Bandits head coach and general manager Peter Guarasci tries to rally the troops during the team’s final game on Aug. 15. It’s unclear if he will return for year two. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Fraser Valley Bandits: Reflecting on year one

Pro basketball club sees positive growth despite on-court struggles

No one quite knew what to expect from the Canadian Elite Basketball League in year one, but after a summer of action on the hardwood all across the country, the league appears to be on solid footing.

That’s definitely the case in Abbotsford, as the Fraser Valley Bandits – despite sporting the worst record in the league – thrived at the box office in the club’s inaugural season.

The Bandits recorded the second-highest attendance in the league, only behind the Saskatchewan Rattlers, and averaged nearly 1,900 fans per game.

The club drew over 3,400 for the first game back on May 9, and finished the season on a high note numbers wise by jamming over 2,800 into the Abbotsford Centre on Aug. 15.

The numbers at the gate were exceptional for Dylan Kular, the director of business operations for the team.

Now, if only the numbers on the court could match. The Bandits suffered through nine straight losses to open the CEBL regular season, and didn’t record a win until June 27. The club didn’t win a home game until July 4, and only won twice in front of local fans all season. The team’s 4-16 record was worst in the league.

But despite struggling on the court, Kular said he’s encouraged by the fans’ loyalty.

“We have some of the best fans in the league,” he said. “People weren’t really concerned with the record. It was more about having another entertainment option in the valley where options can be pretty limited.”

Kular said he was thrilled with the attendance and noted that other numbers – such as website traffic – were high for the Bandits.

“Imagine if we had a .500 team or above .500,” he remarked.

Bandits head coach Peter Guarasci admitted that the team had some growing pains, especially in the early stages of the season.

Guarasci, who also was the general manager of the team, said the first year was a learning experience.

The former Team Canada national basketball player and longtime college basketball coach had never coached professionals prior to taking the role with the Bandits.

“All the players on our team had capabilities and abilities but, for me, it was more about getting the right pieces that matched each other,” he said.

“That was a bit of a process. Looking back, I could have made some other decisions as far as player personnel goes. That was a bit of a learning curve for me – figuring out the right composition of players.”

Guarasci said he noticed that the top teams in the CEBL didn’t make a big amount of moves, but the early struggles may have led to him doubting some of his player choices or wanting to switch things up to get a win.

“When you don’t win a game for the first nine, you start to think about how do we make this better quickly and it kind of became that situation,” he said.

“The stronger clubs seemed to be the ones that made fewer transactions.”

Just like the Bandits, Guarasci said the quality of play in the CEBL also started off a bit slowly but became much better as the season continued.

“If you watched a game early on and then one three-quarters of the way through the season it was totally different,” he said. “Teams were sharing the ball more and defending. It became more of an FIBA style of game where possessions really matter.”

Guarasci said the success of the international players on each team in the CEBL will likely determine the top teams. He noted that local talents like Marek Klassen and Joel Friesen are great pieces to have, but the international players have to be effective for a team to be successful.

As for his future with the team, Guarasci said nothing has been discussed yet.

“It’s a difficult decision,” he said, of continuing as head coach and GM. “I really enjoyed it but I have three young children [in Kelowna] and I have been living away from them for the last four and a half months. That is a huge determining factor.”

He also praised the work of the game day, marketing and front office of the Bandits, adding that they did an excellent job with such a small staff and with limited experience.

Kular said he hopes the organization can continue growth on the business side in 2020, especially now that fans and players have a better understanding of what the CEBL is.

“When we initially launched, there were a lot of questions about how we compare to the NBA and I think everyone learned a lot this season,” he said.

“We were learning as we were going all season, but we now have developed a template for 2020. We also have all this data to review and improve things for next season.”

One thing that may change for next season is the day of the week that home games occur. The majority of the home games took place on Thursday, but a strong crowd on the lone Saturday date has the team exploring options.

“At the moment, we’re getting feedback from season-ticket holders and other fans to see what is best for them,” he said. “We’re open to schedule changes, especially if it opens up the chances of people outside of Abbotsford to come to games.”

Kular noted that the Saturday game saw an increase of fans from Surrey and Vancouver.

Plans are also in place to continue with several theme nights. Kular said more time and a template in place allows them to establish those nights earlier. The team also wants to continue with its pre-game activities outside the arena.

The other lingering issue is what the team will look like next year. All players are on one-year contracts, but Kular said many of the players he has spoken to are interested in coming back.

“I think fans should be excited because now that the league has more validity, agents are more comfortable with a proven league,” he said. “Players wanted to see how year one went and now I think there will be more interest worldwide.”

As for the CEBL overall, Kular said he and others associated with the league were satisfied with year one.

“The milestones we achieved for year one were quite phenomenal for a brand new league in Canada,” he said, noting that there is talk of a potential seventh team to be added for 2020. “We know what works and what doesn’t work and we can build it from there.”

In other CEBL news, the Saskatchewan Rattlers are the league’s first-ever champions after winning the title on Sunday.

The Rattlers defeated the Hamilton Honey Badgers 94-83 in Saskatoon to capture the crown. The Rattlers defeated the Edmonton Stingers on Saturday in the semifinal to advance, while Hamilton took down the Niagara River Lions in the other semifinal.

Bandits guard Klassen was also named to the CEBL’s second team all-star, the lone Bandits player to earn an honour at the league’s year-end awards event on Friday.

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