Passion the key in ridding Sydney of its sins

 

“Bringing the game into disrepute” is one of many buzz phrases bandied about by sporting administrators these days when reprimanding players or coaches.

 

In the National Basketball League’s case, however, it is not a player, coach or official who must be found guilty as charged of this offence.

 

Instead, it is the city of Sydney – Sin City by name and nature. The character and perception of the NBL has taken a battering over the past 12 months, and it has been Sydney where the most debilitating work has been done. First it was the controversial Tim Johnston, who fled the country after killing off the Sydney Kings and leaving players, coaches and staff out of pocket, not to mention the duped investors of his Firepower company. 

 

Now we have Greg Evans, owner of the Sydney Spirit, issued with a default notice after threatening to place his team into administration. The circumstances in which Evans handled the situation have again tarnished the competition’s integrity. According to Basketball Australia interim CEO Scott Derwin, Evans only informed the league of his decision by email, in which he said he would not communicate with them by telephone. It seems he couldn’t even muster the respect, or decency, to explain his decision to the playing group, nor coach Rob Beveridge who was only told by League CEO Chuck Harmison two days later.

 

The timing of this for Australian basketball couldn’t have been worse. After the recent unanimous vote for reform, it seemed the sport’s shattered reputation was finally being mended with the news of Fox Sports’ $35m offer to show every live from next season. Yet, just 3 weeks later, the media’s narrative of basketball is back to being a sport in ‘crisis.’ Sydney can do that to you. Most of the country’s networked media seems to be concentrated in the Harbour City. The Daily Telegraph, for example, is notorious for being the most sensationalist tabloid newspaper in Australia. Its coverage last week of the Spirit’s ordeal was damning, with a double page spread featuring the predictable “basket case” headline and a tombstone saying “RIP Sydney Basketball”. The Telegraph’s basketball writer, Tim Morrissey, has become infamous within basketball circles for his hyperbole and, when his copy is picked up by other News Limited papers around the country, Sydney’s woes are unfairly seen as being representative of the entire league.

 

This is not to say that the league should just make its life easier by abandoning the city when the composition of the New NBL is decided. The Herald Sun’s Grantley Bernard wrote last week:

 

“Sydney has forfeited the right to any team in the new competition. Multi-millionaires have thrown good money after bad at the NBL and the result is one near-death team in the city.”

 

But, despite the fact that it has brought so much shame to the sport, Sydney remains Australia’s most populous city; and it’s the home of Fox Sports. If the New NBL is to have any chance of hitting the scene next year with a new perception, a healthy Sydney team should be a priority. This is the case for any sport wishing to have a legitimate national competition. The NRL can get away with not having representation outside of the Eastern coast because regionalism has been its adjunct since its inception. The northern states have always been the strong hold of Rugby League, just as Victoria is the home of Australian Rules. Basketball’s popularity, however, is dispersed, meaning national must truly mean national.

 

Knowing this, the league will no doubt do its “due diligence” to ensure any future Sydney team (likely to be a reborn Sydney Kings) is viable. It will apply the new criteria, such as a $1m bank guarantee and  $500,000 in paid-up capital. But the most important criterion will be intangible: passion. This past week we’ve heard Dragons co-owner Mark Cowan describe himself during a Fox Sports broadcast as a “cat on a hot tin roof” when his team plays, and we’ve had Blaze owner Owen Tomlinson tell the Gold Coast Bulletin:

 

“My son Ben and I will continue to back this game until we are broke.

 

But I am very confident that will not happen. This game will survive and prosper.”

 

Contrast that to Johnston – who used the Kings as a vehicle for his dubious Firepower company – and Evans – who has effectively worked against the league’s attempts to help save his club – and we see that it’s passionless owners with overarching agendas who are unworthy of a spot in the new league, rather than the city of Sydney. 

Hip Hop Hoops

 

Julius Hodge’s return to the Adelaide 36ers last round may be just as influential to the future of Australian basketball as any recommendation in the recent Henderson report.

 

Hodge may not have turned around his team’s fortunes on the court – the Sixers lost back-to-back games against Sydney and South Dragons – but his signing appears to be a boon for the club off the court.

