After a stellar debut, there’s little doubt the London Lightning are the model franchise of the National Basketball League of Canada.
Their on-court success, which climaxed when they claimed the league title in front of 5,000 hometown fans, coincided with a tremendous connection to the local community.
Like many other professional sports teams, they did their best to visit high schools, hospitals, and establish strong ties to businesses.
But apparently, players were invited over to fans’ houses, allowing London to reach a whole new level of fan-player interactions.
“The support was phenomenal,” Lightning general manager Taylor Brown said Thursday. “Some players were so welcomed that they were asked if they wanted to eat dinner at fans’ houses on off-days.”
Talk about putting yourself in the middle of things.
Moving forward though, will they rest on their laurels?
“We’re not content with our first year,” said Brown. “We don’t want to stick with what we did; we want to grow on that.”
With a second season set to tip-off in the fall and further Ontario expansion in the works, Brown and company have embraced a mentor role.
“The entire league has to work together,” Brown said. “That’s the only way we can operate.”
Five Ontario cities — St. Catharines, Kitchener, Mississauga, Windsor and Ottawa — have submitted applications to be included in NBL Canada’s 2012-13 expansion class. Currently, London and the Oshawa Power are the only franchises in the seven-team league west of Quebec City.
Some interest groups have reached out to the Lightning brass, asking how to run a successful professional ball team in Canada.
According to Brown, teams should make certain they check their egos at the door. Accessibility to fans, media and other organizations is key.
Secondly, people need to be constantly entertained. That means other activities should be incorporated into the home-game show, Brown says.
“People should be coming not only for the basketball, but for the other events — the halftime show, the dance crew, the band, the mascot,” he said.
The final component is perhaps the most important part.
“Get players out there as much as possible so they can associate with and be role models in the community,” Brown said.
THE BIG QUESTION: Will MVP Gabe Freeman be back in London?
“Gabe definitely hasn’t committed elsewhere, but with the season he had, he’s definitely on a pedestal. He’ll have several opportunities. He feels comfortable here though, because he knows how we operate. So, I guess we’ll see what happens.” – Taylor Brown