Would the NBL benefit from greater media access?

The NBA is an open book with media access, while the NBL is more controlled. Could an American style model benefit the NBL?

The contrast between the NBA's media policy and the NBL's approach to game day media access has always been an interesting case study.

The NBA is an open book. Every athlete —from LeBron James through to the fifteenth man on the roster— is made available twice on game day. And yes, that applies to every game day. All 82 of them, in a normal regular season arrangement. There is greater access, yes, but there is also a culture of communication. An acceptance that media is a conduit to the fans and, at the end of the day, those fans will ultimately contribute the dollars that fund the sport’s economic boom.

Contrast that with the NBL media universe, which —like all sporting leagues in Australia, to be fair— is a more filtered product than its American counterpart. Control is more centralised and interest from outside media is at a much lesser scale. There is also the unwavering reality of dollars, or lack thereof relative to the global behemoth that is the NBA. It’s one thing demanding players making seven or eight figures open themselves to daily media scrutiny, as there is an inherent reality that the access drives gaudy salaries. This is a harder sell when player salaries are more modest. 

This culture of oversight rules Australian sporting media behaviours. AFL media, for example, is run like a militaristic operation. There are no lose words from athletes and club wide mandates for “playing it straight” reduce opportunities for their athletes showing personality to infinitesimal levels. With that set as the historical state of play, asking the NBL and its players to buck that trend would be a first for the local landscape. It would offer a seismic shift in how Australian sports operate, but therein lays the opportunity, according to Andrew Bogut.

“If you are a basketball league, I would follow the NBA landscape as much as possible from a business sense,” Bogut said in a chat with The Pick and Roll earlier this year.

“I think [the NBA] do a good job with the media, allowing access to the locker room. I think the NBL should, as strange as it would seem for some people, allow journalists in before and after the game. It would probably be the only sport in Australia that would [allow locker room access] before the game.”

NBL postgame sessions are sanitised media environments. They are very traditional: the assembled media await the head coach and a nominated player from each team. With the passing of a short Q&A session, that is the only resource given to the media. There is no diversity of content. Everyone works off the same material, and there is no opportunity for inquisitive media members solicit the opinions of the players they desire. This same time is used within an NBA environment to scope feature stories and build content that runs deeper than benign analysis of a game day affair. Such a chance isn’t offered within the NBL.

Bogut’s opinion isn’t anything new. Similar ideas have been tossed around before, frequently by those who have experienced the crucible of American sport. There is, naturally, a clear bias from those within the media —myself included— for more access. It is, on some level, a debate in self-interest. Although this simple fact cannot be debated: the handful of Australian journalists who ventured to America (in a pre-COVID-19 world) received more access and alone time with the likes of Patty Mills and Ryan Broekhoff, than the local Australian media cohort get access to NBL players on a weekly basis.

NBL players rightfully have the ability to refuse any of this. It is their world, and us media types are the ones attempting to peel the curtain back. The current access guidelines governing NBL clubs have been collectively bargained between the NBL and the Australian Basketball Players Association (ABPA). This isn’t an issue that rests exclusively on the whims of either the league or players. They are in this together, and it would take a quantum leap forward from both sides to increase access. Yet still, even with that set as the context, it still begs the question of whether the NBL would benefit from adopting an NBA model when it comes to media access.

The Pick and Roll recently asked NBL Commissioner, Jeremy Loeliger, what is stopping the NBL from opening up locker rooms and providing more access to the media.

“That’s something that would have to be considered in consultation with our clubs and players,” said Loeliger. “For the most part it’s unnecessary and I’m of the view that media access is generally very good in the NBL.

“Coaches and players are always available before, during and after games for broadcast and other media outlets.  We have cameras in timeouts which take fans right inside the game and players also do interviews in the locker room before the game for our broadcast partner.  Making that content available exclusively to our broadcast partner is important for us to be able to continue to grow the value of our broadcast rights, which as you know, are currently very modest.”

Loeliger’s last point is especially valid. Dollars were tight before COVID-19 threw every sporting organisation into chaos, and the impact of this pandemic will be felt for the years to come. NBL players accepting pay cuts for the upcoming season were the first real sign of the new reality that awaits all involved with the league. While Loeliger rightfully points out that broadcast partners deserve some level of exclusive content for their customers, it is again prudent to ask whether that is enough of a sacrifice from the players when it comes to letting the fourth estate in. The odd player interview here and the coach interview during a timeout there, provide glimpses. But again, there appears to be ample opportunity to go a step further for the league and their players. Such in-game features are traits of the NBA access model, but they are pieces of the puzzle, not the main points of contact like they are in the NBL ecosystem.

