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New Canadian basketball league struggles at the turnstiles

Prospects put their hands together and cheer during the training camp at Humber College Lakeshore Campus in preparation for the National Basketball League of Canada's draft this weekend in Toronto, Ont., on August 16, 2011. (Michelle Siu / The Globe and Mail)

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Canada's fledgling National Basketball League is struggling at the box office, but league commissioner John Kennedy believes the trouble at the turnstile is part of the normal growing pains for any startup endeavour.

Kennedy said no team is in imminent danger of folding, and in fact he hopes to expand the league by adding several franchises in Ontario.

Still, his goal is to draw between 4,000 and 5,000 fans a game, and the majority of the seven teams are well below that, averaging fewer than 2,000 fans a game in the NBL's inaugural season. The Oshawa Power is drawing the smallest crowds at just below 700 fans a night.

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"We're a long way from [the attendance target]" Kennedy said on a conference call Tuesday. "It's as much based on hopes and expectations than it is in reality currently."

Kennedy said he's perplexed by Oshawa's troubles considering the strong basketball culture in the area.

"But they admit [they're struggling] they know it, they're working hard," Kennedy said of the club. "At the end of the season we're going to evaluate the situation there and increase those efforts and get a better start on next season."

Kennedy doesn't see the Power, second last in the league at 6-11, as being in danger of folding or relocating.

"We're going to do our best to see to it that no franchise folds, this season or next or into the future," Kennedy said. "I'm going to work to make sure this is a success, and it may mean that there are some changes but nobody's going away any time soon, not if we can do anything about it."

Kennedy, who was hired last month as the league's first commissioner, admits it's been a tough slog.

"It's a competitive marketplace out there where hockey is our game, so we've got a huge uphill battle," Kennedy said. "There are some mornings I feel like Sisyphus [the Greek mythological figure condemned to forever push a boulder up a hill] … The rock is always at the bottom of the hill."

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Kennedy would like to expand to between eight and 10 teams in the near future, and is looking at several potential Ontario sites including Kitchener-Waterloo, Windsor, Hamilton, and Kingston.

He said the London Lightning, which lead the standings at 11-3, and the third-place Halifax Rainmen, are the strongest franchises in the league. London has averaged 2,500 fans a game, and drew 3,400 on opening night.

The NBL also has franchises in Quebec City, Saint John, Summerside and Moncton, which is last in the league at 2-12.

When Kennedy, a Los Angeles-based sports executive who was born in Windsor, was asked why he took the job of running the rookie league, he said because it's a "blank sheet of paper."

"We can help create something to help develop Canadian players and the Canadian basketball scene where one didn't exist before," he said. "It's the fun of the challenge, the hunt, the chase and the accomplishment."

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