The Fraser Valley Bandits are the latest effort to bring professional sports to the suburbs of Vancouver. Past attempts didn't exactly work out. When it debuts this month, will the new basketball team be any different?
Lee Genier doesn’t have to look far from the Abbotsford Centre for proof that outside Vancouver, professional sports in the Lower Mainland are a tenuous bet at best.
It’s a 20-minute drive to the Langley Events Centre (LEC), home of the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants. The team just finished its third season in the building after 15 in Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, where average attendance dwarfed what the team is putting up now.
And it was almost exactly a decade ago in this very building that the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat began play. But the Calgary Flames’ farm team couldn’t draw much of a crowd, bleeding money from the start. Five years later, the Heat and the City went through an acrimonious divorce that had the latter paying $5.5 million to skip out on what was originally a 10-year pact.
Today there are a few remnants that hint of the Heat’s existence—a framed autographed jersey sits near the offices, while a wall recognizing former season ticket holders adorns the concourse level. But the $64.7-million, 7,046-seat centre has mostly sat dormant since the Heat left, save for concerts and other special events.
Well, until this month. When the newly formed six-team Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) begins play on May 9, the Abbotsford Centre will house the Fraser Valley Bandits. The league, which will roll out its 20-game schedule in the summer, is populated by a cavalcade of Canadian players (rosters must be at least 70-percent Canadian), including Joel Friesen, a graduate of Abbotsford’s Yale Secondary School and the Bandits’ first overall pick in the March entry draft. He and 12 teammates will have a large hand in shaping the team’s debut campaign.
Genier, president and COO of the league’s western operations (he also oversees the Edmonton Stingers and the Saskatchewan Rattlers; the other three teams are in Ontario), believes the Bandits will be a long-term tenant at the centre.
He has a convincing pedigree. The Calgarian was president of the NLL’s Saskatchewan Rush when the team joined the league in 2016. After winning Executive of the Year Award in the club’s inaugural season, Genier quit a year later to look after his brother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. When he left the Rush, they were second in attendance in the NLL. Now, with his brother’s cancer in remission, Genier is ready to prove the doubters wrong.
“I didn’t go into Saskatchewan selling lacrosse; I went in there selling entertainment,” he says. “Basketball is huge in the Fraser Valley and in Vancouver. It’s on a major upward curve. So one, you’re going to attract the basketball fans, because you’re putting a pro team there. But you’re also going to attract those people that are going to come for a night out.”
Of course, the Heat thought it was entering a no-lose situation. At the time, the group behind it said market research had shown that an AHL team in Abbotsford was a smart business venture.
Like many, Genier believes a major reason for the Heat’s failure was that it was aligned with the Flames in a market dominated by the Vancouver Canucks. But he also points to a changing demographic in Canada.
“I grew up watching hockey, but the diversity of our country has changed dramatically and will continue to change,” Genier explains. “Basketball is very popular among a lot of different cultures, and we’re in a very culturally diverse area of Canada. It’s a very enthusiastic basketball crowd. I’d rather be on that curve climbing up than be part of a league that’s declining. And that’s where a lot of the research is done in advance of placing these teams.”
Coach Peter Guarasci faces the media
The case for the Valley
Dylan Kular, the Bandits’ director of business operations, notes that there was never any discussion of putting the team in B.C.’s largest city—or anywhere other than Abbotsford, for that matter. “In terms of pro sports, if you enter into Vancouver, we’re also competing with the Canucks, [B.C.] Lions, Warriors, [Vancouver] Whitecaps.
“In the Fraser Valley, in the summer, we’re the only show. And with hockey, you have the boards, you have the barriers, you can’t provide as much entertainment value as you can with basketball. Before and during the game, we’ll provide a lot of activations for families to have fun. We can replicate a lot of stuff that the Harlem Globetrotters do, for example, but the basketball is going to be legit.”
And unlike with other professional sports, the cost of going to Bandits games won’t be especially prohibitive. Season tickets can be had for $179, including taxes, with the low for single games hovering around $22.
