Episode 2: Niagara River Lions With Matthew Jonhson and Ryan Dunkle

00:29What is your favourite sports moment?
01:57Who are Niagara River Lions?
03:26When does the season start and how long is it?
04:12What type of tickets can you purchase?
08:32How are the athletes recruited?
09:41What kind of effect did the pandemic have on the organization?
12:51Describe the new community partnerships?
14:32What is the biggest challenge for youth sports?
15:56What are some of the innovative ways you are getting people interested in basketball?
18:13Is there a success story you would like to share?
21:29Closing remarks






00:00:00 Moksh
Hello everyone, today we have Matthew Johnston, the vice president of Business development at our very own Niagara River Lions, the basketball pride of Niagara.

Alongside us we have Mr. Ryan Dunkle, the ticketing and service manager.

They are here to discuss the background and culture of the River lions and after listening to this the importance of local sports will be made crystal clear to you. Welcome again to both of you, so let's get this rolling with a little personal question.

00:29 Moksh
So tell me about your favorite sports moments that you have experienced.

00:33 Ryan Dunkle
Well, first of all, I just want to thank you for having us on this podcast. It's an honour, so to first start off I've been with the river lions just since beginning of this year, and I gotta say, my favorite sports moment was actually Jehu.

Seven blocks came in that game, you know, just he was just having a monstrous defensive game and that was just one thing that dragged him being my favorite player right now on the river lions, my favorite sports moment, besides the river lions, would have to be LeBron block on Game 7. You know the block on Iguodala.

It was heard all around the world and you know, I think it was probably one of the best plays in the NBA Finals history.

01:08 Matthew Johnston
Yeah, I mean it's fun to be a part of the river lions for as long as I have and it is hard to top it when your part of the team like that. So, for me being around the team last year in 2021 and in the semifinals, it was in the Elam ending. It was the next shot wins. And Daniel Walding Mullings had a great block on the end against Fraser Valley.

We came down and Phil Scrub, hit a 3 pointer to send the Niagara River lions to the championship game for the first time in franchise history and being there witnessing, it was truly a special moment for me.

01:46 Moksh
That was very personal.

01:48 Matthew Johnston
Absolutely it was.

01:49 Moksh
It must have been great.

01:50 Matthew Johnston
It was exciting and thrilling and nerve wracking all at the same time, it was a roller coaster let me tell you.

01:57 Moksh
Well, since we are talking about Niagara River lions to somebody new to this region, how would you describe the Niagara River Lions and why should they should come and watch you?

00:02:07 Matthew Johnston
Yeah, no, it is a great question the Niagara River Lions are the premier sports and entertainment choice for our region.

If you want the great thing about it is that they have something for everybody. If you're out with your kids, there's inflatables and the kids club zone. You're on a date night - there's a VIP bar.

There's luxury seating so it's more than basketball, you know, you're out there, you're going to have a good time. There's free swag that we give away.

It really is a lot of fun and a great way to kind of spend your summer nights at the Meridian Center.

02:41 Ryan Dunkle
Yeah, you know, just to chime in on this. The river lions it is kind of like your own little family, you know, but you know we're in Saint Catherines.

You know we are the basketball team of this entire region, so you know and getting to know players one-on-one. After the games they'll come out and talk to fans, you know some of them actually just know the fans by their first names and they start off from conversations that they were having before and it's great as well for kids you know kids, you know they look at these guys and they're pretty much their idols.

You know you see these monstrous guys, they're, you know, it's just unreal and they're so personable and you know you get to talk to the players and you get to see you know what kind of side hustles they have.

You know what they do, but their free times, their passions, and you know it's just something that I think everybody in the Niagara region should really come in and enjoy just because you won't experience that anywhere else.

03:26 Moksh
Definitely sounds like a great friends and family kind of ambience, definitely. So when does this basketball season typically start and how long does it run?

03:36 Matthew Johnston
Our season will start mid-May.

Players will arrive right around May 15th for training camp, which is only a week long and then we go all the way through till mid August where Championship weekend takes place so what this does is that actually allows us to attract the best talent available to us that is out there because a lot of our guys, this is their offseason when they're whether they're in the G League or they're playing top tier in Europe.

