Homicide’s credibility, worth pays price for social network self gratification

For a man with a lot to say, Corey Williams’ medium of choice is an odd one.

The Melbourne Tigers import was the centre of attention during his side’s clash with Perth on Friday night, entering the game on the back of accusations that he’d defaced a courtside banner belonging to the Wildcats at an earlier practice session.  

The ill feeling between Williams and the Wildcats was made manifestly clear when the latter’s chief executive, Nick Marvin, told The West Australian: “Corey clearly has no respect for the Perth Wildcats fans and uses every opportunity to disparage us… We’ll reserve our right to respond by the way we play.”

Williams had the opportunity to respond not just through his on-court performance but also through half-time and post-game interviews with One HD sideline reporter Caty Price.

The Corey Williams of previous seasons would have relished the chance to counter Perth’s claims and talk trash in front of a national television audience. Alas, the Corey Williams of previous seasons has seemingly become so infatuated with the notion that his colourful antics are beneficial to the media-starved NBL that he is now behaving as if it is his raison d’être for being in the league.

Sure, he continues to play excellent basketball and has boosted the Tigers’ playoff chances.

That, however, is currently secondary to the excessive self-promotion that has reached a level equivalent to a boxer who, on the eve of a televised bout, engages in contrived conflict with his opponent for the sake of driving pay-per-view buys.

The only difference is that Williams is seeking to drive the number of followers he has on Twitter. Rather than respectfully answering Price’s questions, Williams treated the reporter with a sexist disdain, patronisingly telling the “sweetie” that if those watching at home wanted to hear the truth about the pre-game accusations cast at him, they must instead subscribe to his social network ramblings.     

In other words, he paradoxically had so much to say that he preferred to articulate it through a medium that only allows 140-character posts.

Unlike the boxer who receives the financial spoils of an increased buyrate, Williams’ goal brings nothing but the self-gratification that obviously comes with tweeting: “770 friend request in less than an hour? Let’s make it 1000 and that’s even a better look people!”

The irony of Friday night’s happenings is that Williams truly believes he was conducting himself in a manner that was for the good of the game. As one of his post-game tweets claimed:  “Sumtimes the game needs pranksters. Things like this only make it fun, entertaining and memorable…”

What the game truly needs is strong relationships with its media partners. The NBL’s presence on One HD has provided an enormous fillip for the league, yet Williams sees the network and its audience as ancillary to his own ego. In his mind, the means of degrading a reporter are justified by the end of attracting more people to his Twitter account, where the sexist comments continue through tweets such as “wild cats [are] too sensitive like women” and “Man the fuk up.”

Perhaps instead of manning up Williams should wisen up, because at the moment the only thing “Homicide” is killing is his own credibility and the opportunity to maximise his true value to the league through media platforms other than his own BlackBerry. 

Corey Williams hasn’t been the only NBL player to cause controversy on Twitter this season. Then Sydney import Taj McCullough tweeted this comment straight after his side’s loss to Townsville. It was soon deleted, but not before Scibz’ Spiel got a screen shot.

Forgetful fixture critics need to draw upon lessons of the past

It’s understandable why fans of the National Basketball League would like to have selective memories.

Amid the flurry of teams collapsing, cheques bouncing, and supporters simply choosing to walk away, highlights for the league have been as sparse as the stands at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the schedule for the 2010/11 season has come under attack despite being a marked improvement on recent efforts.

In fact, basketball writer Daniel Eade, in his column on backpagelead.com.au, went as far as arguing: “I don’t think I could imagine a worse fixture for the upcoming season.”

It doesn’t require an imagination to comprehend a worse fixture than this season’s – a quick glance in the rear vision mirror would suffice.

Eade laments the fact that the season won’t be opening “with a bang” due to the Melbourne-Sydney clash on 15 October being scheduled for The Cage rather than the Kings’ much-anticipated return to the Kingdome.

But wasn’t it only eight months ago that New Zealand and Cairns tipped off the year in front of 2,428 fans at NSEC? Not much banging going on there.

The opening round of the season won’t just be about the Kings – it will also symbolise the NBL’s return to free-to-air television through One HD. A Sydney-Melbourne blockbuster, whether it’s held at The Cage, Kingdome or Seamus McPeake’s kitchen, is the ideal showcase for the sport in front of a curious and, in some cases, novice, audience.

