Has NBL1 proven itself a success in its debut season?

Now that the Nunawading Spectres and the Kilsyth Cobras have emerged champions in the inaugural NBL1 season, it seems only appropriate that a thorough review of the season begin. What worked? More importantly, what did we learn about the new league’s place in the broader Australian basketball landscape?

The introduction of NBL1 began with the dissolving of the SEABL (South East Australian Basketball League). This reintroduction of Basketball Australia’s minor league, according to NBL chief executive Jeremy Loeliger, was supposed to better showcase "Australia’s best emerging talent”. The original 13 SEABL sides essentially merged with the 4 most recent Big V clubs, as well as adding a Tasmanian outfit to both men’s and women’s competitions.

The league was revamped in order to better strengthen the bridge between semi-professional and professional basketball in Australia, following the path of a number of other elite sporting codes in the country. Essentially, NBL1 was implemented to effectively foster a clear platform for young talent to make the jump to the NBL. Although this bridge may have been strengthened, there are some clear structural flaws with the league that were visible from even before the first game tipped-off in March.

What didn’t work

Firstly, NBL1 was supposed to be more than just a rebrand of SEABL. Renaming the competition as NBL1 --with a “National” connotation-- suggested teams from all over the country would be included in this new league. However, in terms of geographic locations of teams, the league largely became what it was supposed to be - the spiritual successor of the SEABL. Having 14 Victorian based teams assured this, with the only non-Victorian teams deriving from Albury, ACT and Tasmania. It is important to consider that the Mt Gambier Pioneers’ (a former SEABL team) bid for the NBL1 was rejected, and the South Australian based team still desires entry into the league next season.

This point does come with a caveat, however. Regardless of how initial discussions were begun, it is important to consider that Basketball Victoria's "Senior Elite League" was branded as NBL1, in partnership with the NBL. Basketball Victoria might have just intended for the league to be largely Victorian, but from an optics perspective, the successor to SEABL sounds like a national league to the everyday Australian basketball fan.

Granted, it is the debut season of the league. League organisers may have been cautious to expand too quickly, be it for financial reasons, or to ‘test the proverbial waters’ with a national expansion canvassed for years to come. This is relevant, because expanding the league nationally would have resulted in inflated travel and accommodation costs for existing teams based in Victoria. This would have deducted from players’ match earnings, coach salaries or even the prowess of training facilities, consequently combining to diminish the attractiveness of the league.

Conversely, one may argue that including teams around the nation may have increased revenue and awareness of the league, and thereby somewhat adhering to the “National” notion of the league’s name, while offsetting negative impacts, such as costs of travel. This is an egg that league organisers will need to grapple with as they review the season.

Aside from the geographical problems outlined, there were aspects of NBL1 that gave many Australian basketball fans reasons to be excited about.

What got the tick of approval

Firstly, the streaming of every single game, round by round, has created a buzz throughout the basketball community. Free YouTube access for all fans or spectators to the games undoubtedly increased awareness and support of the league, especially considering it was the off-season for the NBL and NBA season. The additional commentary on these streams added a new dimension to viewers, contributing to a more professional look and this drew attention.

The success of the rebranding of the competition is epitomised by their Instagram account reaching 10,000 followers in their first season. The consistent coverage and the adequate crowds visible in these live streams suggests a successful initiative from the NBL, painting a clear picture that Australia’s growth in basketball isn't just a flash in the pan.

The league has also stayed true to their promise of strengthening the link between NBL1 and NBL, as a handful of players have signed with respective NBL clubs throughout the year. Take blocks per game leader Deng Acuoth for example; the big man impressed with his current team, the Ballarat Miners, to secure a contract with the South-East Melbourne Phoenix in the NBL. The former Sydney King had performances such as a triple double (with blocks!) against the Albury Bandits that would’ve no doubt impressed all on-lookers. Signings like these show that NBL coaches and scouts are watching with keen intent, proving the importance and worth of this reserve league.

Supporting evidence for the success and legitimacy of the NBL1’s first season is the Boomers’ most recently called upon player, David Barlow. As soon as his NBL season finished with Melbourne United, Barlow spent his ‘off-season’ playing with the Southern Sabres in NBL1. His impressive play, which included 22.7PPG and 8.1RPG, was rewarded with a call up to the Boomers squad for the exhibition games --following Jonah Bolden's unexpected departure-- and a spot in the Australian rotation at the FIBA 2019 World Cup in China.

There are rumours swirling that would address the qualms of the league, while also recognising the successes of the first year. According to a league source who wishes to remain anonymous, the possibility of an NBL1 that includes each state, or an “NBL1” competition for each state separately, is well on the cards for next year.

One way or another, whether it’s a national NBL1 where teams travel throughout Australia weekly to play, a mid-season competition including every NBL1 team throughout the nation, or the winners at the end of the year play each other, it is believed the coming year will address the need for a wider, and more inclusive, national league. This could mean the abolishment of some leagues such as the NSW Waratah league, and thus the youth competition throughout the country would extend from U21’s to U22’s, while the men’s Division 1 competition would in turn gain more relevance.

If these rumours do come into fruition, it reflects both the successes and failures of NBL1 in its first year of production. The desire for Basketball Australia’s and the NBL to emulate a similar league in each state, or to extend the league across the country is proof that they believe in the league long term - and that can only be a good thing.