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How Airtime Scouting could change the game in Australia and New Zealand
Airtime is a passion project on a mega scale. Michael Houben and Stevie Cozens' new platform could transform the lives of young players in Australia and New Zealand.
A few short years ago, Michael Houben and Stevie Cozens were just two guys sharing spreadsheets full of basketball prospects. With Houben in Australia and Cozens in New Zealand, they’d trade information about up and coming players across the Tasman Sea, and use a growing Twitter audience to shine a spotlight on those that were looking for college opportunities.
“Michael and I have probably sent thousands of messages over the years,” Cozens told The Pick and Roll recently. “Everything you could understand or everything that would go into a player, we were having those discussions.”
Fast forward to today, and the two scouting gurus have joined forces to create Airtime Australasian Scouting, taking those social media spotlights to a whole new level. Less than two months after launching their brand new website, they have recorded almost 300 prospects from across Australia and New Zealand, signed up a number of college programs and professional teams, and even had discussions with NBA franchises.
“It’s a whirlwind,” Houben said. “It’s an exciting early point in the process, and we’re working our butts off to make sure that these players are seen.”
That’s the core tenet of Airtime, and of Houben and Cozens in their previous work as individuals – give more opportunities and more exposure to more players. While they had previously done this through informal conversations with players, programs and pro teams, Airtime has the potential to increase the scope of those conversations tenfold or more. Colleges and teams sign up to access an in-depth database of player information, from stats and on-court notes, to off-court personalities and intangibles, and the latest information on college commitments and professional contracts.
The two minds behind Airtime have had vastly different journeys to reach this point in their scouting careers, with a mutual love of basketball, a high work ethic, and a desire to impact the careers of young players bringing them together over the years. “We didn’t always have the film, but we were always trying to evaluate and watch lots and get the stats and follow who the kids are,” Cozens said.
Already seeking a career in basketball, creating content independently and even undergoing sports business courses at NBA Summer League, Cozens began working with HoopNation, a business that runs independent tournaments for young New Zealanders. With the company hosting events outside of the country’s main basketball pathways, he was able to see a handful of players rise through the ranks from outside the spotlight. “Some of these athletes who didn’t make a New Zealand team are now about to be a part of NBA Basketball Without Borders or NBA Academy Games, they’re starting to get these sort of higher level accomplishments,” he said.
That inspired him to help even more of those players chase their dreams at a higher level, albeit without a concrete plan to do so. “I always had this idea to build some sort of a website or something to have all the best New Zealanders on there, but I just didn’t know how it would work.”
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Houben, on the other hand, found his passion for scouting as a fan. Just as every basketball enthusiast becomes a scouting expert when the NBA Draft rolls around, Houben too found himself being sucked into the world of prospects every year. A hardcore Chicago Bulls fan, he would spend hours upon hours poring over film and data, just to try and figure out who might one day lead his team to success. “Each year I’d get deeper into the rabbit hole of the draft scene, which is very much its own sub-community within the basketball scene,” Houben said. “I really enjoyed that process of trying to predict who the next good players are.”
As the pool of talented Australian players continued to grow, it was natural for that analytical focus to shift closer to home. Houben remembers watching the 2017 Under-16 Asian Championships and marvelling at the talent on show, with an Aussie lineup featuring NBA draftee Luke Travers, fellow NBL players Wani Swaka Lo Buluk and Tamuri Wigness, and even AFL star Luke Jackson. This clip of Danté Exum and Ben Simmons playing for Australia elicits similarly fond memories, as he looks back on his scouting journey. “I’d watched this video and been like, oh my god, the future of Australian basketball is insane, this is so cool.”
It was shortly after, in 2019, that Houben linked up with The Pick and Roll, becoming a contributor as a way to share his basketball thoughts more broadly than on Twitter. Those thoughts covered a wide range of topics — NBL, NBA, national teams and more — but the platform also allowed Houben to dig deeper into his growing interest in scouting and Aussie prospects. From interviews with young players to detailed video breakdowns, and all the while getting his boots on the ground at major events, he was able to further build on his well-earned reputation as an expert in the field.
Of course, both of the aforementioned Exum and Simmons would go on to be drafted to the NBA, with Simmons first starring in the NCAA with LSU. He is but one such example from Australia’s current NBA crop, with the likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut and more taking those same steps through the previous and current pathways. While New Zealand has seen less natives make it to the top level, Steven Adams is another to play college basketball and then shine at the highest level.
Those big name prospects will always attract the attention of college programs and scouts, with or without a service like Airtime. Be it through the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), the NBA Global Academy, junior FIBA tournaments, or otherwise, the cream of the crop in Australia and New Zealand will have plenty of chances to shine on the big stage. Those aren’t the prospects that Airtime is focused on, though, instead digging deeper to give equal coverage to those on the fringes of the region’s basketball pathways. According to RealGM’s database, last season saw 230 Australians and 55 New Zealanders playing for men’s college teams in the United States; Houben and Cozens say those numbers could easily rise even higher.
“We’re really jumping in and trying to find the gaps in the pathways where maybe some guys are potentially slipping through the cracks and not getting the opportunities that their talent level justifies,” Houben said. “The guys that seem to be getting a little bit more overlooked are ones that maybe haven’t played at the state level for whatever reason, or just don’t have the right connections or pathways or people speaking in their favour.”
