The Fraser Valley Bandits will tip off their inaugural professional basketball season at the Abbotsford Centre on Thursday night. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Building The Fraser Valley Bandits

How the CEBL plans to bring professional basketball to Abbotsford

A lone maintenance worker diligently pushes a broom on the brand-new hardcourt floor at the Abbotsford Centre.

The arena might be empty right now, but by Thursday night thousands of fans are expected to witness basketball history as the Fraser Valley Bandits tip-off for the very first time.

It’s been a whirlwind year of activity since the announcement of the Canadian Elite Basketball League last May.

The CEBL quickly launched franchises in six cities across the country, with an ambitious plan to grow the sport nationally and bring another entertainment option to the table.

The Bandits and the CEBL may have only one opportunity to attract, entertain and ultimately hook fans to its product, which is why Thursday’s launch is so crucial.

Since that announcement a year ago, the Bandits have slowly been putting together the pieces of the puzzles that will shape the franchise.

The club believes it has all the right pieces in place to succeed, and local basketball fans will see the picture the team, coaching staff and management paints tomorrow night.

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Professional basketball left the B.C. sports scene in 2001 when the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies departed for Memphis.

Pro sports has been absent from the Abbotsford Centre since 2014 when the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat were snuffed out.

Both of those two shadows loom for the Bandits, but CEBL executives are banking that those two experiences haven’t soured local sports or basketball fans.

The Grizzlies’ expansion season in 1995-96 saw an average attendance of 17,183, but by the final season in 2000-01 the club was only drawing 13,737. The team’s poor record and lack of stars could account for some of that dip, but when Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley booked the moving vans there wasn’t an overwhelming outcry.

In the years since, basketball has continued to grow as a global sport. Stars like Lebron James and Steph Curry are some of the most recognizable people on the planet and NBA exhibition games that come to Vancouver regularly sell out in short order.

CEBL executives think it’s a completely different market from the bitter taste left by the Grizzlies.

“Abbotsford and the Fraser Valley was an attractive area for us,” said Mike Morreale, the CEO of the CEBL. “It’s close to Vancouver but also has its own identity. Abbotsford is a great first market for B.C. with a rich grassroots basketball program, and the Fraser Valley really includes markets like Surrey, Chilliwack, Langley and Mission.”

Meanwhile, the Heat’s financially challenged five-year run in Abbotsford also left a sour taste in local sports fans.

The team’s agreement with the City of Abbotsford guaranteed the Heat a break-even annual budget of $5.7 million. Over the first four years of the deal, local taxpayers paid more than $5 million to cover financial shortfalls. Abbotsford then paid the Calgary Flames another $5.5 million to terminate the remaining five years of the 10-year supply fee agreement signed in 2009.

In total, the experience ended up costing local taxpayers over $12 million.

The Fraser Valley Bandits hope to have success where other franchises faced challenges. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

But, the CEBL isn’t dealing with numbers like that, and there is no promise by the city to cover any losses incurred by the Bandits.

One of the key figures behind the Bandits potential is Abbotsford native Dylan Kular – the team’s director of business development.

Kular co-created the popular @AbbotsfordBasketball Instagram page, which now boasts over 6,800 followers. The page is a one-stop shop for all basketball information in Abbotsford, and Kular believes that growth can be transferred over to the Bandits.

Basketball in Abbotsford shaped Kular’s life. He began competitive play in Grade 5, and then starred for teams at C.G. Howe and W.J. Mouat. He brought those skills to Squamish’s Quest University, where he earned a scholarship playing post-secondary basketball in the Pacwest.

He said the idea of a team coming to Abbotsford excited him, and things began falling into place fast.

“I remember reading a Black Press article that came out about the league and rumblings of a team in Abbotsford,” he said. “And then the league’s president and CEO came out here last May and met with Mayor and council and they recommended they talk to me. It was pretty shocking and humbling.”

CEBL executives were impressed with Kular, and offered him a position with the Bandits. He said he thinks the Instagram page and his knowledge of the local scene helped him get the job.

“I wanted to create an organization that was inclusive and help kids be active and be involved in positive environments,” he said, of Abbotsford Basketball. “We promote everything and it has helped grow the sport locally. It’s probably one of the reasons I got the job – you have to be willing to go out there and talk to people, share the vision and work hard.”

The Abbotsford franchise was officially named the Fraser Valley Bandits last July. In January mascot Berry was introduced and the club hired head coach and general manager Peter Guarasci. The jersey was unveiled in April.

The team also won the CEBL’s first-ever draft lottery back in March and also selected a handful of players at the entry draft later that month.

Kular said the Bandits front office, which consists of four, is small but skilled. The group’s main goal is to get the word out about the team.

“The biggest challenge for us has been finding ways to get people aware of the team,” he said. “Year one has gone great, but year two will be bigger growth and us learning how this market responds to certain things. We won’t know who our market is until after year one and there is a lot of learning as we go.”

He said he’s optimistic about the team with the debut fast approaching.

“I feel, for the resources we have, everything is going pretty good,” he said. “We want to make sure that whoever is in that arena gets what they were promised. We want to over-deliver and put on a great show with a full entertainment experience. We can give fans that professional experience and production, and it’s going to be something for everyone.”

The team begins its inaugural CEBL regular season Thursday against the Guelph Nighthawks. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m., with an outdoor pre-game experience occurring outside Abbotsford Centre starting at 5:30 p.m.

For more on the team, visit thebandits.ca.

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