Elks Struggle, FC Edmonton Failed, but the Stingers are Soaring

Why does basketball work so well in Edmonton, while soccer failed and football is bleeding fans?
CEBL Commissioner Mike Morreale, Stingers owners Ravinder Minhas, Manjit Minhas, James Burns and Tank Vander.

When it comes to the sports business, Edmonton is a city of contradictions.

The Oilers stand apart, Hoovering up our attention and dollars. Then, you have the Riverhawks, which have carved a niche by offering pick-where-you-want-to-sit affordable options in the summer.

You have FC Edmonton, which folded after the team moved to the Canadian Premier League. In its final days, a home game that drew 1,000 fans at Clarke Stadium was a high-water mark.

And the Elks continue to bleed fans, and, this year, the team will close off the second deck at Commonwealth Stadium in order to make it feel more intimate.

And then there’s the Edmonton Stingers, our pro basketball team, which has won a couple of CEBL Championships and is selling out games at the Edmonton Expo Centre. This week, Manjit Minhas and Ravinder Minhas, brewing distilling magnates from Calgary who also operate in Wisconsin, joined Tank Vander and James Burns in the team’s ownership group.

The CEBL began operations in 2019, the same year as soccer’s Canadian Premier League. But why has one flourished in Edmonton, while the other was forced to retreat? When it comes to CEBL and the CFL, what are the Stingers doing right that the Elks aren’t seeing?

With CEBL commissioner Mike Morreale in Edmonton for the Minhas family announcement, I thought it was prime time to ask him these questions.

He said he was shocked when FCE folded after the 2022 season, because basketball and soccer share a lot of similar characteristics. They are both accessible sports, easy to get into, with players who are approachable.

A big difference is how those games were presented. The Expo Centre is an intimate venue, there isn’t a bad seat in the house, and, even half full, it feels cozy. Clarke Stadium, where FCE played, is basically a community field with temporary stands. It doesn’t feel like a stadium at all.

And then there’s Commonwealth, a stadium that’s simply too big for the CFL.

“Combine the high level of play with the intimacy of the venue, the price point, the access to get in, and you’re capturing a bit of a different audience,” said Morreale.

“The initial struggle is getting people in the door. And we’ve always found that when people come into the building, we’ve captured them. And in some cases, whether it’s soccer, where the venue is not conducive to that intimacy.

“Or, you’re playing football in Commonwealth, in a 50,000-seat venue and there’s 20,000 people there, you lose the intimacy.”

The other big win for the CEBL is traditional TV exposure. From day one, selected games were available via CBC. Last year, the league tipped off a deal with TSN. This year, its broadcast footprint will expand.

The Canadian Premier League, when it kicked off, entered into a 10-year deal with Barcelona-based, Chinese-owned MediaPro. It launched a dedicated channel for Canadian soccer that showed all CanPL games. In the first year, some weekend games were sublet to CBC. (Note, for transparency’s sake, I need to disclose I called some of these games for CBC/MediaPro). The CBC games halted after year one. OneSoccer, MediaPro’s channel, is available only via streaming or as a premium option for Telus subscribers. Shaw/Rogers has not picked it up. TSN and Sportsnet have shown zero interest in CanPL matches.

Morreale said being on traditional TV is a must.

“There’s a perception that comes with being on a dedicated sports channel. And we just signed another deal internationally with FIBA [the international governing body of basketball], we’re going to announce an American network, plus a secondary domestic partner in Canada as well, which will expand the number of games twofold. It’s the awareness, it’s the ability to flip through channels and see the level of play, see what it looks like. ‘Is this an NBA game? What is this? I want to find out more.’ TV helps translate the message.”

As well, sports bars keep TSN and Sportsnet on all day long. So, when you go for a beer and some wings with friends, a CEBL game might be in the background.

“You’re engaging with it, even though you don’t realize that it’s there,” said Morreale. “You can never replace live TV.”

Of the 10 teams in CEBL, six ownership groups are represented. When the league began in 2019, the CEBL owned all the teams, with a plan to divest them as interest surged. By the beginning of the season, it’s expected that the ownership groups will rise to seven.

As for expansion, Morreale makes no secret he’d like to add Quebec City, which has already hosted a test game, and Victoria and possibly even Kelowna. And then, the CEBL hopes to look at the east coast.

“The goals is to have 14 owners over 14 cities,” he said.