 

A crowd of 5358 turned out to the Distinctive Homes Dome for Saturday night’s clash with the South Dragons, a healthy figure considering the home team entered the game with a 5-8 record and Adelaide United were playing simultaneously at Hindmarsh Stadium. All this came off the back of a week where there was a genuine buzz in the city about a club that, on the back of just one signing, appeared to have regained its mojo.  Lights, camera, title – Julius sets the scene”, “Julius seizes interest surge”, and “Importing the WOW factor” were just some of the headlines during the week in the Adelaide Advertiser. A similar turnaround occurred last season when Hodge joined the team late in the competition, with Sixers crowds soaring from 3500 to 7000.

 

The significance for basketball as a whole is the consequent question of how much effort, if any, should be put into using imports to leverage greater interest in the game from next season. Considering Basketball Australia will now have some control of the national league, it is expected that most of the marketing budget will be spent on top local players. But surely the case of Hodge cannot be overlooked. The Advertiser’s veteran basketball reporter Boti Nagy went as far as writing last Monday:

 

“So there is my recommended import formula for each new franchise in 2009-10.

 

One workmanlike, quality import such as Adam Ballinger and one high-octane entertainer such as Julius Hodge.

 

Or TWO entertainers… “

 

 

Signing these bona fide entertainers could be made possible by the recent report’s recommendation that the new league should allow a marquee player outside of the salary cap (although, the league’s considering not having a salary cap at all). It’s a policy that has been used effectively in the A-League, with Dwight Yorke instrumental in generating hype prior to the inaugural season and Adelaide United going as far as releasing a special membership package for games featuring Romario.

 

This must not mean trying to turn the sport into a circus, however, for that will gradually kill the league’s credibility. For example, the South Dragons tried to lure Dennis Rodman to play an exhibition game on the eve of last season. While this would have gained some column inches and potentially filled Hisense Arena, if it was to infiltrate into the home-and-away season it would make the league look more like a traveling American road show than a serious sporting competition. But if clubs were to use the marquee player rule to import legitimate, flamboyant entertainers near the prime of their careers, it would go a long way in seeing crowds swell.

 

It is worth considering the following quotes from Richard Cashman’s book Paradise of Sport. Writing in 1995 – the apex of the NBL’s popularity – Cashman attempts to explain basketball’s success in Australia:

 

“The growth of American sports [in Australia] undoubtedly reflects the decline of the English connection and a greater interest in things American or things modern and global.”

 

“It is also possible that the game [basketball] has become popular because Australian teams feature a large number of African-Americans. Black entertainers, whether they be musicians or sportspeople, have long held a special place in Australian society and have enjoyed a greater measure of acceptance than in North America.”

 

This interest in Americana certainly hasn’t waned in Australia since this book was written. Hollywood blockbusters continue to gross millions, television schedules and Top 40 music charts still feature a strong American flavour, we still eat at fast-food franchises and the schoolgirl at the bus stop still pronounces literally as “litter-ra-lee.”

 

Yet, paradoxically, so many Australians seem to dismiss basketball as being “too American.”

 

It’s time to make the NBL, and its imports, “hip” again.

 

Straight off the wires: AAP shafts NBL

 

As reported in yesterday’s Sunday Age, Australian Associated Press has cancelled its coverage of the National Basketball League. Instead of supplying the country’s media outlets with reports from every game, it will instead offer only a wrap of each round as well as selected coverage of games that hold “news value.”

 

This is a massive slap in the face for basketball fans. It’s already hard enough trying to follow games this season. Fox Sports is only showing one game a week, the league itself scrapped its Internet radio coverage and its live scoring system is notoriously unreliable. This decision will mean that unless newspaper editors send their own reporters to venues– which is not always the case – games will go unreported.

 

It is also a disservice to all AAP subscribers – the very organisations that fund and, in the case of News Limited and Fairfax, own the company– as they will lose content. The ridiculous fact here is that AAP will continue to cover every game of mainstream sports. Yet, because these sports are mainstream, most newspapers will have their own journalists there, meaning AAP’s copy is useless to them. It is at lesser sports, such as basketball, where AAP is relied upon most.

 

The raison d’etre of wire services is to immediately distribute news as it happens. Considering each NBL round commences on a Wednesday night, AAP’s weekly Sunday wrap will not be news. It will be history. This is certainly one way for a news agency to shoot itself in the foot by rendering itself obsolete in today’s media environment.

