How the Southern Huskies shocked Tasmania and returned in Auckland

As a man name Billy Joel once said (or rather, once sang), "only the good die young". I'm not sure I agree with that-- I would personally rather live until I'm old, but maybe that's just because that song came out almost twenty years before I was born. If Billy is right, though, one thing is for certain; the Southern Huskies have a case as the greatest team in sporting history. After all, their time in Tasmania was over in a flash - just eight and a half months after it began.

When the franchise was announced as a member of New Zealand's NBL, it promised sell out crowds and an on-court spectacle in the short term, as well as the dream of an Australian NBL (ANBL) licence down the track. The team's ownership even absorbed the NBL1 licence for the south of the state, entering a men's and women's team in the competition's inaugural season. With a roster featuring NBL-level talent, an experienced and home-grown coaching staff and promises of "the full NBA-style experience" for fans, it seemed that the franchise couldn't possibly fail.

A lot can change in eight and a half months, though. After a season of competitive performances but crowd numbers trending downwards throughout, the club shocked fans, staff and NZNBL executives when they announced their withdrawal from all competitions. Just one year into a five-year licence agreement with the NZNBL, and with reports emerging of debts still owed by the Huskies and their ownership, the Huskies looked to be dead and buried.

That made it all the more surprising when the Huskies reappeared in May 2020, with the NZNBL announcing that the franchise would be relocating to Auckland for the league's 2020 season. Huskies COO Mike Sutton has been vocal about his continued involvement, and New Zealand media have reported that Chief Executive and Tasmanian co-owner Justin Hickey is also still in place. With considerable debts still owed to a several stakeholders in Tasmania, how did the surprise move come to be, and what's next for the Huskies and those involved in their past and future?

A look back

To comprehend the latest twist in the story of the Huskies, it's important to have the full context of where they've come from. The events of last season might not have made waves across much of Australia, but they've become something close to common knowledge in the Apple Isle.

It all started with a grand plan. After an unsuccessful bid to become the Australian NBL's ninth team, the Huskies moved quickly to instead join the NZNBL. They entered with a bang, signing NBL veteran Anthony Stewart as coach and Adelaide 36ers young gun Harry Froling as the centrepiece on the court. While Froling would only appear in a handful of games, his name was an immediate boost to the club's popularity which continued to build as a competitive roster was announced.

Simon Hall, owner of team sponsor Hall's Wastewater Treatment Services, in an open letter shared with The Pick and Roll, that those initial announcements grabbed the public's attention. "It was an electric feeling with so much promise of being a spectacle and an extravaganza of talent," Hall said in the letter published at last season's end. Given the club had over 6,000 foundation members before any of their teams had played a game, expectations for crowd numbers were high.

Initially, everything looked to be on track. The Hobart Huskies NBL1 team, playing in the smaller Kingborough Sports Centre, saw fans packed in the bleachers for their debut outing. NBL1 men's coach Mark Chivers told The Pick and Roll that from where he stood, there were no signs of trouble. He says that the ownership group had initially planned on running just the NZNBL team, stepping into the NBL1 void when the SEABL's Hobart Chargers chose not to participate. With that considered, the early NBL1 success was seen as a positive sign.

Things were a little more shaky in the NZNBL. While the home opener against the Super City Rangers saw the stands reasonably full, large chunks of the 5,400-seat Derwent Entertainment Centre were hidden behind curtains and closed to the public. "We noticed from week 1 of the Southern Huskies that it might not be all that it seemed," Hall said. "Row 2 of the VIP section was half full and row 3 was empty, it was not the sell out that we were lead to believe it would be."

Those doubts were only confounded when games moved to the north of the state, as Hall says only 200 tickets were pre-sold to the first game in Launceston's Silverdome. Ticket prices were promptly slashed in an attempt to increase numbers, leaving those that had purchased long in advance with double the cost or more. While the NZNBL crowds remained steady, the revenue from tickets would have surely fallen as they became cheaper and cheaper.

It was a similar story for the club's sponsors. Hall's Wastewater Treatment Services agreed to a number of benefits in their contract, and in week one of the NBL1 season a number were met; by the halfway point they had all but disappeared, and by season's end Hall estimated that seven of the eight obligations agreed to were not delivered upon.

