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Justin Nelson: The franchise whisperer
To use a Quentin Tarantino reference, New Zealand National Basketball League General Manager Justin Nelson is the ‘cleaner’ of Australian, and now New Zealand basketball.
Like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction, Nelson steps into a complex situation (minus the silver sports car) and ‘solves problems’. After helping to turn the fortunes of the struggling Melbourne Boomers franchise around, Nelson is now at the helm of the New Zealand NBL and is working his magic again.
Nelson has spent his entire professional life around sport. From the age of 20 onwards, he sharpened his skills as a broadcaster, journalist, coach and administrator across a number of sporting codes and organisations.
Although he could never know where the path would eventually lead him, he was unwittingly doing his apprenticeship for his appointment to the role of General Manager of the Melbourne Boomers. In 2013 he was approached by the club to take up the position. Seeing it as the next challenge in his career Nelson didn't hesitate to take the job.
Officially stepping into the general manager role in 2014, it didn’t take long for Nelson to identify the elephant in the room.
“One thing that was evident from day one, which is quite often the catalyst for good times and bad times in sports franchises across the world, was a lack of money,” said Nelson.
One of the big changes Nelson pushed for early was to orchestrate new ownership with the struggling club. He urged the Bulleen Basketball Board to cut their losses and give up their WNBL license before the burden caused more damage to their community club. After twelve months of convincing, the board finally agreed.
After acquiring new ownership in 2016, the Boomers and Nelson began the process of returning the club to a place of prominence in Australian women’s basketball. Not just on the court, but off the court as well.
Basketball, as well as being a sport, culture and way of life, is also a business. In order for a business to flourish Nelson identified that the paying customer needed to be the focus of the club’s financial rebuild.
In the sport and entertainment mad environment of Melbourne, where a seemingly endless barrage of products are competing for the population's leisure time, and more importantly their discretionary spend, it was a daunting challenge.
Nelson’s plan was to create a spectacle around the game that compelled customers to return. However, the one change he made that had the biggest impact was removing the barriers between fans and players.
“We discussed it with the playing group,"Nelson explained. "We said, ‘Hey, for up to 45 minutes after every game you are going to stay on the court and meet the fans and sign autographs and take photos.’ That one significant change, where the players and the management of the Boomers made the fans the top priority, win lose or draw, I think that was the single biggest factor [that created] an extraordinary few years."
And it certainly worked.
“[Melbourne went] from about a $350,000 club to a $1.5 million dollar business. We went from 110 members to more than 3,000 members and we broke all sorts of records for game attendance, viewership and corporate dollars into the club. It was a really exciting five year period and something I got a lot out of.”
In just a few years Nelson had delivered on a blueprint that saved the Melbourne Boomers back from the brink of extinction, and by proxy, raised the profile of the WNBL.
Now as the General Manager of the NZ NBL, a role he has occupied since February of this year, Nelson has been charged with a similar task. Instead this time its on a grander scale that is not just constrained to just a single team - this time it is an entire league.
Although his experience with Melbourne was an overwhelmingly positive one, there were a number of important lessons he took along with him to New Zealand.
“I think [the importance of] governance was a big thing that I brought out of Australia. Australian basketball hasn’t always been good with governance," added Nelson. "I think that’s been fairly well illustrated over the years, it’s been a bit of a scatter gun approach at times. For me, there were a lot of lessons in that and I’ve been able to bring that into this role.”
However, the most important lesson Nelson brought with him across the Tasman was the importance of having a long term plan and a clear vision.
“That’s something that I really took away from previous roles that I’ve had in Australia; the absolute importance of having a strategy and a really clear view of who you are and what you’re trying to be," said Nelson. "And so far in the first season here we have stuck to that strategy. We have a very clear view of who we are, and who we want to be and where we want to be and we are ticking boxes."
One significant box that has been ticked earlier than expected is the televising of all 75 NZ NBL games in the upcoming season, something that has never happened in the League’s 39 years.
Yet beyond the material growth of the League, Nelson’s vision encompasses a shift in how basketball is perceived by mainstream media and the public.
“I want Basketball to the sport that is talked about around the water cooler at the office on a Monday morning," enthused Nelson. "We are on the verge, as we are in Australia, of having this sport becoming a phenomenal everyday part of our sporting conversations.”
A vital ingredient in growing the credibility and exposure of the NZ NBL has been maintaining, as well as increasing, the quality of the product. Sometimes, protecting the brand has meant cutting loose some franchises in order to maintain control of the league’s trajectory. Namely, the Super City Rangers.
After a litany of code infractions and mounting debts, the decision was made the terminate the Super City Rangers from the NZ NBL last August.
“[The Super City Rangers] were an organisation that I didn’t think were befitting of playing in a competition where we wanted to deliver a great product of entertainment and substance to our fans," explained Nelson. "And as such the league decided to terminate their participation agreement within our league.”
The Hobart based Southern Huskies were another team the NZ NBL parted ways with, although this time for very different reasons. The Huskies were in a dispute with Basketball Tasmania and reported to have mounting debts of their own, and being unwilling to get caught up in the crossfire, Nelson and the Huskies decided to part ways, with the Huskies eventually shutting down entirely.
“At the time, a real basketball war was occurring in Tasmania," added Nelson. "That’s not our position, it’s not our place… One thing we weren’t going to get caught up in was a turf war that was being played out in the state of another country.”
Although some tough decisions have been made along the way, Nelson has helped lead the NZ NBL from strength to strength and hopes to the same for women’s basketball in New Zealand, after recently being charged with also managing the women’s league.
Throughout it all, Nelson has insisted on keeping it simple, coming back to the mantra that helped him reshape the Melbourne Boomers.
“There are three underlying pillars to success and that’s revenue, new fan engagement and brand,” shared Nelson. Simple, yet effective.