They get to come home and when they're when they come home, this is when they're off season, then this is when they play.

04:12 Moksh
Well and you know as a fan asking, what type of tickets can I purchase?

04:17 Ryan Dunkle
Yes, so we have many different types of levels of seating.
If you've never been to a basketball game or if you're looking to, you know just come for your first time, you know we got the bowl seating, you know that's everywhere in the stands. You got your best value for your dollar there, especially if you've never been.

You know, you get to experience it from a hot you know above, you know we go down, we've got the court level seating.

We've strategically placed the row two, so you're not, you know trying to look around somebody, head whenever you're at the game.
You know it's an experience being courtside, you know?

Recently I got to actually watch one of our courtside games and you get to hear the players chirping. It's a whole different thing.

You know when you're out when you're in the stands, you don't really get to hear everything that's going on, but you know there's real beef between players and when you're in the courtside you know you get to hear everything.

There's no filter, and you know, especially you know with history between players, it's something that is really interesting.

05:11 Matthew Johnston
Oh yeah, it's fun to be apart of as no other sporting experience, do you actually get to sit on the playing surface. You can sit behind home plate of a baseball game. You can sit on the 50 yard line at an NFL stadium. You can bang on the glass at an NHL rig, but only in basketball do you actually get to sit on the playing surface.

And when you're that close to the action, it it really is hard to describe and you got to experience it for yourself, and that's what the river lions do. We get to provide that experience at a very reasonable rate compared to NBA.

05:44 Ryan Dunkle

Seems it provides such a rush, you know, we also have more premium seating. You know we have the bolt bar where you can have premium seating and there's a nice VIP bar that you can access on that level.

And we also have the suites up above, so if you don't fancy being near the court if you don't want the basketball possibly to hit you or anything like that, you know we do have the sweet stuff above. They're super nice, you know the service, you know, food all that comes directly to that and then this year we actually introduce loge seating, so that's our most premium seating, and it's been awesome.

You know you get to be on the court side and you actually do have couches, and they're elevated, so you still get to see the entire floors.
You're not having any viewing problems, and you also do get your own TV with that as well, so you get to watch the actual CBL stream.
So you know if you're missing anything different angles, you can always watch on that, and it's it's just, it's really cool.

You have your own pretty much you roles in your own little section, you got security for both sides, so nobody bugging you in those sections.

06:40 Matthew Johnston
Oh, the little shading is something else, and then it's a mix, right?

You have your diehard fans that just want to experience the game the best way possible but then you also have your business owners right that are there to showcase and really kind of you know, work their partnerships as well and and show their partners a great time and so you get a real mix of fans in that lower seating and very limited, we only have 4 spots available because of the size, the sheer size of what you get.

07:10 Ryan Dunkle
And those loads they're sold as a season. So with that load you actually do get advertising so you have a whole pipe board, so you want people to pull the strings.

You get to see it's completely branded with you so you also get to advertising it and you know all these seats as well they're all offered in season tickets, you know so if you're looking if you really want to get invested with us, you know you save money by getting season tickets so you know that's something I highly recommend.

It's always great for kids, and you know, there's a lot of perks with our season tickets. You know we've got ticket exchange programs so for Example, let's say you're not feeling well, give us a call the day before and we can actually give you 2 tickets to another game So if
you want to bring friends or family you can always do that, you know, you get merch discounts you get a whole bunch of benefits.

07:51 Moksh
Well, that's nice, it's I mean it's great to see that you're accommodating, almost, you know everyone needs.

You've got, you know this ticket I mean the seats right next to the court, and then you've got upper seats as well for sponsorships, you've got seats that seem like a VIP lounge as well, so I think that's great to see.

08:08 Matthew Johnston
Yeah, we need all those people right there, they are our life but our season ticket holders, whether you it doesn't matter where you sit or even if you just watch on the stream, we appreciate every single one of them because they're the reason why we are here.