Still, Chivers believes there's a certain amount of goodwill owed to the franchise and its leaders. "Regardless of what’s happened now we’ve got to be very grateful for the fact that they came in and picked up the [NBL1] team and took it on," Chivers said. "That was probably something that they didn’t plan on doing."

A sudden end in Tasmania

Even as the season wound down, most of the issues the team had faced remained unknown to the general public. Indeed, even Chivers was left unaware as ownership grappled with the costs. "They were very good... we were just left to our own devices, I guess," he said.

With the five-year licence agreement in place, there was no sign that the Huskies would be leaving the NZNBL. In late June, it was reported that they were chasing big recruits for 2020 including Launceston native and Australian NBL veteran Adam Gibson. Somehow, less than two months later, the team announced that it had withdrawn from all competitions.

In a public statement, the Huskies said that their relationship with Basketball Tasmania had become "untenable", a claim that the governing body immediately disputed. "I don't think there's any issue with Basketball Tasmania," CEO Chris McCoy told The Examiner the following day. "We were certainly asking some questions around some of the issues they were having." At that time, it was estimated that the Huskies were facing debts of around $750,000, but full details wouldn't emerge until November.

This all took Chivers by surprise, and he says there were no signs of the imminent announcement."It was pretty much just when we got an email to say that they’d pulled the pin," he said. "[We were] hoping at that time that everything was going to be paid by the end of August or September or something like that."

A report from The Mercury stated that the franchise owed money to two separate local councils, as well as the Tasmanian government, for hire of the three venues used. On top of that, club staff across many levels were also owed portions of their agreed salaries, including NBL1 team coach Chivers, scorers, announcers, statisticians and the club mascot. As of May 15, The Mercury reported that the State Government was still chasing around $60,000 from the club, with $3,000 owed to the Kingborough Council, $1000 to the Glenorchy City Council, and undisclosed amounts to players, coaches and other staff.

Relocation to Auckland

Just when those in the island state thought the Huskies couldn't surprise them any more, news of their relocation to Auckland broke in mid-May. While it may have come as a shock to the public, NZNBL general manager Justin Nelson says it was a move in the works for quite a while that was suddenly expedited. "Conversations started late in 2019 with the prospect of that franchise being relocated to Auckland for 2021," Nelson said. "With the way that we’ve changed the format this year, it provided an opportunity for the Huskies to fast track that submission for relocation."

New Zealand have been one of the fastest countries to begin recovering from the COVID-19 crisis, but the NZNBL has not emerged unscathed. The 2020 season will be played inside a six-week window and entirely in Auckland, with a player draft introduced to evenly distribute talent throughout the league. Before details of the season were announced, the Southland Sharks, Hawke's Bay Hawks and defending champion Wellington Saints all announced that they would not be taking part due to impacts from the coronavirus pandemic.

Those withdrawals, combined with the collapse of Auckland's Super City Rangers last year, left a sizeable hole in the competition's makeup. The Huskies, joined by fellow new faces Franklin Bulls and Otago Nuggets, will attempt to fill that space. Still, despite an accelerated timeline, Nelson says the Huskies were already destined for Auckland. "Auckland has always been a market that we’ve wanted to improve... we’ve really strengthened up that area of New Zealand which is basketball rich," he said.

The team's ownership group has not addressed existing debts, as their licence remains active. Reporting on the remaining debts shortly after the relocation was announced, Tasmania's WIN News said that Huskies management didn't respond to their requests for an interview, despite speaking to New Zealand media. Nelson has also declined to be involved in the situation. "What unfolded in Tasmania is not our turf, we’re not going to get involved in that," he said. "We’re certainly not here to participate or get involved in anything offshore... it's not our battle."

Nelson also pointed to the Australian NBL's Illawarra Hawks as an example of the ups and downs that sporting clubs often face. Despite being placed into voluntary administration for the second time in five years, the Hawks will continue in the NBL and are currently searching for new ownership. Importantly, the NBL itself has announced that they will pay all salaries owed to the club's players.

