It's no secret that the National Basketball League (NBL), which began as the Australia's professional men's league, is slowly but surely becoming intertwined with all aspects of Australian basketball. CEO Jeremy Loeliger unsurprisingly, agrees with the trend.
"I think we are now synonymous with Australian basketball, in the sense that we are the shopfront for the sport in Australia here on a day-to-day basis. But now, we also have a role to play in just about every aspect of the sport here in Australia."
The NBL now acts as commercial agent for Basketball Australia (BA) and its assets, ranging from the national teams to the Women's National Basketball League (WNBL). Add its involvement in the 3x3 (3x3 ProHustle) and semi-professional (NBL1) levels, and that statement isn't too far from the truth.
"We consider it part of our role to continue to increase and drive the basketball economy for the benefit of everyone playing at the grassroots level as well. Then as you say we've got NBL1, we've got 3x3 Hustle, all of which are continuing to reach down into that grassroots level of competition to make sure that the basketball ecosystem is symbiotic, that every element of the ecosystem is working for the benefit of every other element."
Since Larry Kestelman's takeover in 2015, the league has been on a steady rebuild. It went from what Loeliger calls "a league being on life support", to one that's been gathering interest on the international stage, ranging from the NBLxNBA preseason games --a byproduct of the NBA partnership-- to recent high-profile Next Stars signings like R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball.
Domestic support has also grown in both venue crowds and broadcast ratings. There's been sponsors, a 211% increase in mainstream media coverage (according to media monitoring company Meltwater), multiple international broadcast deals across North America, Europe and Asia, and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, one that promises to deliver better salaries for players.
Given the continued positive milestones, where exactly is the NBL headed next? For Loeliger, the coming season's focus lies with the Next Stars program, and a better television broadcast deal.
"I think if we were to look at KPIs for the next season, it's consolidating the Next Stars program and delivering a quality talent pool of Next Stars, that ticks all of the boxes and intent of that program, which was threefold.
"The first is to increase the relevance of our league into international markets. The second is to launch these guys to a really successful position in the draft, and thereby demonstrating that our league is a really credible finishing school for talent to make their way into the NBA, because that is a significant milestone in terms of shoring up the sustainability of the talent in our competition. "
The third, Loeliger explained, had to do with bringing attention to existing talent in the NBL, and especially Ball's teammates. For Samson Froling and Daniel Grida, both of whom will be automatic entrants to the 2020 NBA draft, the increased exposure to NBA-level scouts will be very much welcome.
"It's no coincidence that LaMelo is in somewhere like the Illawarra Hawks, who are very heavily invested in developing young players. You see the likes of Emmett Naar, Dan Grida, [Sam] Froling at that club, who are equally going to benefit from firstly, the Hawks' approach to developing young players, but also the exposure that LaMelo will bring to the club."
It's clear the Next Stars program is receiving a lot of attention, and it certainly has this year, with high-profile NBA prospects like R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball announcing their respective commitments on ESPN, raising eyebrows across the world.
The NBLxNBA preseason games head into their third year with the 2019/20 season. Loeliger gives credit to the NBL's growing relationship with the NBA, with extensive discussions being had with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, to the NBL's digital and content teams learning from their NBA counterparts. But it's not all one-sided - Loeliger firmly believes there's room to give back.
"We're actually a fantastic proving ground [for the NBA], because we're privately-owned. We're flexible and nimble, we can test a lot of things that we can then report back to the NBA as to whether or not they were successful, how they worked, whether or not they could be transposed into an NBA-type environment.
"We also see things like Next Stars being a value add to the NBA. We really want to play a role in terms of helping guys transition from amateur basketball to professional basketball so that they're ready for what we all acknowledge as the biggest stage in the world in the NBA, and along the way developing a fanbase and a following for each one of those players here in Australia. And in doing so, continuing to drive Australian interest in the NBA. It's a very multifaceted relationship, one that we greatly respect and are grateful for, and one we'll continue to foster."
On the coveted NBA game down under
The roadblocks to an NBA game in Australia are well-documented at this point: prohibitive costs, schedule timing, and the NBA's limited ROI from having teams make the trek down. Loeliger believes the potential for a preseason game exists, but agrees with the constraints.
"... Australia is a market that already has a very strong following of the NBA, and we're also a relatively small population. Couple that with the fact that the most recent CBA that the NBA has entered into... means that there are fewer preseason games than ever before, and as a result, they have to make decisions strategically as to how many of those games they take overseas, how often a team should be compelled to go and play a preseason game overseas.
"And then, once you narrow that down further you then have to decide where you take those games. There are markets like China, like India, like parts of Southern America, parts of Europe where the upside is potentially a lot greater than that could be realised in Australia, just because in terms of the population at large, and the percentage of the population who are already NBA fans.
"I have to put on my commercial hat and say that I completely understand the decision-making in focusing on those huge potential growth markets in the short term. In the longer term, we will certainly continue to fly the flag in hopes that the long-term significant fan base here in Australia will be rewarded one day with an NBA preseason game here.
