Owners asked to pay money for nothin’ (except pleasure)

 

It seems the folk at Basketball Australia, in particular the Board of Basketball as they call themselves these days, don’t subscribe to the theory of belt-tightening during tough economic times.

 

Despite the fact that only two clubs are making money in the current NBL, the expression of interest memorandum released last week shows that costs are only going to increase in the ‘New NBL’ next season. Firstly, new clubs will be forced to pay one million dollars just for a licence – more than double the current price tag – on top of the $1.5m guarantee required to satisfy the board’s criteria. The salary cap will rise from $840,000 to $1.2m, and according to Wollongong chairman Richard Clifford, administration costs will soar by $125,000. All of this in a time where most other corporations – those that are in the business of making money – are slashing costs.

 

So, there must be a big pot of gold at the end of Basketball Australia’s rainbow to make these exorbitant expenses seem lucrative, right? Wrong. The Board of Basketball is asking current and prospective owners to buy into a business that doesn’t even have a name yet. While it was recently reported that the competition would still be called the National Basketball League, the expression of interest memorandum repeatedly refers to it as the ‘New NBL.’ Basketball Australia media manager Bill Baxter told ABC Radio last Saturday that a name change was still being considered. Somewhat disturbingly, he then mentioned “Great Southern League” and “Southern Cross League” as two possibilities, which only confirms everyone’s suspicion that a new marketing manager is yet to be appointed.

 

Then there is the fact that the new league hasn’t secured a television deal. While interim CEO Scott Derwin claimed that negotiations were “well advanced”, if Basketball Australia’s pace, or lack thereof, in finalising its licensing criteria is any indication, it wouldn’t be surprising if there still hasn’t been an announcement by the time expressions of interest close on February 27. Ipso facto, anyone applying to be part of the competition will be doing so with blind faith.

 

What will be certain, however, is that clubs won’t see a cent of the prospective broadcast deal, contrary to other sporting competitions such as the AFL and the A-League. The memorandum bluntly informs prospective owners that:

 

“Clubs should not anticipate or include any income distribution from BA in the framing of their budgets.”

 

The NBL has hitherto been reliant on private owners who buy clubs out of their own benevolence and pursuit of pleasure, rather than profit. Until the New NBL and its money-guzzling model can prove itself viable, nothing will have changed.

The Great Unwatched: Top-of-the-table epic thrills those who saw it

 

The product is there. That’s the wash-up for the NBL after Saturday night’s amazing game between South Dragons and New Zealand Breakers at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre.

 

Top-of-the-table clashes are often hyped as blockbusters, only for them to peter out to tame fizzers. After a reasonably lacklustre three quarters where the Dragons were struggling to keep up with the sharp-shooting visitors, this game appeared to be on the same track. However, the ensuing final term and five minutes of overtime turned it into a classic. When New Zealand continued to match the big shots being made at the other end of the court, the dagger to the heart of Dragons supporters was almost palpable. It was fortunate for them, therefore, that when the scores were tied and the game clock was almost inside the shot clock, the ball was in the hands of guard Rhys Carter, meaning the Dragons would have the opportunity to make one more play without giving the Breakers the right of reply. Carter, who began his NBL career on the hardwood of MSAC as a Victoria Giant, launched a customary three-point shot and ensured the small venue would erupt into euphoria as the home team finally prevailed 115-112. For a fan base often accused of being too quiet in the larger confines of Hisense Arena, the decibel levels and unadulterated elation was telling, second only to the players who embraced on the floor as if they’d won a Grand Final. This was sport at its best, eliciting the emotion that no scriptwriter could ever dream of.

 

In any other sports league the game would have captured the imagination of the wider sports public, dominated newspaper inches and entered the annals of sporting thrillers. Alas, it was witnessed by a total of 1,994 people. The 10,500-seat Hisense Arena was unavailable due to the Australian Open tennis and the 3,500-seat State Netball Centre was off limits due to the selfishness of Tigers owner Seamus McPeake. Television broadcaster Fox Sports was once again missing in action, refusing to recognise any game not played on a Wednesday night. Radio station SEN was probably talking about cricket, cricket and…well maybe some Ben Cousins too. Seven News and National Nine News didn’t even mention the game, while the Sunday Herald Sun, despite having basketball writer Grantley Bernard sitting courtside, gave it as much space as the Dakar Rally.

 

Those at the game are sure to return, but considering the location and size of the stadium, the majority of them were probably regulars anyway. The basketball gods were preaching to the converted. Those ignoramuses who turn their back on the league believing the on-court standard is commensurate with the off-court situation will never even know the game was held. As the 1,994 people who did see the game can vouch, it’s their loss. Let them experience the tedium of counting down the number of days until the football returns as if nothing else exists. 

 

While this was an opportunity missed for the NBL to boost its ailing perception and attract new supporters, it can take solace in the knowledge that it still has a great product. Basketball is family friendly, convenient for television networks with its 2-hour timeframe and small playing area, and as Saturday night at MSAC showed, can whip a crowd into frenzy like the best of them. All it needs is responsible management and the opportunity to show itself to the masses.

 

 

Name of the game is forward thinking

 

Spend too much time looking in the rear vision mirror and you’ll smash into the vehicle ahead. However the proverb goes, it’s advice the interim board controlling Australian basketball should heed.

