CEO puts a face (and polo shirt) to Spirit’s incompetence


There has been plenty of finger-pointing in basketball recently over who is to blame for the NBL’s recent off-court troubles. South Dragons captain Mark Worthington pointed his index – or middle – finger at “crap owners” such as Tim Johnston, who he had to deal with at the Sydney Kings. It was a rightful point, too. In the space of just twelve months the league’s perception has been shattered by Johnston, who bought a team purely to push his dubious Firepower brand, and other owners such as Greg Evans who, like Johnston, disappeared into the sunset after placing his team into administration, showing no regard for the coaches, office staff and players who were left stranded without promised remuneration. There are also those such as Cairns owner John O’Brien who have treated the salary cap with contempt and sought to buy a championship at the expense of long-term sustainability. In a recent radio interview, the colourful Worthington likened these owners to the boy who receives a big red toy on Christmas morning and thinks he’s “King ding-a-ling.”


But last week we received a reminder that there are other pieces to the puzzle that should not be forgotten. The reminder we speak of was an open letter published on the Sydney Spirit’s official website from their Chief Executive Steve Aquilina. Anyone unconvinced that this club was killed by incompetence only needs to take one look at Aquilina’s, er, prose.


The first thing we see when we open the page is a photo of the Sydney Spirit CEO wearing a West Sydney Razorbacks polo shirt. Then, in his first paragraph, he writes:


You do not have much if you don’t have die hard fans and loyal members and we at the Sydney Spirit/West Sydney Razorbacks have been lucky enough to have the best of both!!!


Talk about hedging his bets. Did the Razorbacks not change their name at the start of this season? Sydney basketball fans can be excused for being utterly confused right now, such is the mixed messages they have been receiving. The Razorbacks did change their name during the off-season, supposedly to capture the broken hearts of Kings fans and represent the entire city. Most of the mainstream media fell for this stunt and refereed to them as a ‘new club.’ As recently as late November, after the team enjoyed an emotion-charged win over the South Dragons, coach Rob Beveridge and captain Jason Smith used the post-game press conference to urge Sydney basketball fans to ditch their previous allegiances and unite with the Spirit. Yet, we now have their own CEO, pictured wearing a Razorbacks shirt, voluntarily refer to his club as the West Sydney Razorbacks. It wasn’t just a “(formerly West Sydney Razorbacks)”; it was a Sydney Spirit slash West Sydney Razorbacks. It’s too late now to admit error on the name change. Aquilina can’t expect fans to commit to the Sydney Spirit brand if he can’t do it himself.


He then writes:


“But this can only happen with your support of the team and by your support, participation and interest in the new direction for Basketball in 2009 with our reformation of our game, Board and administration a very exciting time for our game, something that I was looking forward to being part of.”


What the hell is he saying” Haven’t Spirit fans been through enough without having to read a letter from their CEO ten times and still have no idea what he is trying to say? Did a liquidator raid the club’s office and remove the “proof-read” faculty from Aqualina’s brain?


When things go wrong it’s easy to look to the top of the totem pole and blame a team’s owner – in the Spirit’s case Greg Evans. But when a team employs a CEO who, among other faults, can barely string a coherent letter together, we begin to realise that it’s not just owners who we need to be wary of in the ‘new NBL.’


The Dilemma of “Derwinism”


Darwinism. It’s the term attached to the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, which believe in the ‘survival of the fittest.’ The revisionists at Basketball Australia can now lay claim to their own adaptation. Known as “Derwinism”, after interim CEO Scott Derwin, it’s the blueprint for the future of Australian basketball and is based upon the premise of the survival of the richest.


When Derwin and the rest of the interim administration review bids for the new national competition set to begin next October, stringent criteria will be applied to ensure that only the strong, or rich, clubs will part of the game’s renaissance. By applying financial requirements such as a $1million bank guarantee and $500,000 in working capital, Derwinism will ensure that the weaker clubs, such as Wollongong and the now rudderless Sydney Spirit, will cease to exist, unable to hold their own alongside the big boys of the game’s new terrain. Those that can afford to meet the criteria, and, at least in theory, are therefore of sound financial backing, will evolve into viable and profitable clubs that can end the boom-bust cycle that has dogged the NBL since its inception.


However, there appears to be a major flaw in Derwinism – by the time the weak clubs are put out of their misery there won’t enough strong clubs to form a new league. Derwin all but admitted this last week in the Gold Coast Bulletin when asked if he was confident of receiving 8 bids that satisfy the new criteria:


“Good question, I couldn’t give you a firm answer”


“We are hopeful that we will, I wouldn’t say that I have 100 per cent confidence in it.”


Consequently, the interim administration will now sort the bids into two categories: complying tenders and non-complying tenders, with the latter being considered on their merits.


Should there be a deficit in the number of conforming tenders, which in today’s economic climate is certainly possible, some of the weaker clubs will sneak passed the knackery and continue to exist, purely for the sake of ensuring the strong have enough teams to play against.


