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Mano Watsa, owner and president of PGC Basketball. The firm teaches skills and strategy to high-school and university players under the age of 30, and recently branched to launch out a PGA skills academy for elementary school players. (Bob Leverone/Bob Leverone)
Mano Watsa, owner and president of PGC Basketball. The firm teaches skills and strategy to high-school and university players under the age of 30, and recently branched to launch out a PGA skills academy for elementary school players. (Bob Leverone/Bob Leverone)

Small Business

Hooked on basketball, Mano Watsa’s love for the game propels his business Add to ...

With the Toronto Raptors hitting uncharted heights last season, and young Canadians Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Murray ascending into the professional basketball firmament, the state of Canada’s other game has never been healthier.

Starting from his parents’ backyard in 1992, Mano Watsa has watched the popularity of basketball explode, chipping away, moderately, at the traditional hold of hockey.

At 15, he launched a basketball camp for 10- to 12-year-olds from the yard behind his family home in Harrow, Ont. He was simply looking for a way to transform his love of the game into an income between attending basketball camps to develop his own game.

Little did he know then that the experience would be his introduction into the business of basketball, resulting in a company that now brings in more than $5-million in revenue.

Beginning with eight kids and one basketball hoop, the week-long camp took off. The next year the camp expanded to roughly 20 players a week for four weeks; by the time he got to the University of Waterloo it was at 80 to 100 kids a week.

“It was a little unusual for parents to be dropping their kids off in someone’s backyard, but it became pretty well known in the community pretty quickly,” he says.

The whole venture took on a new direction following Mr. Watsa’s high-school trip to a Point Guard Basketball College camp in the United States. That summer camp, coached then by Dick Devenzio, had a profound effect on Mr. Watsa’s outlook on life, and his career as well.

“Those five days changed the trajectory of my life,” he says. “I learned how to think the game, I learned how to be a leader.”

Mr. Watsa continued his camps throughout his time at university, where he was a basketball standout, and three years after graduating in 1999 he founded Point Guard Academy, with camps in Ontario, Winnipeg, Alberta and British Columbia, in honour of the effect Mr. Devenzio had on his career. Mr. Devenzio passed away unexpectedly in 2001, and while another former student, Dena Evans, took over the America-wide Point Guard College program, by 2007, she was looking for some help.

Combining both Point Guard Academy and Point Guard College into one overarching North American basketball program, the pair continued to build the business. It didn’t hurt that the game of basketball was continuing to boom, with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and others carrying on the NBA legacy of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.

As the impact of the business grew, so did its scope. Specializing in more than just the play of the point guard – the on-court general of basketball teams – the company rebranded to simply PGC Basketball in 2011, and this year offered more than 120 courses worldwide to 10,000 athletes and 5,000 coaches. The cost of the course for players is $795 (U.S.) and $295 for coaches, which includes room and board for the week.

The company, which has no fixed offices, has approximately 30 full-time staff, with another 150 part-timers coming on board for the busy summer season. The staff stay in contact with each other through daily video conferencing calls, and PGC Basketball also organizes a yearly retreat for staff to interact in person.

While 90 per cent of the courses take place in the United States, about 5 per cent of the students are Canadian. As far as Canadian courses, they’re currently available only in Ontario, while overseas courses were also offered in Australia and Japan this past year.

But as a born-and-bred Canadian, Mr. Watsa has a particular affinity for seeing the business, of which he is now the owner and president, grow north of the 49th parallel. (After all, the rules of basketball were invented by Canadian educator James Naismith in the 19th century.)

“Canada Basketball [the official body governing the sport] is also becoming a world leader in terms of development,” he says. “So I think more and more those internationally are taking a look at Canada Basketball and specifically how their long-term athlete development model is helping to shape younger players.”

That level of development may well be putting PGC Basketball on an enviable trajectory from a business perspective. Cary Kaplan, owner and president of sports management firm Cosmos Sports, based in Mississauga, says Canada’s current demographic makeup will help PGC Basketball succeed in the long term.

“I think people don’t realize that at a young age now, basketball and soccer, arguably, are more popular sports in public school,” he says. “People my age think the [National Hockey League’s] Toronto Maple Leafs are the be-all and end-all, but for my nine-year-old nephew, nothing is bigger than the Raptors. I think the way hockey was, is where basketball is, or is evolving to in Canada.”

By Mr. Kaplan’s estimation, 10 years ago PGC Basketball wouldn’t have had the same foundation to be able to succeed. He feels it’s very much a perfect storm between a local team reaching unprecedented heights – the Raptors just missed the NBA final last season – and a number of homegrown stars establishing themselves around the NBA.

“I think that the timing is good,” he says. “It seems like a good business model and I think you’re going to have a healthy demand of people who want their kids involved.”

From a business perspective, Mr. Watsa couldn’t have had better role models himself. His uncle, Prem Watsa, is the founder, chairman and chief executive officer for Toronto’s Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.

A basketball fan and Raptors season ticket holder himself, Prem Watsa fully endorsed his nephew’s move into the business of basketball.

“What he’s really done more than anything else is he’s given me a vision of how to run a successful company while making a difference in the world,” says Mano Watsa. As a result, PGC Basketball and its staff are helping to build a sports centre in Kenya.

While the business has considered Australia as a possible destination for a full-court expansion, right now Mr. Watsa says the focus is purely on North America and to hopefully produce more players like Mr. Murray, a two-time camp graduate who was taken seventh overall in this year’s NBA draft.

“In light of how big the U.S. market is and how many more opportunities there are to expand across Canada and the U.S. we’ve decided it’s more strategic for us to continue to focus on the North American market,” he says.

For the most part, PGA Basketball offers its teaching to high-school and university players under the age of 30 although it did once have a 72-year-old pupil. However, it recently branched to launch out a PGA skills academy for elementary school players catering to players just learning to love the game.

Ultimately though, it’s just about engaging players, from their own backyards to the high-school gyms, just as Mr. Watsa himself experienced many years ago.

“Our mission is to be a light in the basketball world and to help players and coaches have a rewarding and fulfilling career,” he says. “So anything that helps players get introduced to the game or fall in love with the game is certainly good for us in helping us to carry out our mission.”

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