Exclusive: How the Southern Huskies plan to revolutionise the NBL

A basketball revolution is rising out of Tasmania, and it is quite unlike anything Australian sport has ever seen.

The Southern Huskies’ bid to return NBL basketball to Tasmania has exploded onto the public consciousness over the past month. Each wave of branded merchandise has brought a groundswell of excitement to a regional fan base that is desperate for professional basketball.

Thoughts of a 10th NBL franchise rightfully grab headlines for basketball fans, although there is a larger business concept underpinning the project. There is a sophisticated enterprise that supports the Huskies’ ambitions, and a serial Australian entrepreneur is leading the charge.

Justin Hickey, a Tasmanian native and former member of the defunct Hobart Devils, is the man leading the Huskies’ bid. He is bankrolling the project with his personal capital and seeking to revolutionise how Australian sporting franchises are owned and operated. Moreover, he is attempting to modernise how they conduct business and generate revenue.

Credit: Southern Huskies

In an exclusive interview with The Pick and Roll, Hickey outlined how the Huskies plan on establishing an NBL franchise that is self-funded by the infrastructure that supports it.

Hickey describes the Huskies’ proposed revenue model as “robust,” and explains how it will immediately be the strongest in the NBL.

“Our business experience stems from recurring revenue models,” Hickey said. “We have a lot of experience setting up, and running, multiple recurring revenue businesses.

“We will be drawing on this knowledge and applying it to the Huskies. We are trying to ensure that the sporting side of the enterprise is a cog in the wheel of a model that has a little something for everyone, and this will ensure strong cash flow.”

At the core of Hickey’s pitch is an audacious plan to acquire the Derwent Entertainment Centre, an out-dated multi purpose venue north of Hobart’s CBD, and turn it into a beacon for professional sport in Tasmania. Hickey has already submitted a formal bid to acquire the venue from the Glenorchy City Council. He is confident this bid will be successful, with plans already in place to invest over $90 million dollars into the precinct.

Assuming Hickey gets his hands on the complex, initiative number one will be renovating the playing facilities, as this is where the Huskies would host their home games. Providing a state-of-the-art basketball environment is a non-negotiable for the budding franchise. Basketball is the center point of Hickey’s plan and the foundation on which everything can be built.

“Basketball is obviously an important cog in the wheel,” Hickey explained. “As is ensuring that there is a venue which is modelled to the highest standards, to ensure we can attract events which traditionally have avoided Tasmania because of the current venue situation.”

Once on-court affairs are taken care of, Hickey sees limitless potential, not only for the Southern Huskies business, but also the Tasmanian economy and the NBL. Multiple hotels, a convention centre, a new home for the Hobart Chargers and a commercial property precinct are all on the radar. Each development serves a role within the larger revenue model that will ensure financial security all year round, and transcend the seasonal nature of professional sport.

“It will be a revenue model which sees over 12 significant income streams,” Hickey noted.

The Pick and Roll has learned there are already deals in place that will see a tailored Southern Huskies clothing line hit major retail chains in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom. Hickey is thinking bigger - he is thinking global.

Credit: Southern Huskies

There are also plans to keep lucrative ticketing revenue in house. Coincidentally, Hickey founded a ticketing agency, Tickanova, earlier this year.

“Naturally, stadium ownership is important,” Hickey said. “Implementing everything our team knows about how to successfully run large commercial venues is important.

“With venue ownerships comes a strong revenue stream. In the off-season, we will generate revenue from venue hire, along with our own Southern Huskies events.

“With events, we will have our own ticketing systems, food and beverage revenue, premium club memberships and alcohol sales, just to name a few. [That is] not to mention other revenue streams kicking in, such as the hotels and other revenues associated with the hotel like conferences and events of significance to the state.”

Returning professional basketball to Tasmania isn’t just a side hustle for Hickey; it’s serious business. The formulation of plans for a diverse entertainment precinct has come on the back of an extensive collaboration with global stadium owners and operators, along with leading sporting leagues.

“We are very much drawing on the English Premier League model in the first instance,” Hickey explained. “With surrounding hotels and associated venue management tied in with the club, we can ensure that the actual space around the stadium is maximised as a destination venue.

“We have spent over 16 months working with key stadium owners in the United States and the United Kingdom, and adopted parts of their model that are relevant to our circumstances.”

The infant club’s moniker, #WeTheSouth, is an extension of what the Toronto Raptors have used as their war cry in the NBA. However familiar the initiation game is, it is just further illustration of how the Huskies consortium has methodically cherry-picked success stories from the industry of global sport, in constructing their bid for an NBL licence.

The comparison to a global powerhouse like the Toronto Raptors is apt. Their owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), have built a sporting empire through monopolisation of a regional sporting network. In addition to the Raptors, MLSE owns a slew of additional Toronto-based professional sporting franchises – including the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League, Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. MLSE also owns the home arena and training centre for each franchise, along with holding a significant stake in Maple Leaf Square, the entertainment precinct surrounding Scotiabank Arena, home of the Raptors and Maple Leafs.

