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A city of Perth battle illustrates Australia’s basketball court problem
A developing situation that stretches beyond the professional hardwood, and impacts the growth of Australian basketball.
The world of sports can, and often does feel distant from the reality we live in. For example, a fellow Australian in Josh Giddey collecting triple-doubles with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder is a powerful endpoint of where basketball can take a talented athlete.
But that glamorous image is at the same time, very removed from the everyday moments of young people shooting hoops in the street. The sight of casual pickup games in every suburb likely doesn’t garner the attention of the masses —not even from dedicated basketball sites like this one— but the daily fostering of a love for the sport is how young athletes fall for the game in the first place. Without these moments on courts all around Australia, there would be no influx of Australians into professional leagues around the world.
Tracking youth participation into sporting success is a simple trend to identify. But a growing issue is making it harder for young basketballers to play the game.
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Basketball infrastructure is not equipped to deal with growing demand, and there simply aren’t enough funds to solve this problem. This phenomenon transcends regions and organisations. Townsville Basketball estimated last year that 500 children were turned away due to availability issues. Multiple NBL1 organisations in Perth have waiting lists for junior participation that forces them to turn families away. Basketball Tasmania, thanks in large part to the JackJumpers’ success, claims they need 26 new indoor courts to keep up with demand.
Australian basketball has a court availability problem. Without adequate funding, this issue will remain. Given the fractured state of sporting administration across national and regional governments, it has historically been —and will likely remain so— that state governments are forced to tackle this battle alone. This of course creates inconsistencies with regards to execution and interest levels from state to state.
The Victorian state government’s upgrade of the State Basketball Centre in Wantirna South is the largest investment seen to address the problem. The project will add 12 courts to the community, while facilitating high performance training environments for professional NBL and WNBL clubs. Last week, the New South Wales state government announced a $15 million dollar grant —along with an additional $5 million from the Cumberland city council— to help build an exclusive high performance centre and training base for the Sydney Kings and Sydney Flames. Neither of these projects will fundamentally change the availability issues. If we are being real, these projects are baby steps towards addressing the real funding disparity, but they are steps in the right direction.
Such support is however, not the case everywhere.
Last month in Perth, the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (‘DWER’) —a local government organisation— released a series of guidelines that were aimed at “minimising noise impact from outdoor community basketball.” What did that mean in practice?
The guidelines attempted to force:
Small (ie half) courts be built a minimum of 60 metres from any residence.
Full courts be built a minimum of 100 metres from any residence.
What was the impetus for such a change? The guidelines were created, following a series of noise complaints in recent years from residents unhappy with the noise from basketball being played at local courts. Residents were annoyed at the noise exposure from local pickup games, which led in some cases to suburban courts being shut down under the existing state noise laws across Perth.
These are, regrettably, actual events that have happened in Perth over the last month. The complaints of local residents have led to a governmental branch —one that has nothing to do sport, it must be said— attempting to slow down the basic infrastructure needed to support one of the fastest growing youth sports in the country.
The draft guidelines didn’t suggest a retroactive ban on existing courts, but they would have inevitably impacted future decisions on outdoor community facilities, which potentially could have led to further closures. In one local jurisdiction —the city of Stirling— 25 out of the city’s 29 current outdoor facilities would not be compliant with the proposed changes. Basketball WA deputy chief executive, Evan Stewart, told Nine News Perth that 75% of current basketball rings in metropolitan Perth would fail the guidelines.
At a time when Victoria and New South Wales are committing eight-figure grants to grow basketball in their communities, the Western Australian government is instead using its resources to appease complaining homeowners, and restrict the ability for youths to enjoy safe playing conditions. And I acknowledge my bias on this topic, coming from a place of being a massive advocate for basketball in my hometown of Perth. That is my anchoring point. Yet, I find it hard to find a valid argument for a proposed change that looks like posturing at best, and ignorance at worst, from those purporting to oversee local infrastructure.
Encouraging young people to get outside and exercise in Perth should be easier than anywhere in the world, given the weather and widespread safety around the city. Yet, there are still misguided attempts to minimise facilities for sports other than AFL in Western Australia. And that’s not to criticise the AFL, either. I love the sport and they are acting in their best interests, just like any organisation should. But the local government environment spends infinitely more time campaigning for an AFL Grand Final than it does providing facilities for second-tier sports like basketball and soccer. These are decisions seemingly based in political manoeuvring, above all else. That is why the guidelines attempting to restrict basketball courts were very quickly run back by the local government.
Backlash in the days following the release of these guidelines was severe. A local mayor went to the media saying it would be nearly impossible to play basketball if the noise guidelines were applied. Damian Martin was on the nightly news, urging politicians not to take courts away.
So predictably enough, Environment Minister Reece Whitby announced last week that the guidelines had been scrapped: “I’ve listened to community concerns and scrapped proposed guidelines that could impact new basketball courts being built close to homes. Noise guidelines were being prepared to help local governments choose appropriate locations in public open spaces. The draft guidance was not going to be mandatory or apply retrospectively.” I wouldn’t normally include a verbatim quote from a political announcement, but those words carry power in the fact they are a cliché rebuttal to a decision that should have never been needed.
A sensible approach to outdoor sport should start and end with safe facilities being prioritised. At a macro level, a better understanding of the Perth economy reveals that focusing on regional sporting facilities is severely missing the point. Perth is sprawling city and backyards are getting smaller, which makes the importance of outdoor courts even more important. The median property price has jumped 24%, from $710,000 to $880,000 since March 2020. Cost of living is rising and properties close to city are getting smaller and harder to access. More suburban facilities are a cheap of getting young people outside for exercise, yet public servants are wasting their time trying to eliminate them.
Australia’s basketball court situation will only worsen, as the sport grows in popularity. Governing bodies all around the country are battling to monetise their programs to boost internal funding, but the harsh reality is that more government support is needed to provide the facilities. The situation in Perth was farcical.
Proposed guidelines were attempting to relegate basketball within the community. That in itself shows the lack of respect relative to other sports - I couldn’t imagine for example, local councils tearing down AFL goalposts at local sporting ovals. Luckily enough, there was enough local outrage that spurred quick action to squash the guidelines.
Victoria and New South Wales have recently shown how far a little funding can go. It’s now on the rest of the country to take note and catch up.