WNBL - Where To From Here?

While searching the ESPN website, I found a poll run by the site. This poll was titled, "What would you rather, find $5 on the ground, or see your local Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) team win a championship"? The poll was a telling indicator of what people in America, at least, thought about the WNBA or women's sport in general. 76% of respondents listed finding a $5 note as there preferred answer. Unfortunately, I believe that the way Australians think about women's sport, and more specifically basketball, is all too similar to that of Americans; we simply don't care.

photo credit: Ryan Wick via photopin cc

A Brief History

Following the success of the National Basketball League (NBL) founded in 1979, the Women's Interstate Basketball Conference (WIBC) as it was called at the time came to existence shortly after in 1981. 6 teams played in the WIBC in it's first season, with 3 being from Adelaide and 3 from Melbourne. The WIBC was created in order for players to prepare for a 24-team national tournament where the best Women's teams from across Australia played in a round-robin type invitational.

In the ensuing years, the success of the women's league encouraged other states into fielding their own representatives into the WNBL. In today's game, this is evident with the participation of clubs such as the Melbourne Boomers, Canberra Capitals, Sydney Uni Flames, Adelaide Lighting in the league.

1989 was a massive year for the WNBL. The league had just earned it's first major sponsor in one of Australia's leading sporting apparel companies at the time. Moreover, ABC agreed to televise the finals series that season, which was the beginning of a long and successful partnership. The WNBL was finally gaining steam as a major Australian sporting institution.

In 1993, weekly games became televised through ABC. Also, the efforts of the WNBL was recognised when Australia was awarded with the 1994 Worlds Women's Basketball Championships; a true validation of how much women's basketball in Australia has developed and what the WNBL has managed to achieve.

The 2000's saw the growth of the league stabilize, with another 3 franchises in Bendigo, Townsville and Logan joining the league.

The 2013 season sees 9 teams - Adelaide, Bendigo, Canberra, Dandenong, Logan, Melbourne, Sydney, Townsville and West Coast - aiming towards a WNBL title.

The Current Landscape

The biggest issue with the WNBL is a club falling into financial difficulties. With this current season's attendance averaging 700 people a game, clubs struggle to make ends meet financially. Also, players in the league do not participate as full time players, they usually work two jobs in order to showcase their talents on the national stage.

This issue was made public by the Logan Thunder's dreadful financial situation which would have seen only 8 teams play this season if not for public support. With two weeks before the start of the regular season, Basketball Australia was alerted to some distressing news originating from South-East Queensland. The Logan Thunder was assumed to be in debts amounting to an estimated $150,000.

The Thunder were given one week before the regular season to raise the required amount of money to lift them out of debt. With help from notable Australian sporting stars including Andrew Bogut (NBA), Jesse Williams (NFL) and Quade Cooper (Rugby Union), as well as the public, Logan managed to reposition themselves as a financially-sound organisation; enough to convince Basketball Australia to approve their participation in the league.

Despite the difficulties of yesteryears, there has also been some compelling positives. The league has grown throughout Australia this past year, seeing a 30% increase in TV viewers and 37% increase in attendance rates. These figures saw Bulleen expand beyond their former venue at the Veneto Club. With Bulleen's former stadium in the Veneto Club reaching full capacity week in, week out, the oldest WNBL club looked to expand their stadium and market share of Victoria's eastern region. The Boomers shifted to the State Basketball Center in Knox as part of their expansion plans. Furthermore, the Boomers underwent a complete re-branding becoming the Melbourne Boomers with a change in jersey colours - from blue and gold, the Boomers are refitted into purple and gold jerseys.

International Influence

Unlike the NBL which has trouble recruiting NBA players as both leagues run during the same periods of the year, the WNBL has no problems recruiting world-class WNBA players down under. Kelsey Griffin (Connecticut and Bendigo), Kayla Pederson (Connecticut and Dandenong), Lellani Mitchell (New York and Dandenong), Laurie Koehn (Atlanta and Logan) and Chelsea Poppins (San Antonio and Melbourne) headline a talented group of professional American basketball players who have come to dazzle us in Australia.

Even talented Australian basketballers decide to work their way back to Australia after stints in the WNBA. Current WNBL stars who have plied their trade in the US include: Kristi Harrrower (Bendigo), Jessica Bibby (Canberra), Suzy Batkovic (Townsville), Abby Bishop (Canberra), Kristen Veal (Logan), Jenna O'Hea (Dandenong) and Rachel Jarry (Melbourne).

Australian female basketballers find their way into the American professional circuit more often then the men. While men's sport will always remain at the forefront of sports entertainment with spectacular high-flying dunks and alley-oops, it's important that we display the achievements of Australian women in American leagues.

Rachel Jarry of the Melbourne Boomers recently completed the pinnacle of women's basketballing achievements. Her team (Minnesota Lynx) swept the Atlanta Dream to win the WNBA championship. How often did you hear about this on the news or through social media? A better question is, did you even hear about it? Or even know? Averaging 6.8 minutes per game, scoring 1.7 points and 0.7 rebounds per game, even though it doesn't seem like too much, she was a key cog in Minnesota's quest for their 2nd Championship in three years (also won 2011 championship).

What does the future hold?

Much like the NBL, I predict that the WNBL will undergo a similar resurgence. With Aussie stars such as Jenna O'Hea and Rachel Jarry returning to Australia during their time off from the WNBA, supporters and casual spectators alike can see this as the WNBL being a competitive and worth-wile event to attend due to the high-level Aussie presence. With stars such as Kelsey Griffin seeing the league as tremendously talented and a suitable competition to prepare for a new WNBA season, the presence of these WNBA players bolsters the league's reputation and quality, bringing old fans back and attracting new ones to the league. Hopefully, this can also encourage more WNBA stars to take their talents down under.

I hope that with the addition of top-tier international talent, like we are currently experiencing, the exposure the league gets through social and news media can increase further. For the league to really hit it's strands, I would love to see a Friday night game become televised. Bringing the WNBL fan-base two televised games per week would really add to the experience and overall exposure the WNBL gets through Australia.

With the international talent coming to play in our league as well as our experienced Aussies coming back, our promising young local players will stand to benefit from the interaction and the WNBL will also benefit from their development. Moreover, the meshing of both experienced players and young talents will likely create an entertaining experience for the fans.

I'd love to be able share the WNBL experience with you readers at the Pick and Roll and I look forward to covering the WNBL throughout this season.