 

It must be said, however, that the NBL front office cannot escape responsibility for this. As the Adelaide Advertiser’s Boti Nagy and players representative Mat Campbell have recently argued, the league has spent so much time discussing next year and done so little to promote this season that 2008/09 appears to the wider public as a mere lame duck. The recent decision not to hold the annual All-Star game only strengthens this belief. Therefore, when the time came for AAP to decide which sport to screw over in order to cut costs, it was somewhat inevitable that basketball would head their list.

 

On the eve of last season AAP made this very decision only to do a back flip after copping public criticism. It seems basketball fans must let their voices be heard once more.

 

HOW YOU CAN VOICE YOUR DISAPPROVAL

 

Email AAP at:

 

news.sport@aap.com.au  and/or customerservice@aap.com.au

  

Why the AFL could end up kissing Cousins

 

The conditions attached to Ben Cousins’ return by the AFL were considered so “onerous” that some media commentators could smell a conspiracy.  They believed that the league opened the door for Cousins’ return purely for the sake of avoiding litigation, and made the conditions so stringent that the fallen Eagle would opt out of nominating for the draft.

 

Considering the AFL is arguably the most image conscious sporting code in the country, it wouldn’t be of great surprise if Andrew Demetriou and Co never want to see Cousins’ face again.

 

But, if this is the case, the AFL has misread what a Cousins return could do for their all-important “brand.” If successful, Cousins’ return could be the best thing that’s ever happened to the AFL’s controversial drugs policy.

 

The reason for this is the modern day obsession with narratives, particularly when it comes to celebrities. We’re all familiar with the typical story of the star who goes from grace to disgrace, only to finally find “redemption” and “closure” so we can all feel warm and fuzzy again. It’s a product of a mass media and neo-liberalism’s obsession with the individual.

 

If Ben Cousins was to never play AFL football again, the final chapter of his narrative will remain his downfall. He will take the label “disgraced footballer Ben Cousins” with him to his grave. No matter how much the AFL may think we will simply move on and forget he ever existed, the fact is Cousins has entrenched himself in the games annals. Whenever we see the footage of West Coast’s 2006 premiership celebrations, there we will see the “disgraced” Ben Cousins swinging his arm around in jubilation as he holds up the Holy Grail next to Chris Judd. Whenever the game gathers for football’s “night of nights”, there they will see Ben Cousins’ “disgraced” name engraved as the 2005 Brownlow medallist.

 

If, however, Ben Cousins can return to football, play well, remain clean and retire without having brought the game into disrepute, not only will his individual narrative end with redemption, but he would also become the poster boy of the AFL’s stance on illicit drugs. The league could prove that they can both punish and rehabilitate. It’s difficult to image now due to his arrogant and elusive personality, but we could even see a reformed Cousins on the speaking circuit, talking to today’s youth about the perils of drug abuse and how he overcame his demons.

 

Now that’s a narrative that would have Andrew Demetriou feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Smoke, Mirrors and a Salary Cap

 

Smoke and Mirrors is a term that typically carries negative connotations. More bark than bite, it suggests. But as the National Basketball League gets set for its relaunch next season, this is exactly what the league will need for it to be successful.

 

As Herald Sun basketball writer Grantley Bernard opined last week:

 

 

But just what is going to be different about the relaunched competition other than its name?

 

Are the teams going to change? No.

 

Are the venues going to change? No.

 

Is the level of play going to change? No.

 

Maybe the only thing you can really change about the new NBL is the perception.

 

But in marketing terms, perception is reality. Netball is the latest case in point. When Queensland drew a full house at the Brisbane Convention Centre last ANZ Championship season, one sports commentator described it as a “blockbuster.” Yet, the Brisbane Bullets packed out the small stadium on a regular basis.

 

Those of us inside basketball circles may cringe at the mainstream opinions of our sport – whether it be from rival codes’ fans or what Boti Nagy dubbed the “mindless mainstream media” – but the fact is these are the people the game will be trying to win over.

