The way forward: making the NBL great again

photo credit: MR FOOJI via photopin cc

There hasn’t been as much excitement and interest generated about an NBL season in recent memory as there had been heading into 2013/14.

The players were touted as some of the best in the leagues for years, the crowds and television audiences were growing and basketball was set to make run at launching back into Australia’s sporting landscape.

So a month into the season and with plenty of quality basketball down, has it lived up to the hype and expectation and, more importantly, what kind of inroads has basketball actually made so far? Could this be the start to reviving NBL?

Improving quality of the league

There would be very few who would doubt the quality of the NBL to date in 2013/14, and even fewer who would argue that the league hasn’t thrown up plenty of exciting and entertaining basketball so far.

The league took measures in the off-season to re-evaluate the way the game was being officiated and so far they seem to have worked. The most notable and talked about change has been the crackdown on players using their hands on the dribbler and the shooter. The idea behind this was to penalise players and teams until they adjust, making for a cleaner, quicker and more open brand of basketball where more dunks, faster possessions and ultimately higher scores would result.

There is very little doubt that the new officiating interpretations have made the game more attractive for the fans and that, without a doubt, is the best thing for the game right now.

Similarly, the quality of the import crop, and the returning Australians, has been touted as the best of the last decade. A month of the season has done very little to make anyone question that, with all the superstars showing the skills and ability that everyone was expecting.

While James Ennis has undoubtedly been the star of the show, he is certainly not alone. Every team has improved and every side has a genuine superstar capable of drawing a crowd and winning a game by themselves on any given night.

Imports in way of Kerron Johnson, Josh Pace, Rotnei Clarke and Jarrid Frye have been showcasing their undeniable talent all around the country, while returning imports Gary Ervin and Jamar Wilson have put in some huge performances to make sure people don’t forget about them either.

However, perhaps the most pleasing sign for the league is the fact that some of the home grown talent has stolen the show on a number of occasions. Cameron Gliddon, in just his second year in the league, has been a star despite injury concerns, Daniel Johnson and AJ Ogilvy have well and truly assumed the mantle as the premier big men in the league, and Chris Goulding has been in blistering form after returning from his time with Cleveland in the NBA’s Summer League.

Moving forward in the media

The biggest downfall for the league, and indeed the game as a whole, in recent years has been spreading the word and selling the game to factions of the public who aren’t involved in basketball.

The powers that be have given a license back to the clubs and the players to generate interest in basketball over the course of the season, and many have embraced it with open arms. The idea that basketball was ‘dead’ in this country was floated on Melbourne sports radio station SEN1116 in recent weeks, and the response was emphatic.

Melbourne Tigers captain Tom Greer and coach Chris Anstey immediately booked appearances on the station’s shows to refute the claims, while Chris Goulding and Mark Worthington took up the fight on social media and spread the word about the huge upside of game. Greer has now landed his own weekly segment to sell the game to sports fans in Victoria in what is sure to be a huge boost.

Whether or not it painted basketball in a positive light was irrelevant in this instance. It generated discussion about basketball in the media and made headlines, sparking a reaction of support from fans and putting the game at the forefront of every sports fans mind.

The media is basketball’s biggest ally, yet is scarcely used to reach the broader audience. There are currently two games per week on free-to-air television and at least one of those live, yet the games are rarely advertised in the lead-up each week. Reaching the masses and changing the opinions of those who still snicker at the words ‘Australian basketball’ has been the largest issue for the game and continues to be without great media coverage.

There have been calls for the league to entertain a move back to a winter season and attract NBA-quality talent in the American off-season, as well as flirting with the introduction of a marquee player who is exempt from the salary cap. While it may not hurt, improving the product is not what the league needs to do.

The product is fantastic right now, and if it can be sold to the general public through the many media channels available then basketball can return to the sporting giant has been in times gone by in Australia.

Following ‘The Perth Model’

The Perth Wildcats franchise has shown exactly why there is nothing wrong with the product as it is right now, and that with a little bit of marketing it can become a strong seller.

If you walk through Perth you will come across many advertisements for the Wildcats on billboards, buses, and anything else you can think of advertising on. Couple that with cheap and affordable ticketing for all ages, a brand new 12,000-seat capacity stadium to play in and a star player who was drafted into the NBA just months ago and you can see why the game is flourishing best in Western Australia.

All of this is achievable for the other NBL clubs and is something that needs to become the main focus for each, particularly in the larger markets of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide which have the stadiums readily available and waiting to be filled.

The Tigers in particular have taken this on board and are also planning to move away from the 3,500-capacity State Netball and Hockey Centre in favour of a full-time home court at a redeveloped Margaret Court Arena which will hold around 8,000 seats once completed.

Something else that every club needs to look at is keeping imports for the duration of their careers, or at least for a period of five years minimum, in order to build a connection with the club’s fans.

Perth has managed to do so with the likes of Shawn Redhage, who naturalised after originally being classed as an American when he entered the league. He has developed a cult following in Perth, given his unorthodox style and uncanny ability to knock down clutch shot after clutch shot.

The overseas heroes of yesteryear, particularly throughout the 80’s and 90’s, made the game a spectacle for the fans and the high turnover of imports in the modern game doesn’t have the same feel. While many would argue that the talent hasn’t been good enough to keep the imports around in recent times, the quality of the current import crop has the potential to begin turning this around.

The likes of Leroy Loggins, Cal Bruton, Ricky Grace, Lanard Copeland, James Crawford and Darryl McDonald, amongst many others, earned the tag of legends at their respective clubs and are now closely associated with Australian basketball and the NBL’s golden era.

The likes of Redhage, Jamar Wilson, Gary Wilkinson and Gary Ervin have all played in the league for multiple seasons and have the potential to build a similar reputation in years to come.

Exciting times

The NBL has recently made public the ambitious goal of doubling the number of teams currently playing in the league within five years.

Many are sceptical as to whether the clubs will survive, especially given the recent failures of the Canberra Cannons, West Sydney Razorbacks, Gold Coast Blaze, Victoria Titans, South Dragons, Singapore Slingers, Brisbane Bullets and Sydney Kings, amongst others; however now is the time to expand given the game’s rising stocks across the country.

The recent demerger which handed the control of the league back to the NBL’s eight clubs has built a strong foundation for the league to expand, with teams back in Brisbane and Canberra, as well as second clubs in Melbourne and Sydney, being touted as the biggest priorities on the horizon.

Having teams in Brisbane and Canberra will bring back the legions of fans that followed the Bullets and Cannons and will provide a huge boost for the game in these places, particularly given there are no other teams competing at the professional level in these areas at the moment.

Second teams in Melbourne and Sydney will have a similar effect given many basketball fans are reluctant to follow the Tigers or Kings if they were fans of teams like the South East Melbourne Magic, North Melbourne Giants or West Sydney Razorbacks before they folded.

The league is being positively ambitious and optimistic, which is a sure fire sign that those in control of basketball in this country want to put the sport back on the map.

The hard work has been done to get the product back up to a standard which is marketable to the masses, and it is now time to dive headfirst into the media at every possible opportunity to sell the quality product that is the NBL.

There is a long road ahead yet for basketball and the league, however the gains made in recent years in terms of crowd and audience figures, as well as quality in the playing group and the standard of the sport, has shown the sport has a bright future yet.

The media is basketball’s biggest ally and if it is used effectively then there is little doubt that we will see many more teams, bigger crowds and better players every year until the game has reached its peak once more.

The NBL, and indeed basketball as a whole, can become great once more – the Perth Wildcats are living proof.