1981 was a year of many beginnings for our humble nation.
Good Morning Australia premiered on Network Ten, while the home brand version of Wheel of Fortune debuted on Seven. The VFL board announced that after nearly 100 years in South Melbourne, the Swans would begin playing games up north in Sydney.
It was the year that Trevor Chappell caused an uproar by bowling underarm to secure a One Day International victory over New Zealand, and the year that brought us Lleyton Hewitt, Guy Sebastian and Brendan Fevola — each of whom who would spark more uproar in their own way down the track.
On June 19 1981, the newly opened Australian Institute of Sport competed against West Adelaide to kick off the Women’s Interstate Basketball Conference. Over the years, popularity and media attention would grow, and as more teams joined the ranks, it garnered the right to be dubbed a national competition.
Today, it is known as the Women’s National Basketball League. And in 2019-20, it will be celebrating its 40th season.
The rise of women’s basketball in Australia has been a testament to the indomitable spirit of the athletes on the court, as well as the brains trust that made the whole thing possible.
As is unfortunately the case across several women’s leagues around the globe, monetary backing has too often been scarce and inconsistent. The WNBL’s own website outright addresses these concerns, noting in their history that “financial stability has always been a challenge for the WNBL since its inception. Money has always been difficult to source and all clubs have had to be diligent in expenditure throughout the years.”
Despite this, however, the product on the court has long spoken for itself, producing legends of the sport, both locally and abroad. Lauren Jackson, Michelle Timms, Penny Taylor… these are names that are synonymous with Australian basketball, and they all cut their teeth in the WNBL.
The significance of having an avenue that young women can aspire towards has helped shaped the game and positioned Australia as a basketball powerhouse. Prior to the league’s inception, the Australian women’s team failed to qualify for either of the Olympic games that included women’s basketball.
They have since qualified for the Olympics all but once, and from 1996 to 2012, they made the podium five straight times, claiming three silver medals and two bronze.
In a 2014 study organised by Basketball Australia and the Australian Sports Commission, it was noted that the Opals' funding was dependent upon attaining pre-determined performance targets, in turn "elevating the importance of the WNBL in fostering international performances".
Sure, there are more factors at play than a simple one-to-one cause and effect, but it would be shortsighted to claim that the precipitous rise of the WNBL had no effect on Australia’s ascension in the international game.
Such is the level of competition, it has become a popular destination for WNBA players during their offseason, attracting talent from across the globe.
In an interview with the Pick and Roll, New York Liberty forward Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe described the WNBL as being "competitive" and "extremely athletic", saying it was the best league she had played in prior to joining the WNBA.
The WNBL has earned its reputation as an elite-level basketball league, and fans are definitely taking notice. Last season’s Grand Final series between the Adelaide Lightning and eventual champions, the University of Canberra Capitals, attracted almost 13,000 spectators across three games.
As always, growth is the major focus for the WNBL moving forward. The minimum salary for players will increase to $13,000 over the next two seasons, allowing developing athletes at the end of the rotation more of an opportunity to focus on their efforts on the court.
Though any effort to better support professional athletes is a definite positive, the pay rise does bring forth concerns for sustainability, a recurring issue throughout the league’s history. None of the charter teams from the 1981 season remain, with the Melbourne Boomers (1984) coming in as the eldest of the eight remaining clubs.
19 WNBL teams have come and gone, with many of them only lasting a handful of seasons. Even last season’s runners-up, the Adelaide Lightning, were on the threshold of demise earlier this year, turning to crowdfunding to help stay afloat.
The situation turned so dire, Larissa Anderson, then-head coach of the then-Dandenong Rangers — her eventual dismissal and the team’s offseason rebrand as the Southside Flyers the culprits for this awkward sentence — made an impassioned plea on social media, imploring fans to support the league.
"It is time we all stop talking the talk and WALK THE WALK." Anderson wrote, "I know so many of you are true basketball fans and I am asking every single one of you to make the effort to TURN UP to your local WNBL game THIS weekend and make a statement on what this league means to you."
It's an unfortunate addendum that continues to hover around the WNBL, but the talented women from home and abroad will continue to dazzle under the bright lights as Australia's preeminent basketball league, just as they've always done.
Forty years is an achievement worth celebrating, and we commend the WNBL for giving aspiring athletes an avenue to achieve their dreams. As Basketball Australia's Head of Women in Basketball and aforementioned WNBL legend Lauren Jackson put it, "it's a milestone that we hope all sporting fans will join in to celebrate".
If you want to lend your support, the best way is by attending games for the 2019-20 season, which kicks off on 11 October.