 

To do so, it is at the marketing level where these mainstream onlookers will need to be convinced. As Bernard says, on face value there won’t be many major changes to the make-up of the new league. Carry-over teams will be the norm in the NewNBL, unlike the A-League where Perth Glory and Adelaide United were the exceptions as survivors from the NSL. The major changes, such as team ownership structures and corporate governance, will occur out of sight and out of mind. Therefore, clever marketing will be essential. To show everyone that the sport really is united, a league-wide marketing campaign initiated by Head Office, rather than the current spasmodic advertising we get from individual clubs, is a must. As is a new, bold name for the competition (unlike the proposed “Big League”) with whiz-bang logos, assertive slogans, and a newfound attitude. The media should be flooded with press releases inviting them to their city’s top tourist sites for photo opportunities with star players. Call in the cheerleaders to form the backdrop – ensuring a strong presence in News Limited pages. Send life-size cutouts of franchise players to every major local association in the country, so every young aspiring basketballer literally has someone to look up to.

                                          

Marketing and media savvy. For too often these terms have been incongruous for basketball. Yet, if finally adopted, they may well guide the sport back to the future as it seeks to win back its place on the sporting landscape and rediscover those long-lost halcyon days of the 1990s.

 

………………

Meanwhile, Basketball Australia CEO Scott Derwin dropped a quite bombshell in The Australian last week when he said:

 

“We are also looking at doing away with the salary cap. “

 

Isn’t one of the major aims of this reform to make clubs financially viable? If so, allowing owners to throw around money like drunken sailors is one way to contradict this. There is no doubt that the salary cap, as opposed to the points system, is already being rorted. Look at the Melbourne Tigers, for example. Chris Anstey, Sam Mackinnon and Ebi Ere – that’s the $900,000 salary cap gone right there, let alone David Barlow, Rod Grizzard and Stephen Hoare. But making it legal can only exacerbate the issue, as owners give in to the temptation of buying championships rather than running a viable business. Eddy Groves was a known, or suspected, big spender with the Brisbane Bullets. When ABC Learning Centres went bust and he tried to off-load the club, he was left with a money guzzler that no one other than a cautious David Kemp wanted to touch.

 

So where has the idea to officially ditch the salary cap come from? Certainly not the findings in the Commercial Reform of Basketball in Australia, which identified an unregulated salary cap as a danger of not securing additional Government funding:

 

Without additional funding the key strategies will be much more difficult to achieve and could lead to specific cuts including:

 

· U17 and World Uni Game programs being fully funded by athletes (or not conducted)

 

· Media coverage remaining at current levels

 

· Continuation of “administration” of national teams and development programs   rather than strategic leadership

 

· Increased fees to compete in Australian Club Championships and introduction of fees to compete in Junior Championships

 

· No audit of NBL salary cap

 

· No substantive review of Community Basketball programs

 

· Introduction of fee for the ongoing development and provision of The Basketball

Network

 

· National administration of coach and officials education programs but no development of those programs

 

 

Not only would “doing way with the salary cap” threaten financial stability of clubs, but it would also prevent the competitive balance that rationalisation is meant to achieve. Every week we hear administers, commentators, players and coaches rejoice in the equality of this season’s 10-team league, yet there is still a glaring gap in talent between big-spenders such as the Tigers and the salary cap obeying Sydney Spirit.

 

Without a salary cap, the new league will continue to have a dichotomy between haves and have nots, irrespective of how many teams take to the court in October 2009.

 

Independent Board Takes Control, But Who Really Holds Power?

 

The inmates run the asylum no longer. That’s the result of basketball’s landmark vote on Saturday afternoon, which saw the NBL’s 10 club owners agree to hand over their power to a new Independent Board.

 

The significance of this cannot be understated. The owners have little idea of what the NewNBL will look like, and therefore know they may potentially be committing suicide by relinquishing their authority. Yet, for one of the few moments in Australian basketball history, the game’s interests prevailed over self-interest.

 

However, as South Dragons co-owner Mark Cowan told the Herald Sun prior to the vote, we have a map without any lines on it. With just eleven months until the new league commences, we have no idea what it’s going to look like.

 

Much has been written about the Independent Board possibly taking the soft option and following the A-league model. Basketball Australia CEO Scott Derwin told 1116 SEN on Saturday afternoon that this is not the case and there will not be a 1 team per town policy. If both the South Dragons and Melbourne Tigers meet the criteria, he said, they will both be in the league, adding he would be “very surprised” if they weren’t and even going as far as saying we could have a 12-team competition.