Kular and Genier both talk about the Valley as a hotbed for basketball, and there’s some evidence to back that up. For instance, this March the provincial high school basketball championships tipped off at the Langley Events Centre. The final, featuring Kelowna Secondary School and Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir (the eventual champion) drew an announced crowd of 4,518, well above what the Vancouver Giants bring in at the same arena.
Len De Julius, president of the Fraser Valley Basketball Commission for 11 years, is in charge of organizing leagues and playoffs for the more than 400 school teams in the region. Although the Valley has a storied basketball history that goes back decades, De Julius says, he doesn’t know if that will translate to the Bandits.
“Even when the [Vancouver] Grizzlies were here, we didn’t spend a lot of time in our basketball community talking about that, because everyone is focused on coaching and playing,” he notes. “Everyone’s busy figuring out how to break a 2–2–1 zone press. I think [the Bandits] probably face a bit of an uphill battle to get people to come out. Largely because the Lower Mainland is very much a top-level type of area, as evidenced by the fact that the Abbotsford Heat are no longer in Abbotsford.”
But his cynicism doesn’t mean he has no hope. As former Vancouver Canucks general manager and current Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke likes to say, “Vote with your feet.” De Julius plans to do just that “I think it’s a battle worth fighting,” he says. “Having some kind of professional basketball team in the Lower Mainland is fantastic.
I think it’s really good that it’s located in the Fraser Valley, and I’m hopeful that people will go out and watch and support them. I know I will. I have kids that love playing basketball, and I’ll take them out whenever I can to watch those games.”
"BASKETBALL IS HUGE IN THE FRASER VALLEY AND IN VANCOUVER. IT’S ON A MAJOR UPWARD CURVE. SO ONE, YOU’RE GOING TO ATTRACT THE BASKETBALL FANS, BECAUSE YOU’RE PUTTING A PRO TEAM THERE. BUT YOU’RE ALSO GOING TO ATTRACT THOSE PEOPLE THAT ARE GOING TO COME FOR A NIGHT OUT”
Lee Genier, president and COO, western operations, Canadian Elite Basketball League
Out of the Heat and into the fire
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun is also looking forward to attending the Bandits matches. He already has four season tickets and plans to take his grandchildren to the Abbotsford Centre as much as possible.
Braun, a councillor when the City decided to terminate its deal with the Heat, was first elected mayor in 2014, the same year that team left. (He won another election last fall.) His stance on the Heat and pro sports in the Valley helped him defeat mayoral incumbent Bruce Banman.
“I said, ‘It’s going to take a $5.5-million cheque to get out of an agreement that’s going to cost us $10 million if they stay another five years,’ and for me as a businessperson, that was not a very hard choice,” says the former co-owner, president and CEO of railway giant Pacific Northern Rail Contractors Corp. “We took some flak. There were some hockey fans that weren’t happy about it. But we have to look at the greater interest of the community and say, ‘This isn’t working; we have to do something different,’ and we’ve now done that.”
He’s referring to the city’s New Game strategy, designed in 2014 to make the centre, which was propped up by taxpayer subsidies to the tune of $7.5 million over the Heat’s five-year existence, profitable.
Numbers aren’t yet in for 2018, but 2017 saw Abbotsford taxpayers throw $883,000 in subsidies toward the centre, which has 300 club seats, 15 boxes and 20 private suites. And while Braun still hopes the city will get another hockey team—he talked to the Canucks before the National Hockey League club signed a six-year extension in December to keep its farm squad in upstate New York with the Utica Comets—he says it won’t come at the expense of the taxpayer.
“Quite frankly, [the Comets] would come here if we were to subsidize them,” he maintains. “And my response was that I made a commitment when I ran for mayor in 2014 that I would do everything I could to attract a professional sports team, but I didn’t want it to cost the residents of the city of Abbotsford tax subsidies. So that’s the marching orders our staff have, and if we can make that work, we’re open.”
Adds Braun: “It’s a new day. Abbotsford is busy, it’s growing, and basketball is a very hot topic, especially with the rivalries between some of the high schools. I think the Bandits are going to do very well here.”