08:32 Moksh
Well, that's great to hear, and another question that I actually had was how all your athletes recruited you know and what's their previous experience with basketball, if any.

08:42 Matthew Johnston
Yeah, all of Our players actually have a ton of Basketball experience and our recruitment is 12 months of the year we have two great gold gems, Vicky Nantwi, who are literally scouting players, and so what we do is we'll get the film from whether it's top tier France, Germany Spain or NCAA basketball.

So last year one of our top players came right out of Duke and he spent five years as the captain of Duke, Javin Delaurier playing alongside RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson.

Our players, whether it's NCAA experience, G League experience, top eurobowl, some of them even have NBA experience our recruiting starts there, but what's changing now is that agents are calling us and we're not calling them and that's really cool feeling.

09:35 Moksh
Right 100% that must be nice

09:39 Matthew Johnston
A few years, but we got there.

09:41 Moksh

Yes, well now that's great to hear. And you know, looking back at the past year, we all know 2020-2021 has been challenging for everyone around the world. But for Niagara river lions in specific, I'd say it was also exciting like you said, you made it to the finals for the first time.
For you know what kind of effect did the pandemic have, apart from the success that you had, but any negatives?

10:04 Matthew Johnston
Well, you know we have great leadership with the league. The Canadian Elite Basketball League is driven by a great team.
That's actually where, the head office is right out Of Thorold and when we look at the effects of the pandemic, we gotta go back to the start in 2020.

The Canadian Elite Basketball League was the first professional sports league to return to play in the pandemic, and we did that with the summer series right here at the Meridian Center and that really put us on the map because when fans wanted sports back we were literally the only thing they could watch and they tuned in and it was great. We had 1,000,000 viewers on CBC watch us.

From there, you as you know the pandemic continued to happen and it hurt us we we did an entire season with no fans where other leagues were shut down and and again it's all driven by leadership.

They're like we're not shutting down, so 2021 rolls along, and we plan to continue the year without fans and which was a great testimony like testament to all of us. They knew they believed in us and they knew they had believed in the product and that was good.

Right so then 2021 comes along and all of a sudden we find out we can have fans in the building again and the Canadian League basketball again is the First League professional league in Canada to welcome fans back in stadiums. And I'm it was like this coming out party. You know what I mean like To see even though we were only allowed to have 1000 fans in the building. It was amazing to see that 1000 fans showed up every single time, so while it did hurt us, you know it.

It's like anything it makes you stronger. You go through it and now we're starting to see the benefits of that of being able to go through grind it out just like all the other small businesses and you know, hopefully come out bigger, stronger and better.

11:58 Moksh
I mean honestly, it's you know like you said, you were the only provider for sports when everyone around the world was looking for sports And I think that makes a big difference 100%. You know customers or consumers or the athletes look at you in a different perspective.

12:17 Matthew Johnston
You know its funny just to like add one more thing here it's after that you know you're not sure what's going to happen, but then the addition Of Montreal, Scarborough and Newfoundland.

So now our league went from 7 teams in the pandemic to ten, making us the largest professional sports league so the AHL got 7 teams. CFL's got nine and we've got 10 and we stretch coast to coast. We're playing in Langley, BC and all the way out and Saint Johns, Newfoundland.

12:45 Moksh
Wow, yeah you've definitely spread your wings.

12:47 Matthew Johnston
Well, we're getting there

12:51 Moksh
I also see that the river lions are involved in the community. Like we mentioned before, and you know, always creating new partnerships like I remember you saying, can you speak on some of these new partnerships?

13:04 Matthew Johnston
Yeah, like the community is great because, well, they're out to support as many people as they can, and we've heard what they're saying. And that's what we're trying to do so, you've got great partners like Niagara Trailers, who does the High 5 tunnel and they literally buy season ticket and they donate them to sports teams to come out and give the guys high Fives as they run out.

Then you got Kitchen Studio Niagara who does a sports team of the game? That's 20 tickets every game to a sports team.

13:35 Ryan Dunkle
And then we also do have stubs for Cubs programs, so that's where we have businesses, local businesses, and they donate a season ticket.