While it’s unfortunate that Sydney’s homecoming against New Zealand the following night will be on the end of a double header (meaning fans’ first impressions may not be of a team playing at its optimum), the question of who the Kings should be facing is irrelevant. The mere spectacle of the club returning to its old stomping ground ensures it will be highly marketable with more media hype and bums on seats than any other home game against the Breakers could attract.

There’s a reason why the South Dragons opted not to request a derby against the Tigers for their first ever home game, nor on Boxing Day in their second and third seasons despite the enormous success of the 26 December 2006 fixture. Those dates alone are drawcards. Why waste a marquee event – in Sydney’s case a meeting with Melbourne – on a date that can be used to elevate the status of an otherwise ordinary match-up?

Also, contrary to Eade’s claim that “every team should be playing multiple games each week whenever possible”, the spacing between contests is a welcome relief from the ludicrous situation whereby clubs would play as many as three games in four days before having two weeks off. It allows clubs to promote and emphasise each home game rather than having them lost in a cluster that, for a league with minimal media visibility, only the most hardcore fans can keep up with.

Finally, Eade questions Larry Sengstock’s comment that the focus on weekends was in line with feedback from fans. “Was this a questionnaire? Did the NBL send out surveys? I never got one,” he asks.

Perhaps, Daniel, it was the feedback known as disastrous crowd figures over recent seasons.  Crowd figures that were particularly poor during the Wednesday night timeslots you suddenly yearn for. Crowd figures that are the very reason you’re so concerned with the fixture in the first place.

How quickly we forget.

From con to icon: Kings forgiven for their sins

It’s a Saturday evening during the summer of 2008/09 and I’m walking up Swan Street, Richmond, dressed in a South Dragons polo shirt with a membership lanyard hanging from the neck. 

About to cross the Punt Road intersection for a night of hoops at Hisense Arena, I spot a couple in their mid-20s heading towards me from the opposite direction. As they stroll past, the male mutters under his breath, “Pfft, no one cares about the NBL without the Kings and Bullets.”

It seems a flawed observation.

The Sydney Kings had descended into a laughing stock during their latter years, tarnished by connotations of empty seats, bouncing cheques, a fraudulent owner, and threats of having their licence revoked in the middle of a playoff campaign.

The Brisbane Bullets, meanwhile, were hardly a hot ticket item prior to finding themselves in the middle of Eddy Groves’ fall from financial grace.

Yet, according to the passerby on Swan Street, the Kings and Bullets’ presence was somehow metonymic for public interest in the entire league.

This is a classic example of the power of nostalgia.

As has been argued in the circles of academia, nostalgia represents the yearning for a history that never was.

The Kings of the modern era were an off-court disaster, but the need for nostalgia sees the reshaping of history in order to perpetuate desired myths.

In the Kings’ case, effects of the Tim Johnston era were replaced by memories of the club’s glory days under the ownership of the late Mike Wrublewski during the 1990s. By reinscribing images of a sold-out Sydney Entertainment Centre into the Kings’ brand, the game’s doomsayers could argue that the club’s demise signalled the death of the league as a whole.

However, with the NBL confirming the resurrection of the Sydney Kings for season 2010/11, this practice could suddenly work in basketball’s favour.

A case in point is Wednesday’s article on the Daily Telegraph website, with sports Chief of Staff Tim Morrissey trumpeting the Kings’ return.  Morrissey opens the article with a reference to Rodney O – the Kings’ popular court announcer during the 1990s – before reporting that Bob Turner would run the club as CEO. 

Turner, of course, led the Kings under Wrublewski and played a pioneering role in using the media as a promotional tool.

Former greats such as Steve Carfino, Damian Keogh, Brad Dalton, Dwayne “D-Train” McClain and Leon “Neon” Trimmingham are then mentioned as possible role-players within the reborn franchise, while accompanying the article is a black and white photo of a triumphant Kings team circa 1990.

The Telegraph concludes the article by informing readers that Morrissey played for the Kings between 1988 and 1994.

Save for a brief reference, the escapades of Tim Johnston are conspicuous by their absence.

With the Kings’ brand seemingly cleansed, the NBL finds itself in unfamiliar territory, whereby society’s insatiable appetite for nostalgia has seen the otherwise merciless Sydney media represent basketball through a favourable narrative.

The Kings of old are back.

Will anyone care?

Perhaps we’ll have to ask the bloke on Swan Street.

Nostalgia’s done wonders for Bert Newton’s career; now it’s about to help the reborn Sydney Kings.

Twenty20 Basketball: What’s in it for me?

