Traditionally used as a proving ground for players with ambition to break into the Australian NBL, 2019 is a year of change and opportunity for the New Zealand National Basketball League.
Featuring a ground-breaking first ever Australian team with the entry of Tasmania's Southern Huskies this year, newly appointed General Manager Justin Nelson's mandate is to expand the league even further. With a proposed competition model that includes expansion up to 12 teams, the former Melbourne Boomers General Manager was keen to explore the possibility of adding another team from across the Tasman.
“The Sal’s NBL is looking to expand in season 2020 with an optimum competition model that has between 10 and 12 teams, including the Southern Huskies and perhaps others from Australia," said Nelson.
"Ideally we are seeking a franchise or franchises north of Taupo [New Zealand], but other areas are welcome to apply. The popularity of the game and quickly rising participation of basketball in New Zealand highlights why this is a prime time for the Sal’s NBL to be seeking new entries. Coupled with our 2023 Growth Strategy, which will soon be released publicly, we envision a strong period of expansion, viewership and commercial support for the Sal’s NBL.”
New Zealand's national league commenced in 1982, and with the addition of the Southern Huskies based in Hobart, it will feature nine teams in 2019, comprising of three from New Zealand’s north island, and a further three teams from the south island.
In an official release, the 2023 Growth Strategy for Sal's NBL focuses on adopting a fans-first approach to showcase elite-level, athletic and entertaining men’s basketball. With the league live streaming more than two-thirds of all games, coupled with a growing media presence and rising sponsorship, the time appears appropriate to explore expansion of the league.
Played during the Australian NBL offseason, Nelson suggested that both competitions could complement each other moving forward.
"The New Zealand NBL plays at an opposite time to the Australian NBL, so we certainly don’t view ourselves as competitors on the court, but we are seeing a continual increase in the calibre of player participating here and in many ways we do view that as being complementary.
"Commercially we are growing, though it’s important to keep things in perspective when comparing the two leagues. In our immediate space during the winter months, players in this region have a choice between participating in a national league here in New Zealand, or there are opportunities to play state league basketball in Australia. From what I have seen so far, I think the level of talent here in New Zealand is at a high level.
"My main focus right now is to raise the bar when it comes to the way the product is delivered, how we go about engaging with fans and ensuring the brand of the league and the brands of each club is on the rise across the community and in the media.
"Basketball is the fastest growing sport in New Zealand and has the most participants in what is a largely school-based system for competition. The sport is very healthy and the New Zealand NBL needs to lead the way and ensure a strong visual presence."
While the Tasmanian-based Huskies have a minimum five-year commitment to the Sal's NBL, they have openly targeted a spot in the Australian NBL, entering an additional, related 'Hobart Huskies' team in the 2019 NBL1 season (a league which replaced the now defunct SEABL). Nelson explained that he would warmly welcome any interest from a current NBL team to consider joining the New Zealand based competition.
"I think there is a great opportunity for an Australian NBL organisation, or organisations, to place an off-season team in the New Zealand NBL, particularly for development players, and I would welcome those conversations," shared Nelson.
"For example, a basketball market like Melbourne could certainly support an off-season team from United or Phoenix, or perhaps a team they jointly work together on. With the Southern Huskies about to start life in the New Zealand league, the door is definitely ajar for further interest to come from Australian teams.
"Economically it makes perfect sense to have two Australian teams in the New Zealand NBL and that’s something we would consider if the opportunity arises. So the possibility is there.
"And whilst I wouldn’t call it a hurdle, we are mindful that any entrant requires final sign-off by Basketball Australia, as has been the case with the Huskies, so it’s important both New Zealand NBL and any new team ticks all the boxes. As we have experienced with the Huskies, Basketball Australia has been very good to work with and have been supportive."
Southern Huskies Managing Director, Justin Hickey, told The Pick and Roll that entry into Sal’s NBL, is an exciting step forward for his budding franchise.
“The New Zealand NBL is a super strong competition and we are excited to be there,” Hickey said.
The NZ NBL, which consists of eight existing franchises, has previously been a stepping-stone for NBA athletes Steve Adams, Torrey Craig and Kirk Penny as they chased higher accolades.
Hickey has aspirations that the league can do the same for his franchise, and he is confident the Huskies can generate immediate success on the back of a talented inaugural roster.
“Aside from the level of quality basketball we are excited to be playing, the opportunities to showcase both Tasmania and New Zealand from a tourism perspective are tremendous,” Hickey added.
"We have committed to live stream every game to both New Zealand and Australian audiences, and we are working hard to produce a game night like nothing seen in Tasmania before. We want to attract both the basketball and non-basketball audience to what we want to be ‘the best show in town’ each and every week.”
The opportunity for another Australian-based team to join the Huskies is an intriguing proposition. There is no doubting that all eyes will be on Hickey's Huskies who will ultimately be viewed as a barometer to the potential success of any possible Australian interest in entering Sal's NBL for 2020.
The New Zealand NBL is seeking expressions of interest by 12 April 2019. For those organisations seeking further information, they can find out more details in the official release.