in every city with an NHL team. The crown jewel of this effort would be Vancouver, which lost the Grizzlies for reasons other than an inability to support the team. If Vancouver can handle the NBA, it would be a huge addition to the NBL.
There is, of course, one major roadblock to this expansion plan. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, already has a basketball team. Why would Torontonians support an NBL team when they can support the Raptors? It is unlikely that an NBL team could successfully exist in the Raptors’ shadow, so the only way for the league to break into Toronto is to eliminate the competition. To do that, they will need to take a page from college athletics and snatch the Raptors from the NBA. David Stern has mentioned contraction as a reasonable possibility, and by virtue of being one of the league’s 22 unprofitable teams, the Raptors are not immune from such talk. However, they have more pressing reasons than random chance to worry about contraction.
The Raptors are the only NBA team in Canada, and that isolates them from the rest of the league. For better or worse, they are beholden to exchange rate fluctuations and different tax laws from the rest of the league. These complications could be avoided if they were simply removed from the equation. Moreover, they would mean more to the NBL than they ever could to the NBA. Instead of being an afterthought, they would be the league’s signature franchise. The NBL should pursue this aggressively, because they could improve their league’s franchise and the NBA could get rid of dead weight. In fact, the NBL should aim to purchase the Raptors from the NBA. It is not a viable option now, but if the NBA’s financial woes continue, this could solve some problems.
Setting the potential for franchise-nabbing aside, the NBL does have a chance to make a legitimate impact on the NBA. Since the NBL is in its infancy, it loses its biggest chance to make an impact now. With players looking to play elsewhere, what better option is there than Canada? There are no glaring cultural differences between the US and Canada and players are already used to Toronto, so it would not be a big transition. Despite the cold, it’s much more welcoming than Turkey or China. Unfortunately, the league doesn’t have the resources now to lure anyone worthwhile. However, if they play their cards right they might be a viable option for the next lockout. That’s a terribly cynical strategy, but it is the best they can hope for.
The NBL will never be bigger than the NBA. Barring something catastrophic, the NBA will always attract the best talent, and there will always be more money in the US for professional basketball players than there will be anywhere else. It would be folly for the NBL to take aim at the NBA. If they do, David Stern will destroy them. What they need to do is aim to be a competitive minor league that is at least on par with the NBDL. It might take a while and might need some shady maneuvering, but that is very possible.