Professional basketball weathering well in Summerside
© Guardian photo
Stephan McDowell, right, cheers as Troy Jackson, Storm players, aids Jenaya Ross, student, in a slam dunk during a demonstration at Westwood Primary School earlier this week.
Summerside Storm co-owners Duncan Shaw and Darren MacKay know a thing or two about basketball.
Shaw used to play the sport with the UPEI Panthers and MacKay is a long-time fan of the hoops.
The pair is also successful as business partners. They own and operate Chandler's Cabinet and Millwork in Charlottetown.
So buying into basketball as a business would seem a natural fit, right?
Perhaps, but the process has proven far more detailed than a simple lay up. Bringing professional basketball to a court in P.E.I. began for Shaw and MacKay with a blank slate.
"The business side, to be honest, we were absolutely clueless,'' said Shaw.
Still, the duo wanted to take a serious shot at being a part of the fledgling National Basketball League of Canada that boasts seven teams for the inaugural 36-game season well underway.
Among the more notable challenges were finding a place to play and building a team from scratch.
After negotiations with both of the province's two largest municipalities, a one-year deal was struck with the City of Summerside for the team to play all 18 home games at Credit Union Place.
Shaw says the facility, that can seat about 4,000 for a basketball game, is a good fit. Storm player Al Stewart calls the home court tops in the league.
Shaw hopes the facility will be a longtime, permanent home for his team. He and MacKay are currently in negotiations with Summerside to reach a new contract.
"We would like to be in Summerside,'' he said.
And the city, it seems, is increasingly swept up in the Storm.
On Thursday night — a stormy evening in Summerside — a revved up crowd was rooting heartily for the home team. Each basket and every solid defensive play in the Storm's losing effort against the Oshawa Power earned an enthusiastic response from the fans.
"You feel the energy when you come in the building,'' said Sara McKenna, who carted her two young daughters to the game, both sporting a colourful storm-bursting cloud face painting.
"I think it's great for the community. I think they're doing a tremendous job.''
Attendance is averaging close to 2,000 a game — that's good enough for third best in a league consisting of the Saint John Mill Rats, Halifax Rainmen, Quebec Kebs, London Lightning, Moncton Miracles, Oshawa Power and the Summerside Storm.
Shaw is quick to dismiss the rumour that the crowd is seeded with rows and rows of freebies. Perhaps five per cent of the attendance comes from handouts, he estimates.
The key to financial stability, he stressed, is pulling in about $700,000 in revenue per year through both direct fan support and corporate backing.
The team hopes to break even next season and turn a profit in the third year of operation.
Shaw sees providing a fun, affordable night as being the ticket to the Storm's success. Tickets range from a high of $10 for adults to free for children five and under.
In addition to good calibre basketball, dancers, music, prizes and other activities offers a nice flow to the evening.
"We don't sell basketball,'' said Shaw. "We sell entertainment.''
And plenty is being done to promote the team not only in Summerside but also throughout the province.
The Storm holds one practice a week at UPEI in Charlottetown. And the players are hitting the schools, children's wards in hospitals and even dribbling in parades to draw out more fans.
Young children marvel at the size of the basketball players, craning their heads to look in the eyes of the likes of Jared Carter, who towers seven feet and two inches tall.
Stewart, a point guard with the team, considers being in touch with the community a pleasant part of the job. He is impressed with the growing fan base.
"Everywhere you go in the community, they know who you are,'' he said.
Joe Salerno, the Storm's head coach and vice-president of player personnel, noted back in August when he got the nod for the job that the team is here to make its presence felt both on and off the court.
"We feel this franchise just isn't here to play basketball games, but to be there for the community, youth basketball, try to be role models for younger players and just let them know that pursuing the game of basketball is something that is possible,'' he told Transcontinental Media at the time.
Natalie McDonald, who lives in Central Bedeque and works in Summerside, has followed basketball for years including her time studying at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia. She was "psyched'' when she learned Summerside was snagging a team in the new National Basketball League of Canada.
The first game she attended early in the season made her feel like she was in a big city because of the high level of energy.
She says the talk among her friends and co-workers is that the Summerside Storm provides great family entertainment.
"I just feel like Summerside needs a family event and this is a family event,'' said McDonald.
Local boy Doug McKinney, 27, of Charlottetown says the fans were quiet early in the season, even with the Storm bursting out of the gates with three straight wins. With each game, though, he has heard the crowd grow more boisterous.
"The fans have been with us a hundred per cent,'' said McKinney, a 6'8'', 240-pound power forward.
A seven-game losing streak even failed to turn Storm fans sour, notes team co-owner MacKay.
"I think people understand the scenario that we're an expansion team,'' he said.
"People have been very patient.''
Andy Packard, 59, of Brackley Beach was at his second Storm game Thursday night.
The former UPEI Panthers basketball player says the new league offers up a good calibre of play.
He says having a professional basketball team in town is a great way to get kids to take up the game.
From what he has seen to date, his gut feeling is that this Storm will be hanging around for some time to come.
"Summerside is ready for basketball.''