Written by: Paul McGaughey
Follow: @SportsWriter_PM

Canada’s men’s national basketball team is shining on the global stage both on and off the court at the FIBA World Cup.

The Canadian side plays in the medal round of the event for the first time ever Friday morning against Serbia. Canada has already secured a berth at the 2024 Paris Olympics by finishing as one of the two remaining Americas region teams (the U.S. is the other). A win Friday guarantees at least a World Cup silver medal and a chance to play for gold. Even a loss gives them a chance at the bronze.

Canada’s only Olympic medal in basketball was a silver in 1936.

Canada Basketball president and CEO Michael Bartlett knows that finding success in the World Cup is key to generating interest from the domestic audience.

However, for Bartlett, the World Cup goes beyond wins and losses. Bartlett spoke to BNN Bloomberg prior to the start of the World Cup to explain from a business and marketing standpoint how Canada Basketball can increase its reach both at home and around the world.

More than ever before, Canadian NBA players are making a commitment to compete for their country at international events and to show the world that basketball is thriving in Canada.

The likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks, and Dillon Brooks of the Houston Rockets have already led Canada to some impressive and historic victories at the World Cup, but there seems to be a lack of buzz among the Canadian public for the tournament that has centred on Manila, Philippines for the decisive medal round.

A world of opportunities: “When we look at sports organizations in Canada that are thriving at the international level, they're the ones that have been able to create valuable assets for brand partners to connect with,” says Bartlett who spent a decade working for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. “Just recently we landed a deal with Sun Life. They're now the front-of-jersey partner for our men's and women's programs. A big part of that deal was leveraged by the fact that Philippines and Indonesia - where the World Cup is happening - are the second and third largest markets for Sun Life globally. So, it's not just a Canadian play, it's an international play. The World Cup has opened up opportunity for us to redefine the asset mix that we're offering to brand partners and therefore commercialize it for the purposes of then investing back into the performance of the teams or the growth of the game on the grassroots level.”

Connecting the dots: Competing in international events such as the FIBA World Cup provides global exposure for Canada Basketball and in turn creates ripple-effect economic opportunity, but this requires more than just showing up. “We had to figure out ways to create valuable assets to sell and bring in brand partners in advance of the World Cup so that we could invest in our performance,” says Bartlett. “We invest in competitive advantages when we are able to. We traveled to Spain [for a pre-tournament friendly game] to play the No. 1 team in the world. If we didn't have monetary resources to do that, our preparation for the tournament wouldn't be as strong and our chances to win wouldn't be as strong, and therefore our opportunity to monetize that to then benefit the growth of the game here in Canada wouldn't be as strong. So, it all connects.”

Timing is everything: Bartlett feels the timing of this World Cup tournament and then next summer, the timing of the Olympics, creates an all-eyes-on-basketball moment for the Canadian audience to embrace. “I don't imagine people are just going to pay attention for the sake of paying attention,” says Bartlett. “We also have to give them a reason to pay attention, and that's going to come from winning. This is a chance for us to demonstrate that Canada is really here at this tournament to do something special.”

Michael Naraine, an associate professor in the Department of Sport Management at Brock University, illustrated some of the challenges Canada Basketball faces as far as generating more interest across the country.

A different world: Naraine asserts that part of the difficulty for Canada Basketball is that FIBA events are a tough sell in North America where the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL dominate the landscape. “The analogous story here is the NHL and the IIHF,” he said. “Like no one in Canada truly, ultimately cares about the World Hockey Championship every year because it’s happening at the same time as the Stanley Cup playoffs. Culturally in North America, we've been conditioned to think the Stanley Cup is the be all, end all, whereas in Europe, the world championship actually does matter. FIBA and basketball is the same as an analogous story in North America. The be all, end all is the NBA Finals.” 

Time to pick a lane: Naraine says that for teams to thrive commercially in North America it is critical to identify and market a face of the franchise. “More so than any other sport on planet Earth, basketball is a superstar-driven sport,” says Naraine. “For Team Canada, it's still unclear who they want to be the star. We know now that, yes, they've got good athletes on the team, but it's still unclear who the star of the team is - and I know that's a contentious thing. You have to pick a lane and know who you are and that helps you to create an identity. It helps you not just on the court, but also off the court that you can market to sponsors and market to audiences a player that they can then latch on to.”

If one player is emerging as a Canadian superstar in this event it’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a 25-year old point guard out of Toronto who plays for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. His early World Cup performance has drawn comparisons to past Canadian hoops stars Leo Rautins and Jay Triano, and numerous World Cup observers had him ranked the second best player after the Group Stage. Slovenia’s Luka Doncic, a perennial NBA MVP contender, was ranked number one.

A step further: Both Naraine and Bartlett point to the reality that government funding only goes so far for federations such as Canada Basketball, with Bartlett also expressing that Canada Basketball has had to remake itself as an attractive investment for sponsors.

All revenue generated by Canada Basketball is reinvested in the growth of the sport, creating a bit of a what-comes-first scenario: You need money to win, but you need to win to generate more sponsorship dollars. However, Naraine doesn’t see the matter as an either-or scenario and says that winning and creating a valuable asset must actually be done simultaneously for Canada Basketball to be successful as a brand.

“You have to be consistent when it comes to that product,” says Naraine. “You can't just have a flash in the pan and qualify for something and then drop off the face of the earth or you can't go to Paris and then get absolutely decimated at the Olympics in front of the world and expect that people are going to continue to want to support you. You have to put up the numbers and put up the wins. But at the same time, you also have to try new ways to build the brand to tell the story so that when you aren't winning, you can still communicate to the public ‘hey, listen, this is something to get behind.’ Sometimes you might lose, but you still have to sell tickets. You still have to sell sponsorship. And that's something that Canada Basketball hasn't really reconciled with yet. What happens if we have all of these stars, but we fall flat on our face? You can't just invest all your energy into on-court performance. You have to simultaneously fix the other side, too.”