It's usually it's two of them in that package that we have currently and that gets donated to kids that would be able to be coming out to games. We have one of our partners Indigenous Child Service management, you know, we've been able to give them a lot of tickets to. You know, come out to games and a lot of them have never been to professional events before.

Based on the feedback we're getting from them is just absolutely going crazy and that is just something we want to hear, you know, we just want to give back. We can always want to make sure we're providing opportunities, specially to our community, here in Niagara, right?

14:08 Matthew Johnston
It's one of the most important things to him, and and as much as we do focus on the family and kids, it's all about growing business and growing together too.

And Meridian Credit union is an amazing partner and they're sending local businesses to the game to help build their brand and
we try and provide that vehicle so that these local small businesses can continue to grow along with us.

14:32 Moksh
Right, and you know, speaking from a fan perspective, I think it's great to see you know the river lions being so involved with the community because it does increase the love and increase the support around everyone.

And this is from a fans perspective, so I think that's great.

Moving on to question, Youth sports are very beneficial, you know mentally as well to give you a healthy mindset and a lifestyle and I'm sure the players of Niagara River lions are lifelong athletes.

You know, starting at a young age, like you said, but speaking about youth sports, what do you think is the biggest challenge for youth sports today.

15:11 Matthew Johnston
Well, it's you know, it's hard and I think the first thing that comes to mind is strictly the cost. Right?
Yeah, you know the world is getting more expensive and that's hard and you try and do the best you can with it.

But this is one of the reasons why basketball is the second largest growing sport globally. All you need is a pair of shoes, the ball, and that's it.

And then you can go out and you can play and that is why we're starting to see more and more youth gravitate.

I, believe personally, especially in Canada to basketball and it's easy to get together and you know, I think as we overcome those challenges and getting the youth together, that way we'll start to see.

Well, I know we'll continue to see growth in basketball.

15:56 Moksh
That's good, what are some of the innovative ways that Niagara River lions are getting people interested in the team and the game of basketball in general.

Like you said, you know it's the second largest sport. What are some ways that you have made it possible for more athletes to join this sport?

16:15 Matthew Johnston
Yeah, for this one really isn't me, but I mean I guess I'll take credit for what the league has done and when you look at innovative ways.

Uhm, so the NBA and the FIBA game are very different, and you know when people come to a River Lions game I don't think they know exactly what they're going to expect.

When we talk about how we play under FIBA rules, which are slightly different, you have 10 minute quarters, verse 12, which they'd be used to in the NBA. But the the introduction of the Elam ending and really going with that path is truly innovative in my mind.

As being this league that isn't afraid to take risks so I don't know how familiar you are with the Elam ending at all but they've done it in NBA All Star games, and basically it's a target score to win.

So we lose the clock and that's OK, because that means every single game is ending on a game-winning shot, right? So you
might hear people be like, oh, you know there's no buzzer beaters.

Well, you got to score to win, you got to play defense to win, and so there's no more killing the clock there's no more wasting time.

Go play the game, go win and I think for me that's the biggest thing that the Canadian League basketball
does is.

They're not afraid to take risks like this and really showcase the talent other players, and that's what you
do with this.

00:17:39 Ryan Dunkle

You know I've had friends and family come to our league and they've never really understood the Elam ending. But after coming to our game and seeing the crowd freak out every time that there's a game-winning shot, it's just It's something to remember, and that's something that will happen at every single game there's always going to be that close moment.

He's got to hit the shot, you know it's it's.

It's great and I'm glad that the NBA didn't introduce that into the All Star game. I know there's a little bit different than ours. I know they have 24 for obvious, you know. For Kobe Bryant and all that, rest in peace, but it's it's truly inspirational what our league's been doing.

00:18:13 Moksh
That's that's actually very good to hear. You know, all sports have those breathtaking goosebumps moments, and I think it's wonderful that I can see you have experienced that.

And I think that's great, especially working with sports.

Speaking on success and speaking on Niagara River Lions growth, is there a success story you'd have you know you'd want to share with us anything about the organization?

