Mike Morreale, CEO and Commissioner at the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL), holds the responsibility of looking after all 6 teams on the league including players, coaches, support staff, contractors, and employees. While this would be a massive undertaking for most, Mike has a long career history in sports where he was first drafted by McMaster. From there he played for the Toronto Argonauts and the Tiger-Cats, during which time he saw the successes of two World Cups. I have followed Mike throughout his career and was interested to hear about his journey after retirement, especially because he’s the commissioner of one of my favourite Canadian sports leagues, the CEBL. Though he no longer plays the sport, Mike’s passion for it is still evident in his many different positions as President of Marketing for the CFL, President of the Players Association, broadcaster on the TSN network, and now CEO and Commissioner of the Canadian Elite Basketball League. Let’s hear a little about what he has to say:
Please note: The interview with Mike Morreale was conducted via a phone conversation and then transcribed. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.
Can you provide some detail your current career in sport?
My professional sporting career started in 1995 when I got drafted by McMaster. From there, I started my pro-career in 1995 / 1996 with the Toronto Argonauts. From 1997 to 2001, I moved on to play for the Tiger-Cats and then went back to the Argos in 2002/2003. By 2004, I was once again back with the Tiger-Cats.
I was very fortunate with the 3 Grey Cups – we won 2 – one in 1996 with the Argos, and one in 1999 with the Ti-Cats. I also had some personal accolades that went along with that.
When I retired in ’07 I became the vice president of marketing for the CFL Players Association and held that role for about 7 years. Following that, I became president of the Players Association from 2012 to 2014, and then just went into “regular” business.
I have always been kind of an entrepreneur of sorts, so I also owned a restaurant chain of 12 one point. I’ve done a lot of broadcast work with The Score, TSN, and Sports Net for University Football. I also do the radio for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In addition, sometime in 2017, I got introduced to Richard Petko through another job I was doing, who is the founder of the CEBL.
Shortly after that, I began working on what is now the CEBL, which was publicly announced in early 2018. I now take on the role in the CEBL as the commissioner and Chief Executive Officer in which I look after the business and operational side of both the office and all 6 teams in the league. This includes players, coaches, support staff, our own employees, contractors, etc. We employ about 250 people across the country.
Can you explain what a normal day looks like for you throughout the CEBL season vs. the offseason?
So, it’s interesting because this is our first true offseason, and as the season’s wind down, the big thing is that there’s not really time to take off.
You have to learn from what you’re able to take in during your inaugural year and all that leads up to it. It’s about making sure you implement these lessons and make changes to grow, or at least find some clarity in how you want to move forward – learning how we want to move forward in 2020 and beyond.
During the season I am really focused on the in-game experience and the at-home experience, and how that relates to all of our fans. I’m very interested in how they take in our product, whether that’s through our live stream, at the arena, or through our social media channels, etc.
I work on the partnership side, obviously the operational side, the rules and regulations, and the by-laws. Also, I oversee the basketball side but only do so in a hands-off, from a distanced manner, so I don’t get involved in the basketball decision making the process. I do, however, make sure that everybody adheres to the rules and that we play according to those rules across the country.
Furthermore, I am also constantly looking for new and interested external partners or people that want to purchase a new team in the CEBL. At the same time, I’m always looking at ways to connect with new ownership groups or existing teams. I do all of this while managing our bottom line and making sure we have money in the bank to grow for future years and to exist for the foreseeable future.
So that’s kind of it in a nutshell. Every day is different, every day new things come up, and every week is completely different from the next, which is great.
During the season you kind of get into a routine where there are so many games a week, and I travel across the country – I try to get to each destination at least twice. Ontario is easier for me so I can go all the time.
I try to have those face to face meetings, see the product, talk to the players, talk to the coaches, talk to our staff, try to connect with as many stakeholders as possible, and then just look at ways that we can constantly improve and get better. Then when the season ends, it’s literally right into the following year.
So for us, it’s 2020 and beyond – re-strategizing, re-business planning, preparing updates, getting all of our respective teams on one side, getting their plans updated, making sure we’re all on the same track, looking at sponsorships, looking at our player contracts, on so on and so forth.
Can you describe how the transition was between playing in the CFL and becoming the VP of Sales and Marketing for the CFL Players Association?