When Basketball Australia worked through the turbulence of last off-season by announcing an eight-team National Basketball League, the murmurs of a potential rebel competition were quickly quelled.

And with this season’s NBL producing the most even league in its 31-year history, the faith bestowed upon the governing body by its clubs and television partner appeared to be vindicated.

It was of great surprise, therefore, that a press release filtered through yesterday trumpeting the launch of a new eight-team tournament to be held at Adelaide’s Brett Maher Court in April 2010.

The tournament, which possesses a prize pool of $250,000 and is the brainchild of former Melbourne and Brisbane chief Jeff Van Groningen, does not have the sanctioning of BA and, if Townsville boss Ian Smythe’s comments are any indication, may struggle to include current NBL players.

”I’ll be reluctant to release any players, but I haven’t been approached by anyone,” Smythe told the Townsville Bulletin.

Despite its somewhat rogue characteristics, the “Foot Locker Elite Classic – High Stakes Hoops” still has the ability to benefit the sport.

The backing of ONE HD means that over 37 hours of live Australian basketball will be boomed into the country’s households via free-to-air television, while the sponsorship of recognised brands such as Foot Locker, Triple M and Spalding is a massive tick of approval for an undeservingly-maligned product.

However, the biggest threat to the tournament’s success is the decision by organisers to comprise eight generic franchises owned by Elite Classic Basketball and leased on an annual basis.

These teams have not been named according to geography, instead adopting names such as “Monarchs”, “Cyclones” and “Rush.”

This contradicts the very essence and appeal of sport. Sporting discourse is laden with nationalistic, patriotic and jingoistic undertones. We primarily choose our allegiances on the basis of a team’s spatial relevance and sense of personal ownership.

It’s typical “us against them” logic.

The Foot Locker Elite Classic has already been described as basketball’s version of Twenty20 cricket, yet even the Indian Premier League, with all its blatant commercialism, still recognises the importance of locality by having team names such as Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.

Likewise, the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash – which has recorded a 40 per cent increase in television ratings and a crowd of 43,125 at a recent Victoria Bushrangers game – is an extension of state cricket. While this has been challenged by the signing of foreign players such as Dwayne Bravo and Chris Gayle, supporters and the media overcome this by welcoming them as “one of us.”

Football clubs, meanwhile, are often accused of turning into corporations; however their brands still carry historical values such as class, race and on-field folklore.

The Foot Locker Elite Classic has failed to give fans any reason to emotionally invest in its product.

The only attraction is the event’s novelty factor, which is unsustainable beyond its inaugural season.

Therefore, while organisers hope to replicate the successful Twenty20 Big Bash, the tournament is more likely to resemble Channel Ten’s Beach Cricket series, in which the sponsor gets blanket coverage, the commentators get a trip to idyllic beaches, ex-players get to reminisce and the viewer is left wondering: “What’s in it for me?”

There’s plenty in it for ONE HD, with the signing of Lance Franklin and Julie Corletto as team owners allowing the network to shamelessly cross-promote its AFL and ANZ Championship coverage respectively. Apparently Brad McEwan and Sandra Sully are ordering their “John Wooden’s UCLA Offense” DVDs as we speak.

But the ability to match television ratings with bums on seats will be a harder task. Adelaide has a strong basketball following, as seen by the 36ers’ league-best crowds, but they are a knowledgeable crowd who won’t appreciate having their intelligence insulted by lame gimmicks.

They’re questionable gimmicks, too, with 48-minute games and convoluted rules contradicting the Twenty20 concept of giving fans a simpler and abbreviated product in an era of instant gratification.

As the tournament’s title suggests, the stakes certainly are high. Not just for the players, but also for the organisers who have the job of turning this corporate enigma into anything more than a one-hit wonder.

Will Brad McEwan and Sandra Sully swap the auto cue for the white board and engage in some cross-promotion at the Elite Classic?

Fox fairer to fans but neglects Hodge homecoming

While the relationship between sport and television is typically a reciprocal one, it is the broadcast networks that usually wear the pants.

Sporting bodies around the world are pressured into scheduling games at the behest of their broadcast partner’s demands, with the lure of rights fees and advertising exposure usurping the convenience of those who still like to sit in the stands.

In the National Basketball League’s case, the Wednesday night timeslot on Fox Sports has been a necessary evil. Necessary because it allows the league to escape the competition of other summer sports such as soccer, evil because a mid-week clash is hardly family-friendly during the chunk of the season before and after school holidays.