In isolation this is a positive move – it means the new league may not consist of too few teams – but it contradicts the board’s primary objective of finding stability. As already discussed on this blog, on the surface there will be little difference between the current NBL and the new competition. Other than a new name and perhaps a return of the Sydney Kings and a Brisbane team, the remainder of the league will be the same. It is behind the scenes where the most important changes will be made, with the new licensing agreements meaning we should never see another mid-season collapse again. The financial guarantees mean any club who borders on insolvency will have reserves to dip into to at least see out the remainder of the season. There will also be a minimum of three owners per club with no more than a 40% stake each, meaning if one falls on hard times – such as Eddie Groves at the Bullets – there will still be two others who can pick up the slack.


Following the recent collapse of the Sydney Spirit and Cairns Taipans, Scott Derwin’s press releases had a familiar look to them.


During the Spirit debacle he said:


 This issue, along with the other recent issues surrounding other former NBL clubs, clearly illustrates the reason why the standards for the ‘New NBL’ will include far more stringent criteria in terms of ownership guidelines and financial guarantees when it is launched in season 2009/10.”


Likewise, after the Taipans suffered the same fate he said:


The need for greater accountability and commercial viability will see the introduction of a more stringent criteria for the ‘New NBL’, in terms of ownership guidelines and financial guarantees, when it is launched next season.”

Yet, if there are “non-conforming” clubs in the new league, the stringent criteria is irrelevant. There will still be weak clubs on their knees, and should just one of them fall over, the new league will be seen as a failure. That’s the dilemma the New NBL faces: Commit to Derwinism and they may be left with a 6-team league; allow the weak to continue and they may end up engraving yet another tombstone.


Plagiarise at your peril


The New NBL will soon take shape with applications for licences set to open this week. While the interim administration told current owners prior to last month’s vote that any club who could meet the new criteria would be included, the Illawarra Mercury’s basketball writer Tim Keeble reported this week that “it is looking more and more likely next year’s league will feature no more than eight sides…”


If this is an enforced maximum, one can only assume that the league, perhaps through the pressure of Fox Sports, is ‘doing a Julie Bishop’ and plagiarising the A-league’s blueprint.


Yet, if the interim board were to take a step back and analyse the A-league, they will see that the league’s realities are currently falling short of its perception. This is not to say that soccer is in a “sad, sad state” as Rebecca Wilson’s deservingly criticised article in the Daily Telegraph was titled. It’s ethnic cleansing has tidied the game’s image, it has extracted $140m out of Fox Sports, garnered solid media coverage and the Socceroos now rival the Wallabies and Australian cricketers as the country’s most prominent national sports team. However, the A-league is in a slump. As reported in The Australian, Round 14 was the second consecutive weekend where none of the four games reached the 10,000 mark, while this season’s aggregate is already down nearly 150,000 on 2007.


While the league had previously been a strong performer on Fox Sports, there are also danger signs in this season’s television ratings. Take the following analyses of ASTRA’s official ratings figures as an example. Remember the farce that was the Rugby League World Cup, the tournament no one gave a rat’s toss bag about? Well, a live game between Fiji and Ireland had 36,000 extra viewers than the live telecast of that week’s Perth Glory Vs Newcastle Jets clash, or 146,000 more when including replays. 


Also, for the week commencing November 16 2008, the A-League’s highest rating game was Melbourne Victory Vs Central Coast Mariners on a Friday night. Yet, it failed to top a “World Series Cricket Classics” filler screening two nights later. For those thinking there must have been more people watching TV on the Sunday night: wrong. There were almost 100,000 more Pay-TV viewers on the Friday night. Speaking of cricket, a Ford Ranger Cup game during that week – the national competition that couldn’t draw a crowd with a HB pencil – had a cumulative reach of 819,000. This was more than triple the Victory Vs Mariners’ 256,000.


The significance here for basketball is the main reason for the A-League’s lean patch. Earlier this week, respected soccer scribe Michael Lynch was interviewed on SEN and attributed the code’s halt in momentum to its tired 8-team format. Similarly, Kevin Muscat’s ghostwriter wrote a fluff piece last Sunday in The Age – the Melbourne Victory’s official newsletter – saying:


“The A-League’s two extra teams –Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury – have…come at a perfect time. After four seasons with eight teams, people are used to playing against the same opposition over and over again with such a short turnaround between meetings.”


This is the true lesson to be learnt from the A-League: eight teams is not a league. It’s a tournament. The unpredictability caused by concentration of talent is nullified by the repetition and predictability of scheduling. Take a look elsewhere to see what constitutes a league: the NBA has 30 teams, the EPL has 20, locally the AFL will soon have 18, and the A-league itself will have 12 by 2012.


Will the New NBL learn from the A-league’s greatest flaw, or will it plagiarise it for the sake of appeasing a faceless television executive in Sydney with more dollars than basketball sense?


Time will tell, but the shot clock is ticking.