“I think access to our players is very good compared to other sports,” Loeliger added. “We are fortunate to have such great ambassadors for the league who are very giving with their time and candour. While we have guidelines about the minimum number of media appearances by each club across the course of a season, the reality is that most, if not all of the clubs would substantially exceed those requirements and for the most part, if media request to speak to a player on game day, that request will generally be granted and facilitated by the clubs as far as I’m aware.”

There is a bounty of truisms in those comments from Loeliger. The league does deserve some credit for their efforts in growing a booming sport. And yet, the comparison to other sports within the Australian landscape offers a look into the unique opportunity the NBL has before it.

Cameron Smith and Dustin Martin aren’t made available multiple times a week, to reporters and pundits all around the nation. The machines that are the AFL and NRL just don’t allow it. Or to be even more precise, they don’t mandate it. But what if the NBL and APBA did mandate such a requirement on their player? What if the likes of Bryce Cotton, Deng Adel and Mitch Creek were thrust in front of the media before and after every game? There would be more content, more engagement and more discussion about the human subjects that underpin a sport that is growing across every metric.

According to Loeliger, earned media coverage of the NBL has increased 300 per cent over the past three years. The Boomers and Opals are more popular than ever. That’s not even to mention the impact that our first NBA All-Star, Ben Simmons, is continuing to have. There is anecdotal evidence everywhere of a rising tide for Australian basketball. So why not double down and ramp up the opportunities for content? What are the possible downsides? The answer to that question rests on control.

The counterbalance to greater access comes in the form of relinquishing of control. From the league, the clubs and the players. More speaking engagements naturally provide more opportunities for stakeholders to say something that goes against the grain, or for the more cynical minds, there would be a larger base of soundbites that could be exploited within a clickbait media environment.

It is easy for me to sit here and say that players should be more accessible, but they are the ones who must open themselves up to a media industry that continues to cannibalise itself by prioritising profits and clicks, over traditional journalism. Such a dynamic isn’t lost on those in the NBL arena.

“Clickbait sells right now,” says Bogut. “The unfortunate reality of sport [in Australia] is that articles about the WAGs and the off-court escapades probably rate higher than the actual result of the game. That’s just the landscape we deal with here. It’s like that to an extent in America, but they are screwed on way more towards the result of the game itself. Everything else gets attention and keeps the game talked about, but the main thing is the on-court product whereas here at times I feel, it’s that tabloid, clickbait type stuff that is selling.”

Bogut’s point is beyond fair. It is warranted commentary on a fickle industry. The players are right to hold concerns over the aptitude of a media cohort that is trending quick and inexperienced with each passing round of layoffs.

“I think the media has to do a bit of growing up,” says Paul Smith, owner of the Sydney Kings in a recent August conversation. “You want NBA big boy access, then bring NBA big boy skills and insights. Write good stuff and respect what you hear in there and understand that what you see in there is sometimes not for public consumption.”

Smith, while acknowledging that the locker room is the domain of the club, would be supportive of greater player access should the infrastructure around the games allow it. 

“I would be supporting more access to players, in an appropriate way on game day and postgame,” says Smith. “Notwithstanding the needs of travel and recovery, which is becoming more of a burden on player time. They have to recover.”

The history of global sports shows that the teams and organisations that try to hide away, will recede into the background. The opposite is largely true, too: those who go above and beyond with access are rewarded with a greater share of market attention. That is why the NBA is so unique. Their players are not only required, but the top players —for the most part— go willingly into the media’s lion’s den because they understand that it’s part of the job.

“I am all for transparency and openness,” Smith adds. “We don’t control our players or tell them what to say. My view is that you say what you say, and you are responsible for it. As am I, with what I say. Your views are your views.

“I am all about access and openness, but we can’t just flick the switch. There needs to be a gradual process where we get better at it. Go by inches and not miles.”

Smith is spot on. Going from an NBL model to an NBA model overnight just won’t work. The media and players alike aren’t ready for the change. But small improvements forward, that can easily be done. A COVID-19 world makes much of this conversation of locker room access irrelevant for the next 12 months of basketball, both in both Australia and America. Athletes will rightfully be secluded from any unnecessary risk. That doesn’t make greater access impossible.

The NBA connected its players in Orlando to media members all around the world this past August over videoconference. What if each NBL player was mandated to hold a ten minute Zoom call after each game? A small period of time could unlock access that the Australian media industry has never before received. The realities of business make this an achievement that will be easier said than done, although that doesn’t diminish the potential rewards of doing so.

Would the sport of basketball benefit from NBL players becoming more accessible to the media? Of course it would. But would the NBL itself benefit? Would the individual players, those being asked to make that sacrifice in these moments, benefit in the immediate? That is harder to measure and harder to prove. In the absence of financial evidence that a changing model will improve the position of those stakeholders, changing a model that doesn’t demand NBA-level access appears a step too far.