Although they were one of the two teams in the Canadian Elite Basketball League that didn’t qualify for the playoffs in its inaugural season, the Guelph Nighthawks consider their first ever season to be a success.
“From a business perspective, I would say (it went) very well,” Nighthawks president Cameron Kusch said moments after the team wrapped up the home portion of its season at the Sleeman Centre last Friday.
“I’m incredibly happy with the support that we were able to get here in the community of Guelph. For a city that has really never had professional basketball before, to see this community buy into Nighthawks basketball and certainly having the Raptors being as successful as they were this year winning the NBA championship certainly didn’t hurt us.
"But seeing the community buy into Nighthawks basketball was something I’ll never forget and I’m incredibly proud of. I think we’re on the right track to build something really successful here for the long term.”
However, the team’s success on the court was limited as it finished fifth in the six-team league.
They had a total of 23 players suit up for at least one game with only team MVP Olu Famutimi playing in all 20 games.
They also released their leading scorer while they were still in the playoff hunt and eventually replaced original head coach and general manager Tarry Upshaw with Charles Kissi midway through the season with the Nighthawks at 3-7. They’re 5-14 heading into their final regular-season game against the Saskatchewan Rattlers at Saskatoon Thursday night.
“On the basketball side, obviously we would have loved to have won a few more games,” Kusch said. “We had a fair bit of player turnover and obviously a coaching change in the middle of the season and it would’ve been nice to not have to go through any of those things, but it’s our first year and you go through some of those growing pains sometimes.
"I like to think that we’re now on the right track. We’ve got the right guy in charge leading us into 2020 and as he puts his plan into place, I really have a lot of faith in Charles Kissi and his ability to lead this team on the basketbalkl court forward and allow us to not just challenge for a playoff spot, but for a championship next year.”
Yes, the Nighthawks vow to be back in 2020.
“We are already selling 2020 season’s tickets,” Kusch said. “Our owner at the CEBL, Richard Petko, is fully committed to seeing this thing through. He’s not just here to give this a shot and see what happens, he’s in this for the long term. The partnership with U Sports, the partnership with Canada Basketball tell us that and he wants to see this thing build and grow to not just be financially sucessful, but to also help build and grow the Canadian basketball product at the same time.”
The Nighthawks feel they achieved their objective of keeping the fans entertained during their home games at the Sleeman Centre.
“That was our first mandate. When we stepped foot into this community in May of 2018 and started building out Nighthawks basketball and what we would be, I said first and foremost we need to focus on the fan experience. We need to make sure that again, because basketball isn’t the number one sport in this city right now and hopefully it will be, but it isn’t,” Kusch said.
He added that order for the Nighthawks to engage with the entire community, people who are casual sports fans and people who aren’t sports fans at all, they have to give them something to be entertained and excited by. It can’t just be focused on the basketball on the court.
"I think we fulfilled our mandate of bringing in entertaining halftime performances, bringing in a good deejay and a solid dance team and having social lounge spaces that are available to everyone on court level and just creating an inclusive environment that really keeps everyone entertained throughout an entire Nighthawks game.”
While attendance was not announced at games and not recorded on the league’s website, the Nighthawks are pleased with the number of fans they were able to put in the seats for their home games including around 1,700 for their final home game last weekend.
“We averaged right around 1,500 people or so per game,” Kusch said. “I think Year One was a success for sure. Obviously we would have loved to have sold out all 10 home games here and we could have papered the crowd and handed out free tickets to do that, but we were not willing to do that. From a business perspective, we’re going to be sucessful because people buy into us and see value value in purchasing a ticket to come to a Nighthawks basketball game.”
In their first season, the Nighthawks played nine of their 10 home games on Saturday nights while the other one was on a Friday night. That could change next season.
“My preference now having gone through a whole season, I feel like Friday nights are probably our best night,” Kusch said.
“We are going to be be going out and surveying our fans to find out what they feel is the best night of the week for them. Obviously we want the night of the week that is going to allow us to draw the biggest and the best attendance here in the building. For us, my gut tells me that that’s a Friday night, but ultimately we’ll let the fans dictate that with what the survey results are and we’ll do our best to accommodate as many of those dates of the week as possible.”
The Nighthawks will have a little more than eight months to get ready for their second season in the CEBL.
“I would say (that will be) easier and harder at the same time,” Kusch said. “I’d say easier because we have a base to work off of. We know what to expect. A lot of us were coming into this green in terms of trying to nail that fan experience, trying to make sure we put together as compelling a product as possible for our fans.
“Now our challenge is how do we take it up one notch. How do we make sure that we’re continually growing and building on the experience for our fans? How do we bring in bigger and better halftime shows? How do we improve the experience in the Old Quebec Street Shoppes as you walk in to the Sleeman Centre? We cannot be stagnant. We need to continue challenging ourselves to be better and to improve our product for our fans.
“We need to continue to push the boundaries and to keep challenging ourselves to be better and to put a better product both on the court and with that in-arena experience so our fans keep saying positive things about us and keep being our biggest advocates for Nighthawks basketball.”