Starting up a professional sports league in Canada isn’t easy, let alone being able to sustain a franchise. Many leagues have started up in Canada before and none were able to succeed.
The National Basketball League of Canada is in its fifth season since starting up in 2011, and it has seen a fair number of teams come and go. Quebec Kebs, Ottawa SkyHawks, Montreal Jazz, Mississauga Power and the Halifax Rainmen (later being brought back as the Hurricanes) are the teams to see failure.
Along with the Halifax Hurricanes, the NBL’s newest team is the Niagara River Lions. The River Lions join three other Ontario teams, while four teams are present in the Maritimes and a fifth coming soon. Playing in the Meridian Centre, the second smallest capacity arena in the league, the River Lions may have hit a market where the franchise can succeed.
The NBL as a league has yet to become of interest to the average Canadian basketball fan. For some, they only know about the league after the 2015 championship ended in odd fashion. Prior to game seven of the finals, the Windsor Express and Rainmen were involved in a fight involving chairs being thrown. The cause? Practice time.
This led to the Rainmen’s players not showing up to the game due to concern of their safety and the league ultimately decided that they would forfeit the game and the title, giving the Express their second championship in the last two seasons.
However, the River Lions playing in the Niagara region could help build the NBL. With the success of Brock University’s and Niagara College’s basketball programs, the game is very popular amongst the Niagara community, especially the youth.
For the River Lions, it isn’t just about their on-court product. Their off-court product is as important and it begins with the top of the franchise. Starting with what goes on off the court will define the ultimate survival of a franchise in a small league, and the Rainmen showed that, as they are no longer part of the league.
Owned by Richard Petko, Michael Skrtich and Jeff Sotiriou, three young men that really enjoy and have a passion for basketball, the River Lions are certainly in good hands at the top of the organization. The three men also brought in Ken Murray to be the teams head coach and general manager.
Murray is one of the best basketball minds the Niagara region has seen. With his time as the Brock men’s basketball head coach from 1989-2010, Murray won two CIS titles. He has coached at almost every level and going professional with the River Lions is a new step for his career.
To begin their inaugural season the River Lions took to London to play the Lightning on December 26. Holding a lead after the first quarter, the River Lions ended up losing 122-109 to the Lightning. The next day, the River Lions came back and beat the Lightning in St. Catharines off a game winning three.
Through the first four games of the season the River Lions hold a 1-4 record. This past weekend they lost 118-115 to the Windsor Express, followed by another three point loss to the Orangeville A’s. So, it hasn’t been all bad for the River Lions to begin the season as every game has been winnable.
With a strong ownership group, a veteran general manager and head coach, and playing in a market where basketball can survive, the River Lions are set to bring the NBL a team that will succeed. The River Lions can be the team the NBL needs for the league to get noticed. It’s going to take time, but the patience and brains are there to get it done.