That will be especially beneficial in New Zealand, where the basketball pathways are still lagging behind a rise in popularity and participation. Cozens and HoopNation have been bridging that gap in an on-court setting; now, he can use Airtime to elevate players even further. “I don’t know if immature is the right word, but the basketball scene is still quite new in terms of some of the traditional ways that the countries get scouted and players get identified,” Cozens said. “We’ve grown so quickly which is great, but we’ve never really had these established things, these business models or ways of doing things have been established overseas.”
Things are a little different in Australia, with more entrenched pipelines into the NCAA. Certain schools have long taken an interest in Aussie players, with Saint Mary’s College of California the most notable long-term example. Similar informal partnerships have since formed with the California Baptist University, who last season had six Australians on their roster, and with Sacramento State under Australian head coach David Patrick. Outside of those more obvious links, more and more programs are looking Down Under for high-impact players.
Still, there are plenty of schools that aren’t yet tapped into the Australasian scene, and that’s something that Airtime hopes to change. “To a whole new world of schools that maybe are newer to the international scouting scene, suddenly here’s this brand new booming talent pool that they may not have had access to in the past,” Houben said. “Suddenly they get to have their eyes on all these young players, so it benefits all the parties involved.”
Houben also sees an opportunity to make an even deeper impact on the basketball culture in Australia. Using his platform with The Pick and Roll to shine a light on marginalised communities in basketball, he has long been a passionate supporter of South Sudanese basketball, recognising the importance of the sport to those moving to Australia and the talent of many players involved. It’s a community that is already having a big impact at every level, with players like Bul Kuol, Majok Deng, Sunday Dech and more dominating in the NBL and representing South Sudan on the world stage.
“It’s great to see our multiculturalism on display and to see first and second generation migrants having such an impact and presence in our league, and I still think we’re just tapping the tip of the iceberg there,” Houben said.
Still, there are barriers there for young prospects, as they may struggle to get a foot into the established pathways through state teams or to clear the hurdles needed to play in the NCAA. Houben hopes Airtime can help to change that, bringing these players to the attention of scouts and recruiters earlier and acting as “the great equaliser” in a system that can sometimes be weighted unfairly.
“You don’t necessarily have to have paid to play in a state team or national team – if you’ve got the talent, we’re going to look at you just like everyone else and you’re going to get presented to schools in the exact same way,” he said. “When you’re talking about a service that can provide equal exposure and opportunities to everybody, I think the groups that stand to benefit the most from that are those sort of basketball communities.”
Those are some lofty goals for a business just months into its existence, but Houben and Cozens have been around basketball for long enough to know what’s possible. Cozens has been embedded in grassroots basketball for years, building strong relationships and networks, while Houben has scouted for NBL teams and liaised with Basketball Australia on their talent identification programs. Those varied experiences give them a combined skillset that is hard to top. “I’m a bit bigger on the intel whereas Mike has a bit stronger X’s and O’s, but we still form together based on a lot of those key factors,” Cozens said.
Even so, projecting players is a tough thing to do, and no one scout is right 100% of the time. The best player on the court isn’t always the best prospect, particularly when players are still in their teens. As Houben says, it’s “an imperfect science”, one that is constantly being refined and that Airtime’s founders are still learning about on the fly. “For me, it’s finding some intersection of their current skills, their long term physical projection in terms of those athletic qualities, and then their personal characteristics,” he said. “You could be the best 15 year old in the country, but if you don’t have that work ethic to sustain you throughout the next ten-plus years of your basketball development, then other people are going to leapfrog you over time.”
Throw in the enormity of the American college basketball system, and finding the best landing spot for any given player might seem almost impossible. “There’s 370 Division 1 teams – you could do ten years and you would still not fully get the breadth of understanding college basketball and then how that combines with New Zealand and Australia talent, let alone talking about JUCO, Division 2, NAIA, Division 3,” Cozens said.
As tall as the task may seem, Houben and Cozens have clearly already made an impression. The testimonials on their website speak volumes, with Perth Wildcats GM Danny Mills and former Illawarra Hawks Assistant GM Tom Wilson, as well as overseas coaches and scouts, speaking glowingly about their abilities. That has translated into the college world, with strong interest in Airtime’s services from a number of big NCAA programs among others. “I think that whenever you come into a new market, there’s questions around the value that you add,” Cozens said. “There’s a lot to adapt to and understand in this market, but we’re really, really pleased with how we’ve begun in making long-term relationships with these colleges and these coaches.”
Of course, not everything will go according to plan at all times. With such a massive project, there’s bound to be plenty of hurdles along the way. “Michael and I don’t do things by halves… we knew it wasn’t going to be easy and it has been challenging,” Cozens said. Still, the early returns for Airtime have been far more positive than negative. “Every time we get a Division 1 school sign up or an NBA team sign up or anybody, we get a bit of a kick out of that,” Houben said.
Not only is a brand new business growing and developing, its founders can see the positive impact that is sure to follow. “It’s so exciting to think about how their buy-in to our product can result in the potential scholarship opportunity of a player that may not otherwise get it,” Houben said. “That can be a pretty life-changing process for those players.”
Disclosure: The Pick and Roll is an official partner of Airtime Scouting. This story is not sponsored content, but intended to help raise awareness on a homegrown platform that can help better prospect development and college placement opportunities for Australians and Kiwis alike.