While I played I was always focused on what else there was out there, so I had a keen interest in the Players Association and participating as a rep. I became a rep for the first time in ’97 and then held that position throughout my career. So really, I was actually an executive during my playing career, a member at large. So all in all, between being a player rep and executive, an employee as the VP of marketing, and the president, I have spent upwards of 19 years in the CFL to some capacity.
Twelve of those years were spent as a player, but also concurrent to that I was on the player rep side. I was able to get a much better understanding of how the league operates as a player, and then when I retired and became the VP of marketing, it was really my opportunity to take those kinds of rules and regulations, by-laws and constitutions, and collective agreements to see whether we were doing a good job of living up to our own rules and regulations. It also gave me the opportunity of determining whether we could work alongside not only the league but also the teams, in ensuring that we were properly represented. At the same time, my big role as the VP of marketing was to raise the profiles of the players off the field and to find them revenue opportunities off of the field as well.
A lot of it was about partnerships, and a lot of it was about policing. Because even though we know that all players are typically paid to play, they’re not paid to do all of the other events that they do. They’re also not paid for creating their own brand. So my job is to make them aware and to create value for them off of the field because this is valuable time that worth something too. In return, it’s my job to align them with partners that want access to them.
It’s great to throw up a sign and do some stuff, but access to the players is very important, and so is how you engage fans – so that was one of the big things that were always at the forefront of my mandate during my time the with CFLPA.
How did the VP Position prepare you for where you are in your career right as the CEO of the CEBL?
It meant so much. As a player, I obviously have the knowledge of what it’s like to be a player in a Canadian league. I understand what it’s like to play with players that aren’t Canadian or players that come from different backgrounds or various parts of the world with different upbringings, and that was really important. Obviously, as a player, I got to understand how management works, how the game works, and how the business side works. Then when I became a player rep, I started peeling back layers – OK here’s the rules, here’s the regulations, why are they in place, what do they stand for, who’s controlling things, what’s in it for the players, what’s in it for the teams, And what’s in it for the league?
As I began to move up and became executive, then became president, I was privy to CFL team financials, league financials, and collective bargaining, and I got to see a different side of the league itself.
In my role as VP of Marketing with the PA, it was then my chance to uncover what else was out there – you know specific to the players, specific to the pro-players brand (which is the brand that we developed at CFLPA, which is the marketing arm of the PA) so we had different revenue streams.
We had revenue streams for the Players Association that were built into the collective agreement, but then my goal was to go and raise additional revenue streams and create more connections and relationships outside of that, through our pro-players arm.
That whole thing wrapped up, in a nutshell, gave me the 360 degree view of, “okay, this is what it’s like to be a player, this is what it’s like to be on the player’s side, the union’s side, the representative side” – and that’s what matters to them. On top of that, then this is what matters to the league -because I was dealing with the league on a daily basis whether it was through partnerships, whether it was through the rules and regulations, financials etc.
In return, I got a well-rounded look into how the league works, but not just through one side of it – I got 3 or 4 different perspectives on it if you include partners.
This helped launch my career in CEBL because what I lacked in basketball knowledge (not that I don’t understand basketball, but I’m not tied into it like I am with football) I made up for by getting to see how it ticks and how it works. This then allowed me to look at the business from a different lens, to look at it from the viewpoint of a successful league that’s been around for over a hundred years, a league that’s survived the trials and tribulations that every league goes through at some point, and a league that was very pro-Canadian.
There were also a bunch of things that I didn’t find effective, and this allowed me to take the good and eliminate the bad, and then look around the world of sport to see what good things other people do that we can implement – because you don’t have to rewrite how you do things, you just have to selectively choose what you think will work best to create the fundamentals behind your league itself. From there you can decide how you want to operate and what’s important to you. It was literally on the job training for about 17-18 years. From playing to listening, to learning, to going out and doing, it was the best kind of business school or business program I could sign up for.
What are some of the most memorable moments in your sports career thus far?
My first Grey Cup was a tremendous experience in 1996. It happened to be played in Hamilton. For me, growing up as a kid, I was a huge Ti-Cats fan from the age of 5. So growing up to play for my first Grey Cup Championship – at the time it was Ivor Wynne Stadium – was like a thrill I’ll never forget. I was still young and I didn’t have a lot of contribution – on offence I was a special team guy – I was only a fill-in. And though I played the majority of the game, it wasn’t my time. Rather, I was still a second-year guy just trying to find my way.
