“We have not stopped working at this,” said John Graham Monday, the day St. John’s City Council has approved terms of a deal that will see a National Basketball League of Canada team play out of Mile One Centre beginning in November.
“We have people employed who have been working away at this. While they’ve been under the radar, there’s a group that has been hard at it,” said Graham, noting some are “very strong” basketball people.
As The Telegram reported Aug. 11, Graham’s group and St. John's Sports and Entertainment reached a tentative deal in principal to bring pro hoops to St. John’s, but it’s taken well over a month to get the five-year agreement signed, sealed and delivered.
The ownership group is one headed up by Glace Bay, N.S., native Irwin Simon, the CEO and president of Hain Celestial, a New York-based company specializing in health food and personal care items.
Graham was the person behind the negotiations. A Toronto promoter, Graham is familiar with St. John's, having done business in the city over the years with sports exhibitions.
Graham said the NBL—– which operated with 10 teams last year — is scheduled to open Nov. 18, or exactly two months to the day the deal was announced at the weekly city council meeting.
The list of things to do before tipoff – it’s likely the team will open on the road, and will remain away from Mile One for a week or two to buy some extra prep time back in St. John’s — is long and plentiful.
There’s the little matter of putting together a team, finding a coach, selecting a name, picking out a uniform, not to mention building a team of corporate partnerships and launching a ticket campaign.
It’s expected former St. John’s IceCaps chief operating officer Glenn Stanford — who tried to lure an NBL Canada franchise to St. John’s, but could not come to terms on a lease arrangement with Mile One — could have a hand in setting up the new basketball operation.
“Bear with me,” Graham said, “we will present to you shortly our plan and strategy.
“We have one in place, and yes, we are up and running.”
Talks about establishing a minor pro basketball team in St. John’s had been going on since the spring and negotiations had stretched long beyond the league’s published deadlines. In fact, in July — after those deadlines had passed — NBL Canada president Victor Frijia stated he would prefer to have seen the deal finalized by the end of that month.
Given we are seven weeks beyond that extended deadline, it’s obvious the league was willing to provide plenty of leeway in order to add another team — especially one with a high-profile and financially strong owner — to its roster.
The agreement includes an exclusivity clause which will give the Simon group first negotiating rights for a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise, or perhaps an ECHL pro team, should one become available for 2018-19 or beyond.
The hockey exclusivity lasts until March 31, 2019.
This is not to suggest, Graham cautions, that basketball is merely a short-term thing until hockey arrives.
Rather, the Simon group is in this for the long haul, he says.
“You will see by the people we are trying to bring in that this is not a filler,” he said.
“We aren’t going after King James (Lebron James), but we are very serious about this product.”
The NBL will offer 20 regular season home games at Mile One. About 2,500 fans per game will be needed to break even.