Building a basketball franchise

How the Fraser Valley’s pro basketball team got new owners and a new name, and what comes next.

By Tyler Olsen | November 14, 2022 |5:00 am

Professional basketball had never succeeded before in the Fraser Valley.

But then again, it had never been tried here.

Three years after their inaugural game in the Canadian Elite Basketball League, the Fraser Valley-turned-Vancouver Bandits look set to stick around, buoyed by high attendance numbers, a new generation of sports fans, and now a local ownership group.

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A new league

Imagine: the CFL, but for basketball. That was the general idea of the Canadian Elite Basketball League when it was announced. It was not a radical idea. There was already a floundering basketball league—the National Basketball League of Canada—but the owner of one of the teams decided he could do better and started the CEBL.

The league started playing in 2019 with teams in six cities—St. Catharines, Guelph, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Abbotsford.

The Abbotsford team, the Fraser Valley Bandits, struggled on the court that first year. But off the court, the Bandits were a hit. The team’s first game drew more than 3,400 fans. Over the team’s 10 home games, the Bandits averaged close to 1,900 fans per game.

Two decades after the demise of the Vancouver Grizzlies, pro basketball was back in BC.

“I would argue that if the Grizzlies [launched] 10 years later, they may still exist,” Andrew Savory, the Bandits’ vice-president, told The Current this fall. In the late 1990s, the Grizzlies were trying to educate locals on the simple rules of how basketball worked.

By 2022, the Toronto Raptors had won an NBA championship, Steve Nash had been inducted into the sports Hall of Fame, and the Langley Events Centre was regularly hosting more than 6,000 fans annually for provincial basketball championships.

The marketing has also evolved. Because while knowing the rules helps, it’s not essential.

From non-stop music helmed by a DJ to the court-side involvement, a basketball game is now much more than a basketball game.

“This sport really goes full tilt in terms of showing people that basketball isn’t just a game, it’s an entertainment product,” Savory said. He pointed to the way those sitting next to the court frequently dress to impress when they come to take in a game.

“In a social and digital age where people want to be seen, they want to be heard, basketball really plays into that.”

The Bandits have recruited several local professional basketball players, including Abbotsford's Marek Klassen. 📷 Vancouver Bandits
The Bandits have recruited several local professional basketball players, including Abbotsford’s Marek Klassen. 📷 Vancouver Bandits

Step 2

Last year, shortly after the Vancouver Canucks moved their farm team to Abbotsford, the Bandits announced they were moving west to the Langley Events Centre. (Savory said the team had long been eyeing the facility and the move wasn’t entirely caused by the arrival of the Abbotsford Canucks.)

One of the team’s first fans at Abbotsford Centre was a developer and former high school basketball player named Kevin Dhaliwal. Dhaliwal was a self-described “die-hard basketball fan” and a fixture in the business community, running a major Langley-based development company.

And when the Bandits moved to Langley, where Dhaliwal lives and does most of his work, he started to think deeper about the possibility of being more than just a fan.

At its conception, the league had owned all its franchises. The idea was to hire locals to run the teams, prove the teams and the league could work as business entities, then sell the clubs to owners in the various communities. The model is one that Major League Soccer—the professional soccer league in which the Vancouver Whitecaps play—had used to build itself into a major force in the North American sports scene.

Dhaliwal knew about the CEBL’s ownership strategy and began to chat with Bandits president Dylan Kular about what might be possible. Those talks drifted, slowed, restarted and then, one day, Kular suggested they both talk with another businessman, Brian Slusarchuk.

Dhaliwal and Slusarchuk were both big basketball fans. Neither man, though, needed a partner to get involved. Dhaliwal, for one, had no interest in sharing a team. But he sat down with Kumar and Slusarchuk over drinks at Starbucks anyways.

Within an hour, he’d changed his mind.

“We started our discussion about community involvement, growing youth basketball, and a using the team to give back…and the passion that we both experienced from one another was enough for us to make a decision saying ‘Yes, we’re going into business together.’”

A shared vision for professional basketball in the Fraser Valley led Brian Slusarchuk and Kevin Dhaliwal to join forces and share ownership of the Vancouver Bandits. 📷 Vancouver Bandits

New ideas, new name

The new owners brought their business acumen to the board. And the first obvious change was a major one: the team would be rebranded as the Vancouver Bandits.

Dhaliwal said the decision was a practical one and a nod to the fact that the team draws fans from across the entire Lower Mainland.

“This is everyone’s team,” he said. “Anywhere in the world, if you say you’re from Vancouver, people automatically know where you’re from. So if you put a title like Vancouver on something, I feel like everyone wants to share in it.”

It’s not a unique move: the National Lacrosse League’s Vancouver Warriors and the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants both play out of the Langley Events Centre. Langley is technically a part of Metro Vancouver.

“It’s not just a Fraser Valley team, even though we play at the Langley Events Centre,” Dhaliwal said.

And as a branding exercise, the move made sense: Fraser Valley residents who travel know the power of “Vancouver.” When you talk to an outsider, saying you’re from Vancouver will get you a lot further than declaring you live in the Fraser Valley.

The Vancouver angle is particularly useful for a pro team like the Bandits that relies on the ability to attract playing talent. While the team has recruited several players with local roots, the summer playing season also allows CEBL teams to draw overseas talent looking for a summer gig.

At the same time, Dhaliwal said the team will remain rooted in Langley and the Fraser Valley.

“I’m never going to allow this team to ever leave the Langley Events Centre,” he said. “I will do whatever it takes to stay in Langley.”

What’s to come

The Bandits are working. And Langley and the region are changing in ways that will only help the team expand its reach, Dhaliwal believes.

The Langley Entertainment Centre is well-positioned for those driving to a game from other parts of the region. And the area around the arena has seen a huge amount of residential development in recent years. That growth, along with the impending arrival of SkyTrain and a rapid bus line down 200th Street, should make it easier for locals and non-drivers to get to a game.

“With those kind of transportation initiatives happening and coming right there, now you have the SkyTrain connection to the rest of the region,” he said.

Dhaliwal believes more can be done to make the Bandits a Langley fixture and make it both a regional team, and one firmly rooted in its growing neighbourhood.

“What I envision is everyone leaving their properties and walking down the street because it’s right there,” he said. “There’s nothing more exciting than having that neighbourhood all walk to the game.”

Part of that will come with convincing people who aren’t die-hard basketball fans that attending a basketball game can be a blast. And also telling locals that basketball, as an entertainment product, exists in their own backyard.

Dhaliwal suggested that he and Slusarchuk can help by leveraging their personal networks and voices in their communities.

The day of the Bandits’ last playoff game, Dhaliwal was golfing in a tournament. As he wrapped up his round, he explained he had to get going to the basketball team.

His fellow golfers hadn’t heard of the Bandits, though. Reaching those folks, Dhaliwal said, is the key to turning a niche sport into a community treasure.

“We have an amazing management team and an amazing president,” he said. (Kumar was recently named the league’s executive of the year.) “We’re going to let them do what they do best. We’re just going to be huge fans… we just want to support and make that night at the Langley

Events Centre really special so that people want to come out and watch and so people who aren’t basketball fans still want to come out and enjoy that excitement.

“Anyone I’ve talked to, once they hear the passion and the voice they’re like ‘We’re in!’ It’s a pretty easy convincing job.”

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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