It’s also particularly evil for those in Queensland, who have been expected to be in their seats by 6.30pm so Fox can maintain its regular 7.30pm timeslot in New South Wales and Victoria. The effect that this can have on attendances was evident in the Round Eight meeting between Cairns and Townsville. While no official crowd figure was given, the number of empty seats was embarrassing for a FNQ Derby which could have sold out the convention centre had it been played on a weekend.

It is appears, however, that common sense has prevailed. Just weeks after the Gold Coast Blaze happily announced that Fox had agreed to push back their remaining Wednesday night games to 7.30pm local time, the Townsville Crocs have struck a similar deal. This is a win-win situation. Fans now have ample opportunity to be in their seats by tip-off, while a larger crowd makes for an enhanced atmosphere and television product for the broadcaster.

This decision bucks the aforementioned trend of networks wielding their power to the detriment of fans, and symbolises a gradual turning point in Fox’s treatment of the NBL. The number of games being shown this year is a significant improvement on last season’s coverage, which didn’t commence until Round Six and included just one live game each week.

There has also been the introduction of regular “every second counts” promos filmed during the pre-season tournament in Darwin, and the decision to replace Steve Carfino with football commentators Brian Taylor and Dwayne Russell has assisted the league in its efforts to “Australianise” the product. Taylor’s wittiness has proven incredibly popular in the AFL and will attract the curiosity of mainstream viewers, although his lack of research and occasional inaccuracies must make some purists cringe.

Fox’s relationship with the NBL still has plenty of room for improvement, however, as all basketball fans will realise on Saturday 5 December. That’s when Melbourne Tigers recruit Julius Hodge makes his much-anticipated return to the Distinctive Homes Dome after walking out on Adelaide last season due to a pay dispute. Sixers fans are known for their passion and hostility at the best of times, meaning Hodge’s reception will make for a compelling spectacle in front of what will surely be a near-capacity crowd.

Compelling for those that can see it, at least.

As it stands now, the clash will only be shown on Rivus TV, a pay-per-view streaming service marred by technical difficulties.

The NBL should have done everything in its power to ensure this game would be accessible to the masses. If Fox refused to increase its broadcast schedule on economic grounds, the league could have asked to swap a future Saturday night broadcast for next week’s showdown. For example, the January 16 clash between Perth and Cairns is hardly going to have fans salivating in their living rooms and could have been sacrificed for the good of the game.

Instead, the only thing being sacrificed is another opportunity to showcase the best the NBL has to offer to a national audience.

Despite Fox’s improvements, it remains an all-too familiar story of neglect for Australian hoops fans.

Fox Sports' improved coverage has been a pleasant surprise, unlike the surprise Shane Heal received when he commentated a recent Snakes game.

Have you heard? Hawks’ heroics a tale to tell

The National Basketball League’s publicity machine has been in overdrive during the early part of season 2009/10, churning out press releases in the hope of repairing the sport’s battered image. First to arrive in the inbox was a release titled “BA chief hails NBL rule changes as a success”, in which Larry Sengstock credited the new ten-minute quarters and limit of five fouls per player as the reason for closer games. That theory has since been blown out of the water by a spate of shellackings, including Adelaide’s 37-point whitewash over Cairns last Saturday night. Nevertheless, the propaganda didn’t stop there, with the league’s PR man, Marc Howard, using the result of an online poll to declare: “Fans give NBL’s summer season thumbs-up”, after 80 per cent of respondents voted in favour of the current September-March timeslot.

One story which hasn’t been spun out of Coward Street, however, is perhaps the most heart-warming narrative that Australian sport currently has to offer. It’s a story which script-writers can only dream of and doomsayers say will never happen. It’s the story of the Wollongong Hawks. The league’s only remaining foundation club was dead and buried at the conclusion of last season, as 5,674 fans packed the WIN Entertainment Centre on February 13th 2009 to farewell a team which many of them had deserted. While the Hawks’ obituary had been written, an important precedent was being set in North Queensland. The folk of Cairns were opening their wallets to save the Taipans, who were also knocking on heaven’s door after big-spending owner John O’Brien decided to pull the pin.

Clearly inspired by the goodwill and generosity which had been generated by the Save the Taipans group, Hawks skipper Mat Campbell embarked on a similar campaign, in which the club would seek $500,000 in public donations and a $1m bank guarantee from a benefactor to remain in the league under community ownership. A band named Grinspoon will tell you “It’s hardly a comeback if you’ve never gone,” and, as it turned out, the Hawks were never gone. The team meant too much to the Illawarra region to collapse after 31 years of existence, and when mining magnate Arun Jagatramka answered an 11th hour plea from Campbell to offer the guarantee, the Hawks had done Lazarus proud and risen from the ashes.

