Crocs’ struggles show NBL still has a way to go

In recent times the NBL has seen somewhat of a boom after emerging from Australian basketball’s darkest days.

Exceptional talent, some of which has never been seen in the league before, has graced the hardwood, crowds have grown and talk of expansion has generated heightened excitement amongst fans.

However, Townsville’s dire financial situation has brought to light just how far from returning to the glory days the NBL actually is.

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The Crocodiles are in very big trouble, to say the least, and it doesn’t bode well for the NBL’s expansion plans.

Townsville’s poor on-court performances have led to even worse crowds, leaving the Crocs in the dark financially.

In the 2006/07 season, Townsville averaged over 4,500 people a game to lead the rest of the league in that category, albeit when the NBL was struggling through its roughest patch in recent history.

Even last season, when the Crocs finished last, they still managed to attract over 3,200 fans per game whilst playing at their long-term home court Townsville Entertainment Centre, affectionately known as ‘The Swamp’.

More budget cuts meant the Crocodiles were forced to move to the much smaller Townsville RSL Stadium for the current season, which has done more to hinder the club’s stability than solidify it.

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There are a number of underlying issues for the league to come from this situation, however, that have been overlooked in favour of the positives as the hunger for the NBL to succeed and grow burned strongly in everyone connected with the sport.

The regional teams simply don’t have the fan-base or the financial stability to grow in the same manner as the city-based clubs, and as the league tries to expand into areas such as Tasmania and Brisbane, this may prove problematic.

Developing enough interest in these areas for the clubs to flourish and grow in years to come, not just simply survive in the league, is going to be the NBL’s biggest challenge.

Forging a fan-base in Tasmania, where basketball has been a non-factor for so many years, or in the city of Brisbane, where Bullets fans will still be disenchanted following the debacle that ultimately saw their license terminated, will be no easy feat.

Among the eight current clubs, the gap between city and regional is continually widening as the NBL ‘grows’.

As the talent levels rise and league’s imports get closer and closer to NBA-level, the smaller clubs will fall further and further behind the big clubs.

James Ennis, Sam Young, Johnny Flynn, Josh Childress, Jordan McRae, Cedric Jackson, Mickell Gladness and DeAndre Daniels are all big name Americans with NBA experience or who have been drafted into the best league in the world that have made their way to Australia to ply their trade in the past five years.

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Of course, only Gladness (Townsville) didn’t play for one of the five big city clubs, while Scottie Wilbekin (Cairns) and Rotnei Clarke (Wollongong) can also be added to that class as players who were, surprisingly to many, overlooked in the NBA draft.

Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and New Zealand has also attracted, and largely retained, big names such as Brock Motum, Patty Mills, Daniel Kickert, Mika Vukona, Mark Worthington, David Barlow, Tom Abercrombie, Chris Goulding and AJ Ogilvy while the regional clubs have struggled to do so, outside of College graduate duo Clint Steindl and Cam Gliddon.

During the 2013/14 season, Townsville signed two imports from the NZNBL – a league of less quality than the NBL – while many of their rivals looked to NBA draft discards and high-calibre alumni of the coveted US College system.

Of course, big names attract bigger crowds and, naturally, bigger sums of money from potential investors.

Melbourne United’s ownership and subsequent game day success best highlights how difficult it is for the regional-based clubs to compete.

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The franchise has two main home courts that hold between 7,000 and 10,000 spectators each, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and situated in the centre of Australia’s second-largest city.

Meanwhile, Townsville relies on the support of a much-smaller, albeit fanatical, regional community and play out of a stadium that holds a mere 2,500 people – that of which hasn’t been close to filled yet this season.

As reported in The Townsville Bulletin, the Crocodiles organisation recently approached Chris Morris, owner of Jupiters Hotel and Casino, and attempted to strike a deal for Morris to buy a stake in the franchise and secure financial security.

Morris declined their approaches, leaving the Crocs on the brink.

When Melbourne secured the financial backing of Michael Slepoy and Larry Kestelman, co-founders of Dodo, it immediately became a powerhouse, building a star-studded roster and consistently attracting crowds of close to 6,000.

Perth secured funding to build the 12,000-seat Perth Arena and now fill it out every time the Wildcats hit the floor, while the Townsville Council still hasn’t acted and put use to the $5 million in funding that it secured from the Federal Government to re-develop ‘The Swamp’.

The parallels are so unfair but, unfortunately, are very real.

Nobody expects Townsville or Wollongong to compete with Perth and Melbourne for fans or facilities, and therein lies part of the problem.

The community-based clubs do so much to grow the game in areas like Townsville and Wollongong, and the NBL needs these clubs in the league for it to be successful.

Priority number one for the NBL right now is the long-term financial security of Townsville, and every one of the other seven current NBL clubs for the matter.

That may very well mean putting expansion plans on hold until that need is satisfied, because the last thing the NBL needs is another situation like this in the future.