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Cape Breton Highlanders suspend NBLC operations

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SYDNEY, N.S. —

Tyrone Levingston says it’ll take an additional $250,000 to $300,000 a year in capital investment to resume Cape Breton Highlanders’ basketball operations in Sydney.

The professional team that has played in the National Basketball League of Canada since the 2016-17 season suspended operations indefinitely Friday.

Levingston, 36, a native of Detroit, has been the team’s president and general manager since the beginning. He moved to Cape Breton two years before the first tip-off at Centre 200 in December 2016 to secure the financing to make it a viable franchise.

The team always operated on a “shoestring” budget, Levingston admitted in an interview Friday. He said the Highlanders have a total annual budget of $225,000 a year when more established and financially secure teams have budgets of $500,000 or more.

“We were doing a mediocre job and this is why we’re in this position,” said Levingston, sitting in the stands at Centre 200 as organizers prepared for this weekend’s Cape Breton Kennel Club dog show.

“We can’t continue to do a mediocre job if we want to continue. If we’re going to call ourselves a professional organization, we have to do things professionally.”

The front office consisted of Levingston and a part-time assistant. The on-court staff included the head coach and assistant coach.

The team suspended operations for the upcoming season because it couldn’t meet deadlines set out by the NBL.

The league required team dues of $25,000 by July 8 and any outstanding debts owed by the team also needed to be paid.

A decision was made in early June among the Highlanders 10 private investors, including Levingston, to scrap the upcoming season with a hope the team could attract new investment – more than its current total operating budget – within the next couple of months.

It’s a tall task and Levingston knows it. But he’s hopeful the team can rebound to start the 2020-21 season.

There are only a few organizations or businesspeople with deep enough pockets willing to take a risk on a floundering organization.

Levingston hasn’t had much luck so far. He likens it to heading back to the “same wells asking for water” with no one willing to fill his glass half full.

“If their minds haven’t changed then you’re limited in where you can draw from so that’s where we’re kind of finding ourselves right now.”

And it doesn’t appear the new majority owner of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles hockey team is a likely investor for the Highlanders.

Irwin Simon is part of the ownership group of the Cape Breton Highlanders NBL rival St. John’s Edge in Newfoundland.

A few month ago there was speculation Simon would purchase the Highlanders franchise and have two sports teams in one location in Sydney. However, Levingston quickly denied those rumours.

On Friday, again Levingston said there’s been little discussion with Simon.

“We had minimal conversation with Mr. Simon. Nothing really came to fruition,” he said.

“He’s getting ready for the upcoming Screaming Eagles season and I’m sure he’s preparing for the next (St. John’s) Edge season, so I’m pretty sure he has his hands full.

“If he was a person of interest, we definitely wouldn’t turn him down if he was interested. We would hear him out for sure.”

The Highlander’s investors voted in what Levingston called a “unanimous” decision, however he hedged somewhat on his level of comfort with the decision – the team is “his baby” after all – but he understood from a business perspective it was the right thing to do.

Attendance slipped in each of the three years the team played in Sydney.

It was “curiosity,” said Levingston, that brought out spectators in 2016 because the island had not experienced pro basketball since the Cape Breton Breakers played one full season in 1993.

The average attendance in the Highlanders first year at Centre 200 was 1,475 fans per game. In 2017-18, the average attendance dropped to 1,354. And in this last season, the average was 1,237 despite the fact the tickets were cheap – $10 to $15 taxes in.

Well-known Sydney businessman Marty Chernin has been an investor in the Cape Breton Highlanders since Day 1. And he still believes in the team’s potential, but the attendance figure isn’t at the level to break even.

“We haven’t had enough support with attendance to make it a viable business operation,” he said.

“We always had money to get through (each) season but it was our money. We didn’t have enough support from the general public to come to the games. We needed like 1,500 people a game to break even I think, and we weren’t getting that.”

At the end of each season, investors had to spend “pretty substantial” amounts of money to get the team out of debt, Chernin noted.

“There’s no return (on investment) and you can only put so much money into something before it gets to the point where you have to say, ‘Well, that’s it.’”

The Highlanders struggled during their first two seasons – posting a 15-25 record in their inaugural year, before finishing the 2017-18 season with a 12-27 record.

The team improved last season, finishing the year with a 19-21 record, while making franchise history for most wins in a single season and clinching their first-ever playoff spot, something many believed would be positives for the club heading into the off-season.

Levingston said he recalled handing out somewhere in the range of 1,000 complementary tickets to games in the team’s second season. That dropped to about 300 last year because the organization could no longer afford to give out so many free tickets.

He said the near-continuous turnover of top talent on the team caused consternation among some fans.

“You gotta remember, at one point, we were the number one team in this league (in 2019). We were doing very well until Kenny Jones, our starting centre was pulled to Argentina, and Bruce Massey (was) pulled to the Ukraine.”

Massey did ultimately return in time for the first round of the playoffs against the Halifax Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes eliminated the Highlanders in five games on April 13.

chris.shannon@cbpost.com

Twitter: @cbpost_chris

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