"Hopefully, the Australian Boomers games demonstrate just how strong a following there is, and also collectively between the likes of TEG, Basketball Australia, Visit Victoria, the NBL and everyone else involved, that it'll demonstrate that we put on a really, really good show, and with that in mind, hopefully the NBA will be looking to the prospect of coming here one day."
On Australian media
In an earlier age, dissemination of information was an elaborate process, with mainstream media being the traditional gatekeepers. The internet has broken many barriers, advancing transparency and direct access at the cost of misinformation.
We've heard the adage about bad publicity being better than no publicity. Should all NBL-related news should be processed carefully with embargoed releases and structured deliveries? Or should the league encourage the stream of breaking news and rumours in today's Twitterverse, which has come to represent the core of NBA fandom and new wave journalism?
"There has to be a balance of both," Loeliger says. "There will always be some things that just in order to maintain the professionalism of the industry and respectful conversations with counterparties, that need to remain confidential and embargoed and handled with kid gloves.
"But at the same time, community journalism, user-generated content, what I would generally put under the banner of watercooler talk, is incredibly important - it's the lifeblood of any sporting league. Public opinion informs a huge amount of what it is we do on a day-to-day basis and we always said, since taking over this business that the decisions we make are intended to put the fan first. This is not just a sporting product, this is an entertainment product, and so the opinion of the consumer is of fundamental importance.
Loeliger also discussed the give-and-take that exists between the league and mainstream media, and how exclusivity helps maintain support for the league.
"In terms of the close hold of certain information and access, I think that will always be a part of the sporting industry because you've got your big media outlets who will only talk about your sport if you agree to give them a degree of exclusivity. We're still in the fledgling days of being back in the sporting mainstream here in Australia, and we can't and won't take our relationships with those major editorial mastheads for granted. It took a huge amount of effort to win back their attention, and in order to maintain their interest, in order to sell newspapers --or more likely subscriptions these days-- we have to give them a degree of exclusivity.
"So it's always a matter of finding a balance, but it's also always a matter of distinguishing the type of content that is best suited to each different type of outlet. I think we tread that balance pretty well here, we encourage public discourse but at the same time we look after those who are being supportive of the industry, the best we can."
On opening up locker room access
The contrast between the NBA's open door media policy and the NBL's traditional approach to game day media access has always been an interesting case study.
For the NBA, especially among the bigger teams, media sessions resemble managed chaos. It starts with a scramble to the coach's post-game session, and diverges into a race to the home (or away) locker room. Once there, scrums of journalists record every word from one player, while one-on-one sessions develop unobtrusively in other corners. There's an unspoken rule around privacy and space, that one should never invade another's private chat. It's never a guarantee, but the opportunity for better quotes (and stories) exist, depending on who you manage to get to, and how the situation plays out.
The NBL post-game session tends to be a more sanitised, traditional version. For starters, locker room access is not available. Assembled media are seated in a room, with a coach/player pairing available for a Q&A session. Recorders (or smart phones) are turned on and left near the speakers, to be retrieved later. It's an orderly process, but the limited access typically yields less potential for diversity, be it quotes or eventual storylines. Is there room for the NBL to revisit its policy and open its doors to the locker room, the same way the NBA does?
Loeliger doesn't think the NBL's policy is changing anytime soon, but stressed the league's stand on being fan-centric.
“We pride ourselves on being a really open and accessible league for the fans. The fans can get close to the players and our players are very accessible in everything they do. Later this year we will take every team and player to the NBL Blitz in Tasmania and do a range of community activities across the state. In addition all players do a lot of community engagement through their clubs as well as our KMart Gametime program which goes into primary schools around Australia.
“In terms of broadcast we have continued to take viewers into the inner sanctum and offer behind the scenes access as well as sharing the stories of our players. We will continue to drive this sort of access in everything with we do as we strongly believe the fans are at the centre of everything we do.”
What lies ahead for Jeremy?
It's not surprising that Loeliger still has plenty of passion left in the tank, when it comes to the NBL, and it doesn't look like the situation will change in the next five years.
"I guess it's not entirely within my control of whether I'm going to be here in five years' time, but certainly I would like to be! Every season here has presented a set of very new challenges, a set of new opportunities. I think I'm probably at that period now, where I'm enjoying it more than almost ever before. The growth opportunity now, is probably the most exciting that it's ever been, other than maybe walking in here on day 1 and just knowing the potential of the sport, of where it's been previously. We've sort of reached that benchmark again, and now, it's all about what is the ceiling and really challenging ourselves to see.
"It's now no longer about getting back to where it was, we're in a new golden era of the sport of basketball. This is now about how we can take our product, not just to Australians, but to the rest of the world and that's a pretty exciting prospect for me. I'd certainly think that it's probably a five-year project at least, and I'm certainly looking forward to continuing to do that between now and the next five years, I don't see myself anywhere else."
Thanks to NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger for sharing his thoughts.
Jeremy can be found on Twitter at @JeremyLoeliger.