On 18 April 2019, Basketball Australia (BA) announced Sally Phillips’ departure from her position as Head of the WNBL.
The news raised more questions than answers, and no official reasons were given for her decision.
Inbox: Sally Phillips has stepped down as Head of the WNBL, effective today.
— Olgun Uluc (@OlgunUluc) April 18, 2019
It’s possible, that the unpredictable nature of several WNBL clubs, two of which (Dandenong Rangers, Adelaide Lightning) nearly went bankrupt in 2018, along with a dysfunctional administration and lack of cohesion across stakeholders, played a part.
After three years in the role, the former Opal and Dandenong Rangers star had been at the forefront of turning around the league, taking it to the next level and leading the call to bring fans back to the great game. This included a new broadcast partnership with FOX Sports Australia, which led to the league’s return to free-to-air television with SBS Australia in a monumental point in increasing the competition’s exposure. She was also instrumental in securing the WNBL’s naming rights partnership with Chemist Warehouse.
Within the role, Phillips harnessed her genuine passion for the advancement of women in sport. With her experience as a past WNBL player, she made clear her desire to see our female elite players receive the benefits they deserve, including the first ever Minimum Player Payment as well as the Pregnancy and Parental Care Policy for WNBL athletes.
After all of these achievements, and with the pending announcements from Basketball Australia regarding the resourcing and management of the league, we ask: what now?
The league cannot risk taking a backwards step.
The WNBL still has a long way to go, and with the recent call for bids for a second Queensland-based team coming up empty-handed, the next leader must exhibit managerial fortitude, business acumen, and a love for the game of hoops.
Enter Larry Kestelman.
Kestelman right now is one of the most influenctial leaders in Australian basketball. When he bought the NBL in 2015 for $7 million, he did so with a dream and a passion for what it could become, and he has led it in leaps and bounds.
The future of the NBL was unpredictable and had seen better days, but the possibilities to rebrand and relaunch were great, with huge upside for all involved.
On taking majority ownership of the NBL, Kestelman was blunt in his explanation of the deal, which also accurately sums up where the WNBL is now.
“I did it because it had to be done. I’m really bad at standing by and letting things happen if I feel that it’s within my control to do something about it.”
The NBL has evolved as a competition since being founded in 1979. Throughout the league’s history, more than 30 clubs have merged or gone broke. Sell-out crowds have come and gone, but last season broke records, and with Kestelman’s guidance, the league is set to continue on an upward trajectory.
If not for his goals for the league and his leadership, the often-reported poor record of competition management by Basketball Australia (see also SEABL) would take a negative toll on the NBL. With Kestelman, his basketball portfolio has grown over recent years. NBL became Basketball Australia’s appointed 3×3 partner, and more recently sponsored NBL1 – the Victorian managed state league competition which has effectively replaced the Basketball Australia-run SEABL.
Similar to how the NBA supports and backs the WNBA, the same should be considered for replication in Australia. With Philip’s departure, the NBL is in the ideal position to take over ownership and run both leagues co-operatively and in synchronisation with each other.
Too often over the past two seasons, WNBL fixtures clashed with those of the NBL, with fans forced to make a choice between the two leagues. There is no reason why both could work together in harmony, complementing what the other is doing while harnessing shared resources to optimise operational cost.
After a season that saw both attendance and television viewership rise, it makes sense that both leagues work together so they can continue to move forward. With that said, the WNBL is still chasing its competitors when it comes to elite women’s sporting leagues in Australia: specifically the AFLW, netball and women’s cricket, albeit those are bankrolled by the men’s competitions and/or lucrative sponsorships.
Unfortunately Basketball Australia does not have a great track record in managing competitions. Having already relinquished ownership of the NBL and 3×3 basketball to Kestelman, while shutting down the SEABL in favour of the new NBL1 Basketball Victoria managed league, perhaps the national governing body for the sport should focus on high performance and development programs in association with the state bodies.
The last line in the official Basketball Australia release suggests further change is on the horizon, and it certainly leaves the door open to the Kestelman regime taking over the WNBL.
“Basketball Australia will be making further announcements in the coming weeks regarding the resourcing and management of the WNBL.”
The WNBL would be another jewel in the Kestelman crown, if governed together with the NBL. This decision would only increase the profile of the game and elevate the progress of basketball eventually becoming the most followed and watched sport globally.
The time is now, for the leagues to combine and take basketball to the next level down under. Basketball Australia have had more than their fair share of opportunities. The next move is in Kestelman’s court.