Don’t roll the credits just yet though, the fairytale hasn’t quite finished.  Even the most ardent Hawks supporter wouldn’t have been getting too excited about their team’s prospects this season. A shoestring budget means they are paying about 75 per cent of the salary cap, and names such as Dave Gruber, Rhys Martin and Tim Coenraad are hardly going to have opposition coaches shaking in their boots. The Top End Challenge in Darwin suggested otherwise, with the Hawks upsetting New Zealand to claim the inaugural pre-season title, but this was surely a fluke, onlookers thought. The onlookers clearly didn’t read the script, however, for the Hawks have continued their merry ways with four wins from their first five games to sit at the league’s summit.  

Crowds have been impressive, too, with the current average of 3,528 marking a whopping 40 per cent increase on last season’s figures. The front-office has done an excellent job of maintaining the buzz through innovatory use of social networking tools and high definition highlight videos (embedded below), while the Illawarra Mercury has heavily promoted star import Tywain McKee and his battles with opposition guards CJ Bruton and Corey Williams.  Therefore, enough promotional work is being done to keep the locals entertained in the event that the team’s on-court performances begin to decline. However, that’s an event sentimentalists would rather not contemplate, for the fairytale may still have another chapter to offer. 

Let’s just hope the league tells the world all about it.

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Flagging interest bursts A-League’s bubble

The A-League has long been lauded as the ‘next big thing’ of Australian sport. The Giant, we were told, was finally awakening, set to conquer everything before it and consign Australian Rules and the rugby codes to the annals of irrelevancy.

The Giant obviously decided to hit the snooze button.

After flirting with the lofty heights of mainstream status and masquerading as an immediate threat to the dominant football codes, the A-League has reacquainted itself with the NBL and ANZ Championship as a Big Friendly Giant better suited to the cosy terrain of niche competitions.

It seems like only yesterday that the game’s followers, who have never been short of hubris since the 2006 World Cup, predicted that the round-ball game would envelop the land down under and have Andrew Demetriou and David Gallop shaking in their boots. Fast forward to this week and Melbourne Victory owner Geoff Lord is crying foul at the A-league’s scheduling, suggesting an October kick-off is required to avoid going head-to-head with the AFL.

“The games…in my view started too early and got caught up in the AFL finals,” Lord said.

“They’ve been down interstate as well per game and I don’t know whether the earlier start and longer season might have some impact.”

Lord then proposed a knock-out competition to be held during the festive season: “They could run a knockout cup and they might sell it to free-to-air television,” he said.

So, as well as admitting that it can no longer tackle the big boys, the A-League is also devising gimmicks in order to reinvigorate flagging interest in the product.

Crowd figures have fallen dramatically, with the Victory averaging just 17,567 fans to its first four games compared to last season’s average of 24,516. Gold Coast United, meanwhile, is averaging just 6,463 to its matches, a dismal number considering it’s the new glamour side of the competition and has the backing of Clive Palmer. Television ratings are also mediocre, with just three of this season’s games featuring in the weekly list of Top 50 Subscription Programs.

FFA chief Ben Buckley insists there is no cause for concern, stating “Our average attendance is down, but that was always to be expected based on the fact we had two teams from relatively smaller cities coming into the competition.”

Smaller cities? The Gold Coast is currently being targeted by almost every sporting code in the country, and the Titans have no such problems putting bums on seats at Skilled Park. Besides, it’s not just the new Queensland teams that are struggling. The Brisbane Roar attracted just 7,677 fans to its match against Sydney FC last weekend, well short of the 15,000 required to break-even at Suncorp Stadium.

While the 2010 World Cup is sure to add some much-needed buzz about the game, the league’s expansion plans are concerning. Next season will see the introduction of a second Melbourne franchise, which has offered no point of difference to the Victory and appears to be progressing at a snail’s pace. Then there will be a new West Sydney team, backed by a group which one rival bidder described as a “pack of Johnny-Come-Latelys…that didn’t exist a month ago.”

The A-League has been covered in bubble-wrap for most of its existence, escaping criticism from the media. Expect some bubbles to start bursting soon.

Empty seats provide the backdrop for the Gold Coast Vs Wellington game at Skilled Park.

Empty seats provide the backdrop for the Gold Coast Vs Wellington game at Skilled Park.

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