18:39 Matthew Johnston
I wouldn't say there's a particular success story, you know, for one player or one team or anything like that.

When I think back on, you know the first three years and now four years of the Canadian League Basketball League, is how quickly we've grown and so what you're seeing is you're seeing these players go and sign NBA contracts like like Javin Delaurier from the river lions last year, and Xavier Moon.

And now these guys are playing in the NBA and Xavier Moon, who's three time MVP for our league goes in and showcases with The Clippers.

00:19:15 Ryan Dunkle
Bradley Xavier Moon was great.

I know he was actually the highlight player for the Clippers when he when he got signed to.

I think it was a second ten day contract he had with them and you know, it's really cool seeing you know
somebody from our league being the highlight player in the NBA game.

19:31 Moksh
Beautiful moment, right? Yeah?

19:31 Ryan Dunkle
It's magical, so we need this.

19:33 Matthew Johnston
But  it goes well beyond that too and Ryan touched on it before.

Not only are these guys trying to get to the NBA, but they're also growing and thinking about life after basketball. And we've got particular players that honestly one is a master mastermind when it comes to baking and selling cheesecakes.
And that's what he does.

And we have another one who's becoming a very high end Barber in Toronto, and he's got a great brand that he's building.
These guys, you know they're entrepreneurs.

Then they're more than just, you know, going out there 40 minutes a game and scoring 20 points. Right now I see a lot of success with these guys. 

20:17 Ryan Dunkle
And before I started working with the river lions, I actually got to know Jalen, Bob, Harrison a bit. His brands at JBH Fresh. So that's his barber business and you know he actually does cut some of the Raptors players here. 

20:28 Moksh
Oh wow, that's nice.

20:29 Ryan Dunkle
Looks like Scotty Barnes, Gary Trent, Junior Justin Champagne, you know he's connected with that stuff too, and it's it's really interesting to see you know he's got getting stories about it and it's just really cool to see.

20:44 Matthew Johnston
And they're all great guys, like when Vicki Nantwi brings a player in, it's not just about the talent. And that's specific to the river lions and and obviously I can't speak for other teams and I know they have the the same standards that we do, but you can be the most talented guy in the world.

But if you're not coming in, and if you're not community driven, if you're not team driven. You know they're they're going to pass on you right?

It's all about you know, yeah, we're we talk about, you know being on TSN and guys signing NBA contracts and you know, hopefully getting picked up by sports then and being on CBC nationally.

But we're still Niagara, right, we're still grass roots here, this is this is our home and forever will be.

21:29 Moksh
Well, I think it's great to see somebody from your own background in your city to go out there and you know, make a name for themselves in the world.

I think that's a fantastic feeling, would you guys have any closing statements?

21:46 Ryan Dunkle
Yeah, well, you know I would like to say if you know if you haven't been to one of our games, you truly have to come out to one. You know you can always give us a call at our office.

If you're not sure where you want to sit, what you think would be best for you, you know we've got great staff we'll put you in the best seats possible that will suit your needs.

You know we if you want to check us out where you are visit Riverlions.ca and we know we've got all our ticketing information there. If you're looking for any kind of season ticket holder information, you can all find that there.

And of course you can always give us a call we'd be more than happy to help.

22:16 Matthew Johnston
Absolutely, even if you're not a fan of basketball.

Yeah, you know, give it a try. Give it one game and then if you don't like it, you personally call me and tell me 'cause I'm going to find it hard to believe that you're not going to have a ton of fun at a river lions game basketball fan or not, yeah. 

22:35 Moksh
You heard him. Well, that was that was amazing.

Well, with that I hope with everything we've talked about today and everything you guys have told us I hope the youth understand just how important a local sports team can be for a community and how I think the Niagara River Lions can be the organization to put Niagara on the basketball map.

So thank you so much once again, Mr.Johnson and Mr.Dunkle for your wonderful answers and thank you everyone for listening if you wish to stay in loop of your favorite sports leagues and events like Niagara River Lions, make sure to join our MVP newsletter through our website where you get access to registration information and important dates.



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