My next Grey Cup in ’99 was just an absolute thrill because we won and were victorious – and it was for Hamilton. We beat the team that beat us during the last second the year before.
Both of those games would be the highlight of my career because they involve the whole team, right? You can’t just get a ring by yourself – you need the guys to do it.
So those are my 2 football highlights. There are some accolades whether it’s being Top Canadian in 1998 or being the Top Canadian in the Grey Cup of ’99. These are two things that I’m very proud of, but they don’t stick out as memories to me, they just stick out as accomplishments that I worked hard for. I’d probably look back and say, “Man, had I worked harder I could’ve won more of those things.” That’s the way I look at it. But truthfully, some of the most important things to me and the accolades that mean the most are being able to start this league get it off the ground, and finish with what was a storybook ending to our inaugural year.
And most importantly I loved being able to do it with a group of people (young people, because I’m not getting any younger), that I work with across the league. To watch them share and experience that event, and to have all those crazy thoughts and dreams in my head come out and roll out on paper and come alive was awesome.
What was the most difficult point in your career?
Playing for my hometown – I played 8 of my 12 years in Hamilton – it was an absolute thrill but there were a lot of difficulties. We had some great years (98, 99, 2000) but as we started getting to the later part of 2000/2001, we realized that football doesn’t always go as planned. At the same time, I was struggling a bit personally, both on the field and in the community. I was from Hamilton and I couldn’t escape it.
It always seemed that when things were going good you’d get a pat on the back. But when things didn’t go so well, you’d hear about it. It was a trying moment being the hometown kid, over several years, and it could change game by game.
Times like these test your internal fortitude because as a home town kid you can’t escape. I didn’t go anywhere, I always lived in Hamilton. I was always around the area – the bad, good and the otherwise – and I always felt it.
By 2002, I made the decision to leave and go back to Toronto, which I knew wouldn’t make people happy. It was one of those things that were a necessity for me to just leave and clean the slate.
One of the best thrills was coming back in 2004 when people welcomed me with open arms – it felt like I was reborn.
I had a really good year in 2004 as the “older veteran” on the team, so there’s always a silver lining! You just have to work through these things, because there’s stuff that happens off the field you have to live with.
Going back to the CEBL, where do you see the league in 5 years’ time?
I see this as a 10 to 12 team league, coast to coast, playing in 2 different divisions, an East and West division. By this time we will have created a really well understood and well-followed league played by the best Canadian Basketball players in the country. We will have a definitive, exciting, and memorable championship weekend that people will know from coast to coast. It’ll be our version of the Annual Grey Cup Festival that we’ll be able to showcase across the country in the summer – and I think that we’re going to capture the attention of millions of Canadians – not only basketball fans, but entertainment fans that are looking for a great product that is well priced, that is well played, and that is easily accessible.
So, whether you can go buy a ticket, you can watch on live-stream, or you can see us on traditional broadcast, it’ll be supported by national partners. It will become a fabric of the Canadian sports industry.
What are three pieces of advice would you give to someone who wants to succeed in the sports industry?
1 Picture Success
You have to prepare. You have to visualize. You have to picture yourself being that campaigner, being that award winner, being the best you can be.
2 Fearless Of Failure
You can’t be afraid to fail and that’s true in everything we do here at the CEBL – if you’re scared to fail, then this is the wrong place to be because you’ve got to jump in with 2 feet and go for it.
3 Manage Relationships
Thirdly, I think you have to realize that sport and business are about performing, but way more than that! Sport business is also about teamwork and relationships. If you take care of your own things, work your butt off, aren’t afraid to fail, and realize that you need other people to be the best, then that’s a great recipe for success.
Phil’s Final Thought
As a final thought, it was a pleasure to hear the perspectives of someone who has so much experience and in-depth knowledge of the sporting field. Throughout his career, Mike not only had the opportunity to see sports from the angle of a professional player, but also from the union’s side, the representative’s side, and the partner’s side. And still, with all of his professional sports playing and management experience, the most memorable moments of his career are the ones that he spent celebrating with his teammates – a lesson to all of us about the importance of good friendships and relationships.