In other words, MLSE owns professional sports in Toronto, just as Hickey and the Southern Huskies hope to do in The Apple Isle.

“We have tried to position the Huskies Brand as something which can be drawn on for several other sporting and unique franchises,” Hickey explained.

Hickey added that discussions have already begun to expand the Huskies brand into Suncorp Super Netball League, the Australian Ice Hockley League and professional E-Sports.

Diversification of sporting brands has started trickling into the Australian marketplace - for instance, AFL powerhouse Collingwood Magpies already have a branded franchise in Super Netball – but expansion has never been attempted with such breath, as the Huskies’ consortium hopes to undertake. It is also yet to hit the NBL, despite countless prognostications from many involved with the league. NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger admitted in November 2017 that discussions had been held with numerous AFL clubs regarding the prospects of a branded NBL franchise.

While the Huskies cannot offer the brand awareness the AFL provides, they are seeking to produce a regional powerhouse with a global trademark. It is hoped expansion into a number of sporting leagues will bond the state of Tasmania behind the Huskies brand, and unify a local community that has repeatedly been overlooked by Australia’s leading professional sporting leagues.

“The plan is to unite the state,” Hickey said. “It is super important.

Credit: Southern Huskies

“We feel we can ensure when people are visiting Tasmania, whether in Launceston, Burnie, Devonport and Hobart, they understand it is the home of the Southern Huskies.

Like any business, however, grand ambitions are dependent on producing a successful product for the customers. Above all else, that product right now, is NBL basketball for the Huskies. Hickey has lofty expectations of his prospective NBL side from the moment they hit the court.

“Finals, final, finals,” Hickey implored, when asked about goals for the NBL team in year one.

“We want to be very competitive from day dot. We are currently working on a state-of-the-art training facility in Hobart.”

The Pick and Roll understands that the Los Angeles Lakers training facility, UCLA Health Training Center, is being used as a model for how the Huskies will build their basketball home. Just like everything with their bid, there is a deliberate leveraging of international standards to produce the best environment possible.

The Lakers facility serves as their operational base, while also hosting their G League franchise, the South Bay Lakers, a number of education collaborations with UCLA and community-based events. The facility hosted the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders festivities over All-Star Weekend in February, the event where Australian Josh Green performed to a global audience.

The Huskies are striving to create their own bespoke facility. With input from professional sportspeople and leading practitioners, it is hoped this will be a further attraction for players, and eventually serve as the home for a variety of sporting franchises.

“The training facility will be a high performance facility,” Hickey said. “[It will cover] all bases on and off court for training, recovery, meals, game review, coaching, meeting and media.”

Hickey adds that the prospective franchise is equipped with an initial seven-year plan and winning is a very big factor in this. Not only for growth of the Huskies brand, but for the health of the NBL as a whole.

“A big part of the strategy to re-enter the league is attracting expats to watch us in away games. Also ensuring that we have a very strong media set up to assist in attracting a strong basketball supporter base when we play other regional teams such as Cairns and Wollongong. If we can assist in getting their crowd numbers up, then that can only be a positive thing.”

What is next?

Hickey will meet NBL owner and Executive Director, Larry Kestelman, on Wednesday. This represents a key millstone on the path to being granted an NBL licence. The broad commercial appeal of the Huskies’ bid encourages all involved with the project, although the NBL has yet to publicly support the venture. Last week, Hickey and Michael Sutton met with key members of the Tasmanian government, including Premier, Will Hodgman.

With the NBL recently granting Romie Chaudhari, the co-owner of EFL Championship Club Swansea, a licence for the 2019-2020 NBL season, the Huskies are pursuing an identical timeframe. They hope to be making their NBL debut next October. With that in mind, the Huskies have already approached key basketball personnel, including potential marquee players and coaches, with an eye to quickly collating their inaugural roster.

Serious thought has also been given to how the franchise would make their debut.

The Pick and Roll understands that the Huskies will lobby hard for an NBA crossover game against the Raptors next season, should their licence be granted in time for the 2019-2020 NBL season.

The cost of sending an NBL team to North America, which is approximated to be upwards of $80,000 AUD, is seen as a worthwhile cost of doing business for Huskies leadership. Marketing opportunities and brand awareness generated from such an outing would more than outweigh the financial outlay, and signal a wonderful coming out party for Tasmania’s return to the NBL.

“It would be ideal if #WeTheNorth played #WeTheSouth in the NBA versus NBL series,” Hickey commented.

The Southern Huskies believe firmly that Tasmania is ready for an NBL team. Much work remains before this becomes a reality, but there is no doubting the seriousness of Hickey’s team. Those involved with the Huskies’ bid are all-in. They are ready to show the Australian basketball community a new way of doing business, and now, they just seek the chance.