Ticketing, schedule, scoring: How did the NBL Cup fare?

The NBL has grand plans for its NBL Cup format, but how exactly should they develop the event?

One city, 23 days, 36 games of basketball.

The inaugural NBL Cup came and went in a flash, sandwiched in the middle of the league’s regular season, a separate event and yet still part of the larger competition. The idea was conceived as a COVID-19 contingency plan, a way to churn through games in quick succession and minimise the risk of league-wide stoppages due to an unforeseen outbreak.

In the end, it fell during a relatively calm period across the country, and so it was marketed as a basketball bonanza for fans in the host state of Victoria. Every game day featured a double header. With points on the cup ladder available for winning each quarter and prize money on the line, no period of any matchup was meaningless. At the end of it all, the Perth Wildcats emerged as the Cup’s first ever champions, winning seven of their eight games and climbing to second in the regular season standings.

While the concept was born from the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBL has given indications that it will continue to be held in future seasons. With year one now in the books, it’s worth considering what the NBL Cup might look like in year two and beyond. What worked this season, and what is there that could change?

The schedule

Usually confined to weekends and an occasional Monday night, the NBL Cup saw the league expand into a near 24/7 state of action. There was some comfort as a fan in sitting down in front of the TV and knowing that there would be two games worth of entertainment, no matter the day. It was even better for those fans in Melbourne, with a smörgåsbord of hoops ready to be consumed either at home or from the stands.

That was certainly one of the biggest selling points pushed by the league, as they clearly saw an opening to engage with new fans. “Most importantly, [the NBL Cup] will provide great value for all sports fans, particularly families,” league owner Larry Kestelman said at the release of the schedule. “We encourage everyone who hasn't been to an NBL game before to come along and experience a fantastic night of entertainment.”

It’s hard to argue against the schedule being a massive win for the fans. What might have been a tougher sell was getting the players on board. In the era of sports science and injury prevention, cramming eight games for every single team into such a short span must have made some players (and physios) more than a little nervous. Most of them said all the right things, though, including Melbourne United’s Jock Landale on the day the schedule was released. “It's what, as an athlete and as a basketball player, you wanna do… you wanna get out there and you wanna play as many games as possible,” Landale told ESPN.

Fast forward to the end of the Cup, and his side had suffered their first three losses of the season while being ravaged by injury. Chris Goulding and Shea Ili missed multiple games after entering the tournament injured, while Jack White’s broken finger is still keeping him sidelined. None of those injuries were a direct result of the Cup’s convoluted fixture, but where a short-term injury would usually result in a one or two-game absence, these players were now missing four or five. Even when Goulding and Ili did return, they had to be eased back into action with an eye towards the next handful of games coming in quick succession.

It’s not just physical fatigue that can impact the players, either — spending long stretches away from home has an impact mentally. That has been doubly true in the 2021 season, as teams have needed to be ready to jump ship if their home state is suddenly in danger of a COVID-induced lockdown. An extra four weeks straight on the road was probably a challenge for those leaving their families and friends behind.

One suggestion to avoid this has been to break the Cup schedule into blocks, with three or four windows during the season. The double headers could still be a feature, as could the non-stop daily action, but they could be done in shorter bursts with more recovery time for players.

Another option? Remove the tournament from the regular season altogether and have it replace the NBL Blitz on the preseason schedule. The biggest concern in doing so would come from the league, as they would want to maintain the legitimacy of the Cup as a competitive event. Would teams really run out their best lineups and put forward their best effort in the preseason, even with a trophy on the line?

Well, the substantial amount of prize money on the line— $150,000 for the winning team, $100,000 for the runners-up, and $50,000 for third place— should alleviate some of those concerns. The NBL confirmed via The West Australian this season that players could receive a cut of that money without any salary cap implications. It’s hard to know how meaningful the sums of money involved would be to individual players, but there should be some motivation at all levels of a club to fight hard for every win.

The location

Having the entire NBL Cup in one location is what allowed so much of the NBL’s vision for the event to be realised. With no travel time between games, the rapid-fire schedule and the subsequent fan-friendly product was made possible.

What was less than ideal, though, was having all games in the home arenas of two teams, while also having those games count towards the regular season. An extra eight homes games each for Melbourne United and South East Melbourne was a huge competitive advantage, and while neither were able to fully capitalise, that is an issue that will need to be addressed in the future. This is particularly true if the NBL plans to continue to count Cup games against a team’s regular season record.

If the Cup were to be broken up into several windows as mentioned previously, it would be possible to have several host cities. While not every team would be able to host games each season, it would be a step in the right direction towards a more equitable format. The biggest question from the league’s perspective would be whether this would detract too much from the fan-friendly ethos they looked to promote this season. Having a single host city over a longer span is what gave the event the “festival of basketball” vibe that made it a marketer’s dream.

