Big League Dreams

Is Montreal a Viable Market for the NBA?

  • Former Stingers All-Canadian basketball player Kyle Desmarais, pictured above, believes a National Basketball League of Canada team in Montreal could lead to more pro basketball interest from the city’s young athletes. Photo Amanda Laprade

The Bell Centre will be packed with rabid fans as usual in two weeks. But something will be different this time; fans won’t be cheering for a hockey team—they’ll be attending an NBA game.

On Oct. 20, Montreal will host its third NBA preseason game in four years, welcoming the Boston Celtics and the Minnesota Timberwolves for an exhibition showdown.

Looking to increase fan interest in the sport across the country, Canada hosted its first ever NBA Canada Series last year, offering fans a preseason game between the Toronto Raptors and the New York Knicks in Montreal, and one with the Timberwolves taking on the Detroit Pistons in Winnipeg.

Considering last year’s game in Montreal was sold-out, it certainly seems the NBA’s popularity has reached an all-time high in the city. But is Montreal a viable market for the league?

Quebec Basketball Federation general manager Daniel Grimard isn’t so sure.

“You’ve got to keep in mind that it’s the most expensive franchise to get in North America […] and I’m not convinced that we have a basketball culture that is strong enough to endure a 40-home game schedule,” he told The Link.

“If the Montreal Impact is having trouble attracting fans for a 20-game schedule here in Montreal, where the soccer culture is pretty developed, I’m wondering if we would be able to fill up the Bell Centre for [40 games].”

For Concordia’s men’s basketball team head coach John Dore, it comes down to a question of money—and commitment.

“Montreal is a hockey town,” he said. “I don’t think that we could support an NBA team day in and day out. [To support] an NBA team you need a lot of money; [player] salaries are astronomical.

“I would love to see a team here, basketball is growing tremendously in Quebec but an NBA team is a huge leap,” he continued.

Indeed, while hockey has historically dominated children’s sport of choice throughout the country, Canada has slowly but surely seen more and more kids pick up a basketball in recent years.

“Last week I learned an interesting stat: I learned that the most practiced sport in Canada by teenagers of 12 to 16 years old is basketball,” said Grimard.

However, the sport continues to lag behind in Quebec. According to Grimard, Quebec basketball sees 36,000 members, including players, coaches and referees—a far cry from the 350,000 members in Ontario, a major hub of Canadian basketball.

Last June, Ontario native Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian ever to be drafted first overall in the NBA. Three months prior, fellow Ontarian Brady Heslip helped lead the Baylor University Bears to the Elite Eight in the NCAA March Madness Tournament.

According to Canada Basketball’s website, 167 Canadians played in the NCAA last season—108 listed Ontario as their home province, while only 23 listed Quebec as theirs.

Soon to join the Ontario list is 18-year-old Andrew Wiggins, widely considered the top college basketball recruit in 2013 and expected to go first overall in next year’s NBA draft.

Samuel Dalembert, born in Haiti but raised in Montreal, as well as Montreal-born players Joel Anthony and Kris Joseph, are all currently in the NBA, but none could be considered impact players.

“If [Quebec] ever produces a dominant NBA player like Wiggins [is expected to be], there will be more people interested in basketball, and that would change Montreal’s market,” La Presse basketball columnist Pascal LeBlanc told The Link.

With the QBF’s sports studies program, put in place three years ago and based in over 30 schools in the province, that dominant player might come sooner rather than later.

“With so many kids playing basketball in Quebec, you never know what could happen in 10 or 15 years,” said LeBlanc. “There could be a massive arrival of native Quebecers in college teams, and one of them could become a young NBA star.”

The result, as LeBlanc says, could lead to the NBA seriously considering Montreal as a potential market.

“Sometimes you just need a spark,”said LeBlanc.

For former All-Canadian Stingers basketball player Kyle Desmarais, a National Basketball League of Canada franchise in Montreal might also provide that spark.

“If Montreal had a team in the NBL, it would be a big incentive for young Montreal players to go pro because it would be more realistic for most players to play on that team,” said Desmarais, a Montreal native who represented Canada in the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico.

Perhaps what Montreal needs, however, isn’t merely to field a team in the NBL, but rather to field a successful one.

The city was awarded an NBL expansion team last year, the Montreal Jazz. But after the team started off the year 0-17 en route to an abysmal 2-38 record, the NBL’s board of governors decided in August to sit out the Jazz for the 2013-2014 season. The team failed to find an ownership group to purchase the Jazz from the league.

“We think it’s best for the image of our league and the safety of our fans that this is the best decision,” Andre Levingston, president and CEO of the 10-team league, stated in a press release.

After Oct. 20, Jazz players and basketball fans throughout the city alike will be stuck in the same boat: patiently hoping for professional basketball’s return to Montreal.

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