Unsurprisingly, the decision to relocate the Huskies has been met with criticism from Tasmania. Those still awaiting payment from the club have recently spoken out against the club and the NZNBL. Speaking to WIN News, Kingborough Council Mayor Dean Winter said that the money not paid to them by the Huskies would be taking away from junior sport in the area. "I am absolutely shocked that there is a basketball league in the world that would have accepted this management team and the Huskies into their league," Winter said.

Chives was similarly surprised when he heard the news. "I just couldn’t figure it out, I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know how or why it happened," he said. "You look over and you think ‘well, was there any due diligence done on the proponents’ before you let them come into this competition, or into a new team anyway?"

When asked about the financial viability of the club and any precautions taken by the NZNBL, Nelson was straight to the point. "We’re confident that all of our teams will participate in the New Zealand National Basketball League according to their franchise agreement," he said.

The future of the Auckland Huskies

The Huskies have certainly moved quickly ahead of the 2020 season, making a splash with their first two signings off the court. First announced was head coach Kevin Braswell, a legend in New Zealand basketball with two NZNBL championships and an Australian NBL title with the New Zealand Breakers. Since retiring as a player, he has won another two NZNBL titles as a coach and was named Coach of the Year in 2017.

Leading the franchise in the front office will be Matt Lacey, one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country. At just 25 years of age, he has led Rosmini College to the last three Schick Secondary Schools ‘AA’ Boys final, and he has also worked as an assistant coach with the Junior Tall Blacks. While this will be his first GM role, the Auckland native says that he has confidence in the Huskies and everyone involved to make it work. "The ownership group and their experience in running a team, and the opportunity to lead an Auckland franchise, is one that I really just couldn’t turn down," Lacey said.

With plenty of turmoil in the past, what might the future of the Auckland Huskies look like? In the short term, the condensed 2020 season is an opportunity for the franchise to make an immediate statement on the court. With all players entering into a draft that is open to every team, super teams of the past will not be a factor. "This season if anything has presented an opportunity where there’s an even playing field," Lacey said. "We’re certainly not coming in thinking that we’re going to ease our way into it... we’re not coming in thinking anything but coming first."

Looking further ahead, Lacey says that the team has the potential to fill a huge hole in the basketball landscape, and in the pathways for young Kiwi players. "It currently doesn’t really cater to anyone that is unable to make the leap to either the ANBL through the Breakers or to get a US college scholarship," he said. "To be a part of an organisation that is able to provide that to so many Aucklanders that have previously had to look elsewhere in the country to pursue their passion and their dream to play basketball at a higher level is super appealing."

Financially, and ignoring any unpaid debts in Tasmania, the club should be in a much more viable position in Auckland. The most obvious savings will come from reduced travel costs; they will be almost nil in 2020's single-city competition, and the move from international to domestic travel should significantly reduce expenditure moving forward. When based in Tasmania, the Southern Huskies were forced to foot the bill for visiting teams to fly across the Tasman for their home games at an estimated cost of $20,000 per visit.

As Chivers pointed out, the ownership group never planned on operating in the NBL1 competitions. "It was always going to be a challenge to take on two extra teams, a boys and a girls team, to run in the NBL1," he said. "It’s not an inexpensive proposition." It surely didn't help that NBL1 General Manager Andy Hollands was based in Victoria and, according to Chivers, would fly to Hobart and back multiple times each week during the season.

It would appear that the move to Auckland could also support the ownership group's other ventures on the ground. New Zealand media have been quoted as saying that another motive for the move was the group's "growing business interests in New Zealand". That cross-pollination of different enterprises has already started to pay off. On Tuesday, the NZNBL has announced an international pay-per-view streaming service for the 2020 season, designed to increase income for teams and players. As per graphics published by the league, the initiative is a partnership with Trained By Miyagi, an online platform where industry experts can offer training courses for others, which is co-founded by Sutton and Hickey.

Given so many concerns will be eliminated now that the Huskies are on the ground in New Zealand, the future should be looking bright. But the stigma from their time in Tasmania may take a lot longer to fade. With unpaid debts still being reported, there's plenty of unanswered questions for the NZNBL and the Huskies franchise. Until those accounts are cleared, it's uncertain what lies ahead for the Huskies.