A winter sporting event, in Alberta, that is broadcast to outlets around the world. Must be a hockey game, right?
The Edmonton Stingers have established themselves as the most powerful non-NBA team in Canada. They brought Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) championships in both 2020 and 2021 to the province’s capital with a metro population of 1.4 million. They lost only one game over the course of the 2021 season, and won the championship game by a rather lopsided 101-65 score over the Niagara River Lions.
As the Canadian champion, the Stingers will play in the FIBA Basketball Champions League of Americas, a competition bringing together teams from across North, Central, South America and the Caribbean. The CEBL was granted entry in time for the 2022 tournament. The Stingers open the tournament by playing in a three-team group with Nicaraguan champ, Real Esteli, and Puerto Rican titleist, Cangrejeros. Games began in Nicaragua in December, 2021, then in Puerto Rico in February. The third phase of games will see the Stingers host Real Esteli and Cangrejeros in… Calgary?
The Stingers regular home court, the Edmonton Expo Centre, is unavailable in March, so a uniquely all-Alberta solution was found. The Stingers will travel 275 kilometres south and call the WinSport Arena home for a few days. Alberta’s two largest cities are usually fierce sporting rivals, so it’s a unique situation.
“When it became evident that the Stingers homecourt in Edmonton wouldn’t be available in March, our first call was to WinSport Arena, which has an outstanding reputation for staging premier international sports events,” says Mike Morreale, the CEBL commissioner. “Calgary has been a strong basketball market for a long time, and this will be a unique basketball event.”
If the Stingers finish first or second in the group, they’ll qualify to play in the final eight of the Americas zone, which will likely include powerhouse clubs from Argentina and Brazil.
“From a Stingers point of view, it will put them on a pedestal,” says Morreale, as the CEBL enters its fourth season of operation in 2022. “From a league perspective, it showcases all of our teams. For Edmonton, specifically, it exposes the city across North America and Latin America.”
The winner of the Americas zone will go to the 2023 Intercontinental Cup, which will feature European champs and a representative from the NBA-affiliated G-League. It’s a long process, with lots of potential added games to the Stingers schedule. But it will expose Edmonton to places in the world where, honestly, hockey doesn’t register on the sporting radar. It exposes Alberta as a destination to markets that would never see a World Junior Hockey Championship or the Stanley Cup playoffs on their domestic TV schedules.
Edmonton also hosted the CEBL championships in 2021, where the top four teams gathered at the end of the summer to play at the Edmonton Expo Centre, which has a capacity of around 4,000. The fact that Alberta was the first province to relax COVID restrictions played a role. Games played in front of big crowds stress how venues can exempt themselves from COVID restrictions if they ensure that all patrons are vaccinated.
“It was the highlight of the last two years,” says Morreale. “To be able to play in front of fans again — Alberta was the first province to make it possible to play in front of fans, and that made it available to us. We can’t wait to get back there.”
The rise of the Stingers is yet another piece in Edmonton’s strategy to become a global basketball destination.
From 2013 to 2021, the City of Edmonton has provided $500,000 annually to Canada Basketball and Alberta Basketball to support training, grassroots development and hosting of events. In exchange, Edmonton is the hub for women’s senior basketball in Canada. Explore Edmonton states that the hosting of international basketball tournaments such as the 2015 FIBA Americas Women’s Championships and FIBA Women’s Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament brought $8 million of economic benefit to the Alberta capital.
Negotiations with Basketball Canada are underway, with hopes to further extend the Edmonton agreement for another three years. It was set to expire in the spring of 2021, but was extended to the end of 2021 because of COVID-19.
“Our Edmonton team continues to have discussions with the new team at Canada Basketball as Edmonton’s strong history with basketball makes us a natural centre to help grow basketball in Canada,” says Ronna Bremer, director of partnerships and event attraction at the City of Edmonton. “Our Edmonton Events partnership between the City and Explore Edmonton is committed to work with the team at Canada Basketball to bring basketball events to Edmonton as part of our event attraction strategy.”
One of the next steps for CEBL is to try and bring a team to Calgary.
“That is the plan. We definitely want to add a second Alberta city and that would be Calgary,” says Morreale. It’s important not only for the rivalry, but, in a country as vast as Canada, it’s important to add more teams across Western Canada, to help cut down on travel costs. That’s why it’s also looking at a second team in the Vancouver area, and a Winnipeg franchise, as well, to add to Western Canadian teams in Edmonton, Saskatoon and the Fraser Valley.