The seemingly obvious solution, then, would be to take the event to a neutral site. That’s something the NBL are reportedly already considering, with Sydney, Auckland, Hawaii and the continental United States mentioned as possible locations. As NBL Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger told AAP, a move to the United States could also garner plenty of NBA attention. “Thirty-six games, all in one city, in a short amount of time - that's scouting nirvana,” Loeliger said. “It will attract a huge amount of attention from the who's who of basketball.”

While that would be a good result for scouts, and a good source of exposure for the league, it would be something of a disservice to the Australian fans. There would be plenty of scouts in attendance for a tournament in the US, but it’s hard to imagine that a huge number of fans would be excited to see teams they have never heard of and players they are not invested in. There was already a noticeable drop off in Melbourne’s crowds when neither United or the Phoenix were playing— what happens when there are no “home fans” for the entire event?

The ticketing

Speaking of the fans, many hoping to attend the Cup were put through the wringer before a ball had even been bounced. When game tickets were first released, they were available in several price brackets, as is standard at major events. Shortly before the NBL Cup tipped off, however, the league announced that, as a thank you to Victorians, all general admission tickets would be reduced to $10. “It’s been a challenging past 12 months for everyone and we want all sports fans, particularly those who’ve not attended an NBL game before, to come and enjoy world class basketball and entertainment,” Kestelman said via a statement.

While clearly designed to attract those who were on the fence about attending, this deal also left the fans that purchased their seats early with tickets that were suddenly very overpriced. Thankfully, the NBL assured those people that they would be contacted by the ticket outlet and offered additional tickets that covered the difference in value between the old and new prices.

Well…

Speaking from personal experience: if contact was ever made by Ticketek or the NBL, it didn’t quite make it to everyone. It wasn’t until fans chased after the ticket outlet themselves that they were told that those “complimentary” tickets could only be redeemed for games from February 26 onward, more than a week after the Cup had started. Fans that travelled from across Victoria or interstate during that first week were offered no compensation other than a handful of tickets to games they wouldn’t be able to attend anyway. Even those still willing and able to accept the offer were left to continue chasing further details on how to do so, with none forthcoming as promised.

The $10 ticket offer was one that, in reality, should have been made from the outset. Even with social distancing measures in place, the games were never going to be close to complete sellouts. There were simply too many game days in short succession for that to ever be a possibility. What should have been a nice gesture of goodwill, and also a smart marketing ploy, quickly turned into a farcical mess that likely upset dedicated fans.

The rules

On the basketball side of the equation, the biggest change during the NBL Cup was the points scoring system used in the tournament standings. Every matchup had seven points up for grabs; three for the overall win, and one for every quarter won along the way. This added a new wrinkle to the event, and it had an impact on the final standings— South East Melbourne and Brisbane ended the Cup with the same record, but the Phoenix claimed second place after winning one more quarter than the Bullets.

In the Cup’s current form, it would be hard to justify any drastic on-court changes to the rules. After all, the games also counted towards the regular season standings— it would hardly be fair to move the goalposts for a portion of the season. If the Cup were to move to a pre-season format, or if it were to be held mid-season as an entirely separate event, it could be a good chance for the NBL to experiment a little more. The NBA often uses the G League to experiment with new rules and ideas, and the NBL Cup could present a similar opportunity for the NBL.

The Elam Ending is the most obvious option, and after being introduced to fans with The Basketball Tournament it has now been adopted as part of the NBA All-Star Game. Aiming to add excitement at the end of games and take away the process of intentionally fouling to stop the clock, it involves a “target score” being set in the final quarter. The game ends when either team reaches that score, rather than when the clock hits zero. This means that every game ends on a game-winner, which would add even more to the atmosphere at an event like the NBL Cup.

Basically, if the tournament was detached from the NBL regular season, the league could try out whatever wacky ideas they wanted. All-for-one free throws? Sure! Four-point shots? Why not? The possibilities are endless.

Those in charge of the league look set to walk a delicate tightrope, if and when the NBL Cup does continue. Do you risk inequity in the regular season by counting those Cup games, or do you potentially lose the competitive nature by hosting a standalone event? Do you reward fans in one Australian city, multiple Australian cities or an overseas audience? Do you risk fatigue and injury for players, or do you risk losing the Cup’s festival feel?

For the most part, there are no right or wrong answers. One would hope that the obvious mistakes, such as the ticketing debacle, will be fixed in a year’s time. The rest of the decisions to be made might require a little more nuance, but they will be even more important to ensuring the event’s long-term success.

With all of that said, it’s hard to see the first edition of the NBL Cup as anything but a success. For any and all of its shortcomings, it produced plenty of quality basketball that was more accessible to fans than ever before. The future of the NBL Cup could go in any number of directions, but hopefully that much will remain true in the coming years.