Between the squeaking of shoes, the rumble of basketballs on the parquet, and the satisfying rustle The web has a palpable buzz in the gym of the Pierre-Charbonneau Center on the east end of Montreal.
A handful of young men are training: making quick passes, shooting three-pointers and showcasing their slam dunk skills in hopes of earning a spot on the city’s newest professional basketball team – a second in less than two years.
Montreal’s new team, as yet to be formed or named, will begin its 24-game season in March, playing American rivals specifically in the Basketball League (TBL), a minor league consisting of dozens of teams in the United States.
For Narcisse Kalamba, a professional ball player and team candidate, playing in his hometown would be “a dream come true” – like showing the US that it’s Montreal’s game.
“It’s not just America that has the talent, we also have the talent,” he said.
The new roster comes right after the Montreal Alliance, the city’s first professional basketball team in almost a decade. It was founded in 2021 and played its first season in the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) this year.
Thanks to this league, Alliance forward Elijah Isfeh, 25, already knows what it feels like to represent his hometown in a basketball jersey. He is now competing for a second match with the TBL team. (The leagues’ schedules make it possible for a player to be a part of both.)
“This is something special,” he said. “I always wanted that Montreal on my chest.”
For Kalamba, 27, shooting guard who most recently played in the CEBL in Guelph, Ontario, moving to another team in Montreal “is totally beneficial for the city and the fans. [and] families.”
But not everyone agrees.
Expert says fan appetite depends on success
Moshe Lander, professor of sports economics at Concordia University, warns that bringing another professional basketball team to Montreal as a way to grow the sport can backfire.
“At the end of the day, you can’t have two teams competing for the same fan base in the same city. One of them will inevitably fail, and it’s the broader league that’s usually associated with that team. It fails too,” Lander said.
While the two teams’ seasons don’t overlap (Montreal’s TBL team will run from March to June, and Alliance’s from June to August), Lander says the problem isn’t about programming among their fanbase, but about their limited disposable income.
“You may be the hardest basketball fan, but the truth is, you have a lot of disposable income to spread around,” he said. He said dividing the fan base between teams could be disastrous for both.
WATCH | The sports economist explains why 2 professional ball teams in Montreal could fail:
Another problem Lander predicts is the lack of track record of the new team. Starting a year ahead, Alliance, despite finishing last this year, had the best audience in its league, with an average of around 3,000 fans per game at the Verdun Auditorium.
Lander said that likely won’t be the case for the new TBL team, which faces off for home games at the Pierre-Charbonneau Center, which sits for more than 2,000 people.
If they don’t start generating gains quickly, they may find themselves newly priced out of the market by another loser.– Moshe Lander
“They can be a little forgiven for being new, but even there they’re going to have a bit of a hard time because they’re not new to basketball – they’re just new to the team,” he said.
“So there’s an element here that fans will say ‘we’re already supporting a loser’… and if they don’t start producing wins quickly, they may find themselves just priced out of the market by another loser.”
GM confident team will succeed
Previous attempts to build a professional basketball team in Montreal – the Montreal Matrix and the Montreal Jazz, to name a few – have failed. According to Lander, the Alliance still has a window to build a solid fan base.
Juan Mendez, architect of Montreal’s new TBL team, Canadian basketball icon and former assistant coach of the McGill University men’s basketball team, says he understands Lander’s concerns about his team but is confident he will succeed.
“We’re trying to play as much basketball as possible and coexist at this point,” said the general manager, who plays for the Canadian national basketball team and several professional teams abroad.
“I think it’s a good time to keep this team here in Montreal,” Mendez said, given that basketball is growing “at a rapid pace” and there are currently four players from Montreal in the NBA.
It took four years to get the team into TBL as the pandemic slowed things down. The league will now have a total of 46 teams and will join Montreal, Alma, Vancouver and Newfoundland as the only franchises in Canada.
Mendez said his team will be made entirely of Quebec players as a way to showcase the city’s otherwise undiscovered young athletes and show fans that the team puts the community first.
“I think we will be successful if we put out a product that we believe the fans will support,” Mendez said.
To connect with the community beyond basketball, 10 percent of the team’s net profits will be donated to the CHU Sainte-Justine foundation, along with free tickets for sick children and their families.
“We love to give back, and that’s our take on this whole series. As much as we love basketball, the community comes first,” Mendez said.
Mendez and his colleagues will reveal their team’s name and logo on December 8. Open auditions will be held for local athletes from mid to late January to fill out the team’s roster, which will be announced in February.
As much as we love basketball, society comes first.– Juan Mendez, general manager of the new TBL team
Meanwhile, Lander warns that another failing basketball team could leave a “black mark” on the city, and says he’ll also be cautious about naming Montreal a “basketball city,” as announced in September.
“I think people here probably like to watch basketball, they might like to play basketball, that’s not the same as supporting basketball,” he said.
And the collapse of one of the city’s two teams may indicate that Montrealers love to watch the sport “from the comfort of our couch.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians – from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.