Published Wednesday September 28th, 2011
NABL Exhibition | Saint John vs. Quebec a dry run for potential Fredericton franchise in pro hoop loop
B1 By BILL HUNT
The Saint John Mill Rats of the new National Basketball League of Canada will host the Quebec Kebs in a preseason exhibition game at the new Currie Center at 2 p.m. on that Sunday, a game that Fredericton basketball enthusiast Kelly Lamrock admits will be a gauge of Fredericton's interest in pursuing its own franchise in the new league.
Just under 1,500 seats -- $12 for general admission rush seating, $16 for courtside seats on the floor -- will be available online beginning Monday through the Fredericton playhouse website (theplayhouse.ca) or through the Mill Rats website.
Lamrock and Mill Rats general manager Ian McCarthy -- also the league's co-founder -- first made contact a year ago, during the Mill Rats' stint in the ill-fated Premier Basketball League.
"We just stayed in touch with him, and he invited us to see if this would be a good idea to guage the market for his group," said McCarthy. "We thought 'Fredericton is only 45 minutes away, so it wouldn't be a bad opportunity for us to showcase the product to some fans who maybe haven't made it down to Saint John yet."
McCarthy is optimistic the game will sell out.
"They should be gone before the day of the game, I would think," he said. "I've already had some youth groups contact some minor basketball teams that want to get blocks of tickets."
McCarthy said the Mill Rats "are looking pretty good. We're anxious to get the season going. We're negotiating with a few NBA and former NBA players."
Former UNB stalwart Mike Anderson of Saint John was part of the Mill Rats roster last year. McCarthy said while management has not sat down with him to negotiate a new deal, "I think we would encourage him to play in this game anyway, since it's at his alma mater."
The Currie Center, the $62 million athletic and convocation facility on campus, will host the Eric Garland basketball tournament hosted by the Varsity Reds men's squad beginning Friday night and the Helen Campbell tourney hosted by the women Oct. 7-8.
"We've got a great venue," said Lamrock. "The Currie Center has just enough seats to allow a franchise to play out of there. It's a fantastic fan experience. The big challenge is, can Fredericton consistently fill it? This will be a good chance to see whether or not there are enough people who want to buy tickets to see great basketball."
The Mill Rats operated in the Premier Basketball League last season, but withdrew due to officiating controversies. They broke off with ownership of the Halifax Rainmen and Quebec Kebs to form the new National Basketball League of Canada, which will begin its first season in November.
The Moncton Miracles, Summerside, PEI Storm, Oshawa, Ont. Power and London, Ont. Lightning are the other franchises in the fledgling circuit. Saint John will have two more preseason games, Oct. 26 and 27 before beginning the regular season Nov. 4 in Summerside.
Lamrock sees the exhibition as a litmus test for Fredericton's professional basketball future.
"There's no question it is," said Lamrock. "There were a couple of things investors here wanted to see. Could the three teams get a new league off the ground? We knew they were well run franchises but would there be a Canadian model that works? The second is to see whether there's enough interest in Fredericton for professional basketball?"
He's been in contact with Mill Rats general manager Ian McCarthy about bringing players in to visit local schools prior to the game and said that, much like at Mill Rat games at Harbour Station last year, players will stay around and be accessible to fans after the game.
"They really do have a great kid friendly and family friendly approach," said Lamrock, who attended many games with his family at Harbour Station last year. "We want to emulate that right from our very introduction to the league."
Lamrock said he and Mill Rats considered the larger Aitken Centre, just up the road from the Currie Center, as a venue for the game. 'but the fan experience there for basketball just isn't quite the same," he said. "It's a great hockey facility. But the Currie Center offers an intimacy and a fan experience that makes it better, if the numbers can work. Right now, on the league's revenue model, they can."
Lamrock said his hope is that a strong showing from the Fredericton community would attract investors and corporate support that would allow the city to pursue an expansion franchise in the league.
"We need a layer of capital and a layer of corporate support," said Lamrock. "We've got a little bit of both. But to get all the way there, we're going to need to take that next step. We've sort of set this goal to demonstrate to potential investors that both the league and the city can work. If this works, then we're going to reach out to the corporate community and we may even soon be at the point where we could look at a season ticket drive."
However, much hinges on the success of the Oct. 23 matchup.
"It's a great chance to show the local market and to spend a year showing that this league has some stability," he said. "I think the management team the league has, combined with the early results, they're doing their part. Now we just have to see if the city can step up. We don't have anything yet. We have a group of people who, in the right circumstances, would be prepared to put up some money."
Lamrock said McCarthy has been "nothing but helpful," as a mentor to Fredericton interests in the circuit.
"He's been a really great mentor since we first started looking at the old PBL," said Lamrock. "We've met on and off and he and the other charter owners in Canada have been very good at answering questions. We're excited to be able to put this event together for them. Even if it doesn't lead to a team in Fredericton, maybe it can lead to a very permanent relationship with a great franchise in Saint John and introducing Frederictonians to what really is a great product."