 

It seems that this was the line sold to nervous club owners too, with Cairns Taipans executive director Juanita O’Brien telling the Cairns Post:

 

“…Should both the (Townsville) Crocs and Taipans meet the criteria for the ‘new NBL’ going forward, both will be accepted on that basis,”

 

“That was certainly one of the first questions we asked.”

 

It’s easy for the Board to feed this line at the moment, for they know there was little chance of the vote being accepted if owners didn’t have some sort of assurance that they will be in the league. But the question may not be what Basketball Australia think, but what Fox Sports think. Last week it was revealed that if the reform went through, the broadcaster would offer a $35m five-year deal to show every game live. Basketball Australia will meet with Fox shortly to try and put the finishing touches on it. The crucial issue here is that the Fox deal will probably be signed before the Board even asks for expressions of interest for licences in the league. Surely Fox Sports are not going to sign off on a deal to show every game live without knowing how many games there will be each week. Surely this offer is conditional on a certain number games, and therefore teams, with speculation suggesting they want a carbon copy of the A-league model.

 

This is where the Independent Board must show that they really do control the game now. This reform is arguably basketball’s last chance to formulate a viable national league in Australia. Put simply, they cannot get this wrong. Therefore, critical decisions cannot be made by some Fox Sport executive sitting in their Sydney office saying, “do what the A-league did and we’ll give you 35 million.” Rather, these decisions must be made by the people who understand basketball. These decisions must be made by people who understand that the “1 team, 1 town” policy is not a panacea for all sports; it was a specific antidote to soccer’s circumstances, not basketball’s. These decisions must be made people who have faith in the new governing body to create its own blueprint that will be both attractive to television executives and suit basketball’s needs. If they’re not, the lure of a $35m deal will mean nothing if we’re back in our all-too-familiar nadir in five years time.

                                                                                               

Television Coverage A Must In Today’s Digital Age

 

Television deals can make or break sports, and it will be no different for the NewNBL.

 

Last week Channel Ten announced they would be launching a 24-hour sports channel from March 2009.  This channel will be available on both high and standard definition, meaning it will have penetration into approximately fifty percent of Australia’s homes – significantly higher than Fox Sports.

 

Therefore, the independent board encompassing Basketball Australia and the NBL must be sounding them out now. Yes, the recommendations concerning the league’s revamp haven’t even been voted on yet – that will happen this Saturday – but if there is one lesson to be learnt from this year’s woeful television deal, it is to get in early. Interim CEO Chuck Harmison had to continually stall negotiations with Fox Sports during the pre-season due to the ongoing uncertainty of the competition’s composition. By the time a deal was finally reached, the inflexible Fox Sports already had much of its schedule locked-in, meaning the NBL had to wait until Round 6 for its weekly coverage to commence. Cynics may argue that this was simply an excuse from a broadcaster losing faith in hoops, but for the sake of the argument let’s take them and Chuck at their word.

 

A lesson can also be learnt from netball (it’s a sad state of affairs for the NBL when they look to netball for advice). The ANZ championship secured a deal with Fox Sports for live coverage of all games before the new-look competition had even staged a match. Not only was the league nothing more than a concept at the time, but it hadn’t proven itself to be commercially viable either. Yet, one season later, the league now has a deal with Ten’s new 24-hour sports channel. This goes to show that while a proven record certainly helps a sport’s chances of decent television coverage, what are equally important are skilled negotiating and, presumably, a sound business plan. There is no reason therefore why the NewNBL shouldn’t be testing the waters right now.

 

Even if a deal with Ten doesn’t arise, the league can still use the new channel to leverage greater value out of its next contract. If it can grow an attractive carrot to dangle in front of their eyes, a bidding process could now eventuate between Ten and Fox Sports, ensuring the sport will build on the revenue it’s currently extracting from the medium, which is reportedly minimal. 

 

Whatever the case, the time is nigh for Australian basketball to increase its visibility. In an age of proliferating media such as digital television, high definition television, Internet streaming and mobile phones, there should no longer be any reason for basketball fans to rely on live scores when following their teams.