“BASKETBALL’S A SPORT WHERE YOU REALLY CAN FIND OUT WHAT YOUR POTENTIAL IS IN YOUR MID-TO-LATE 20S. SO HAVING THE CEBL IN PLACE WILL GIVE THESE GUYS AN OPPORTUNITY TO DEVELOP IN THE SUMMER AND FURTHER IN THEIR CAREERS. THAT’S PROBABLY THE MOST EXCITING THING FOR ME”
Peter Guarasci, coach and general manager, Fraser Valley Bandits
There’s another part of the basketball community that the Bandits and the CEBL as a whole promise to serve: the players. At 6-7, Bandits coach and general manager Peter Guarasci is an intimidating figure, but many of his players will relate to his story. The Ontario-born power forward dominated the university circuit with SFU and went on to play with Team Canada at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, alongside National Basketball Association superstar Steve Nash. But there was nowhere in North America for him to ply his trade professionally, so he spent 12 years playing in Germany and Italy.
“Basketball’s a sport where you really can find out what your potential is in your mid-to-late 20s,” Guarasci says. “So having the CEBL in place will give these guys an opportunity to develop in the summer and further in their careers. That’s probably the most exciting thing for me—just the fact we’re bringing pro groups back to B.C.”
Still, the odds are stacked against the CEBL, at least when it comes to having prolonged success in the Fraser Valley. The Vancouver Giants are three years into a 10-year lease at the Langley Events Centre, icing one of the best teams in the WHL, including prospective top NHL draft pick Bowen Byram. Conditions probably don’t get better than that, but this year the club posted an average attendance of 3,826. The worst average the team ever recorded in Vancouver was 4,956. (The Giants didn’t respond when asked for a comment.)
And everyone knows what happened with the Stealth and the Heat. Will basketball really make all the difference?
Odds are it will come down to whether Genier, Guarasci and company can make those 10 home games each summer intriguing and entertaining enough to become must-attend events.
Genier will be drawing on his experience in Saskatchewan hawking lacrosse, and he likes his chances. “I stood up day one and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to sell out this place,’” he says of Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre and its 15,000 capacity. “Folks thought, ‘Who the heck does this guy think he is?’ It came to fruition, and a lot of people said, ‘I owe you an apology.’”
If he’s wrong this time, there will likely be no shortage of people ready to rub it in his face. After all, there are still Abbotsford residents who refuse to go to the centre because they consider it a colossal waste of public funds. But Genier believes confidence is key, and he’s got enough to spare.
“You have to see and believe and carry that message to everyone. And we’re looking to do the same in the Fraser Valley. You’ve got 7,000 seats here, and I want to see 7,000 seats sold every game.”
A Grizzly Tale
B.C.'s first basketball team was ahead of its time—and suffered for it
The Vancouver Grizzlies lumbered into the NBA in 1995, carrying the weight of the league’s Canadian expansion effort along with the Toronto Raptors. Although the latter has enjoyed enormous success in a hockey-mad city, the Grizzlies, shepherded by then–Vancouver Canucks owner Arthur Griffiths, folded a mere six years later.
There were many reasons for the club’s failure, but chief among them was lack of revenue. Perhaps Vancouver wasn’t ready for a professional basketball team. Or maybe a perennial loser didn’t whet anyone’s appetite. (After all, the Canucks were already around; apparently only Toronto can support two losing franchises.) But since the team departed for Memphis, basketball’s popularity appears to have surged in the city, somewhat inconveniently for die-hard Grizzlies fans.
Look for that trend to continue. In 2014, basketball was the third-ranked sport in Canada for those aged three to 17, behind only soccer and hockey, according to a study by Toronto-based Solutions Research Group. Taking a longer-term view, Statistics Canada found that soccer and basketball were the only two sports in which participation by five- to 14-year-olds increased from 1992 to 2005.
The kicker? The Raptors’ valuation has exploded since the Grizzlies vanished from Vancouver. In 2003, Forbes pegged the franchise’s worth at US$217 million. As of this year, the magazine valued it at US$1.7 billion, 11th among the NBA’s 30 teams.