 

Last week the Adelaide Advertiser revealed the name of the national men’s competition set to be launched next season will remain the National Basketball League. It’s a perplexing decision, considering board members have not missed an opportunity to spruik the sport’s belated reform and the introduction of a new, prosperous league that can finally capitalise on the game’s grassroots popularity. With the composition of the league set to resemble what we have now, the most obvious step the board had to take in order to convince the mainstream sports community that legitime reform had occurred was a name change. To borrow a phrase from Brian Goorjian, when it comes to the branding of a sports league, the “head of the dog” is its name. No matter how much grooming has been done to the body or how much the tail is wagging, if the head’s ugly the dog will remain unloved. And at the moment the acronym N.B.L is viewed as being ugly. Perception of the once vibrant league is at an all time low, with connotations such as empty venues, clubs folding like origami and severe fiscal mismanagement serving as an adjunct to its image. It is the butt of everyone’s jokes. Problem is, the board is spending too much time looking back at the glory days to realise it.

 

This is most epitomised by board member Andrew Gaze, a relic of the past who will not let go of the game’s boom period of the 1990s. Although this is an admirable trait, the harsh reality is that the halcyon period is long gone. This is difficult for any basketball lover to accept. This blogger has recently spent many minutes viewing some of the classic footage available on You Tube, when Channel Ten was basketball’s home, Stephen Quartermain its voice and raucous sell-out crowds its audience. But just as Paul Keating is no longer Australia’s Prime Minister, Wayne Carey’s world is no longer his oyster and the yoyo is no longer the centre of our youth’s attention, the NBL is no longer the biggest threat to the hegemony of the AFL and NRL. Look at the footage of the 1992 Grand Final, where NBA commissioner David Stern presented the Mitsubishi Challenge trophy to South East Melbourne Magic in front of 15,000 passion-fuelled fans at Melbourne Park. It’s near impossible to imagine Stern being present at an NBL game in 2009, probably because the league would be too embarrassed to invite him. Last season’s Grand Final star attraction was Paul Roos. Enough said.

 

Instead of trying to reach out beyond its limitations and resuscitate a corpse, the NBL and its clubs must acknowledge its current position as a niche league and spend and plan accordingly. It must then take small steps towards a position of strength, rather than trying to jump an endless gorge. It must look to create a new dawn in Australian basketball, rather than trying to recreate the dawn of the now dead. To do this, the sport needs a visionary, rather than a revisionist. A simple name change could have been the first step of this important process.

Titanic task looms for seasick league

 

 

Basketball in Australia appears to be a rudderless ship sailing though the most challenging waters it has seen. With an iceberg looming big enough to have Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet digesting bricks, the next few months will determine whether the ship hits or misses.

 

With 2009 now here, just ten months remain until the New NBL is meant to tip-off. Make that eight months if you include pre-season games. Yet, all we have on the radar is fog, rather than a clear vision. The fact that we still refer to the league as the “New NBL” is indicative of the slow going, with the interim board still procrastinating over whether there should be a name change, let alone what a new name may be.

 

There is also the small issue of who will be competing in the new league. When the Commercial Reform of Basketball in Australia: Statement of future directions was released last September, it concluded with the following timeline:

 

5. NEXT STEPS

 

September 12                  Interim Board Report circulated

September 17-30             Consultation with stakeholders

October 11                       Meetings of BA/NBL stakeholders to adopt recommendations for reform

November                        Business Plan and KPI’s agreed to

November                        Remaining Board positions filled

November/December     Expressions of Interest for teams in the New NBL

November                        Key management appointments process commences

 

 

It’s January 2009 and the important step of accepting expressions of interest from current and prospective team owners is yet to be taken. In fact, the most recent closing date given for applicants was January 16, which appears a pipedream considering the interim board hasn’t even finalised what the criteria for licenses will be. Say the board postpones that date until early February and then takes two weeks to mull over the applications, the composition of the league may not be known until just six months before pre-season games begin, making it extremely difficult for any new clubs hoping to enter the competition, such as a re-born Sydney Kings franchise, to get their houses in order.

 

Nor has the final step of key management appointments occurred. Rather, after the recent resignation of interim CEO Scott Derwin, the leadership waters have only become murkier. Perth forward-cum-managing director Andrew Vlahov had been linked to a role, but instead of hastening his appointment in the wake of Derwin’s departure, Basketball Australia has instead handed the responsibility of getting things moving to Perth CEO Nick Marvin and Townsville CEO Ian Smythe. So after proclaiming independence in November following the empowerment of a new board, Basketball Australia has taken a step backwards and essentially put the future of the game in the hands of a couple of clubs, meaning we are back to where we were prior to the landmark vote.

 

Also in the Statement of future directions was the recommendation to:

 

Reach agreement in the next 3 months with a media partner for broadcast rights

across the sport from mid 2009 onwards.

 

While a $35m deal from Fox Sports has been on the table and Ten’s One has also shown interest, no deal has been reached because of the board’s inability to decide what its product will be. If it waits too much longer the networks will lose patience and start filling their schedules, leaving sparse room for basketball – as was the case last off-season.

 

Not surprising, players are on tenterhooks, wondering out aloud whether they’ll have a league to play in next summer. Townsville’s John Rillie had made it the question of his blog’s online poll. Elsewhere in Far North Queensland, Taipans centre Ian Crosswhite voiced his concern to New Limited:

 

“I think in the back of everyone’s mind, they’re wondering what’s going to happen,” Crosswhite said.

 

Players Association president and Wollongong captain Mat Campbell was just as worried:

 

“At the moment everybody’s a little on edge as far as job security,” Campbell said.

 

“Deep down, with the financial situation of the world, it (the NBL next year) does look a bit shaky I guess, if you’re being realistic.”

 

The ship is shaking, glasses sliding off tables. The violinists continue to entertain, pretending all is well on board. But unless someone takes control, the iceberg is fast approaching.

 …………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Speaking of sea vessels, the New NBL should take some guidance from the Sydney-Hobart snore fest, er, yacht race when it considers the timing of future seasons. The predominant reason the NBL shifted from winter to summer in 1998 was less competition, as Australian Rules and the Rugby codes dominate from February-September. The Sydney-Hobart epitomises the ability for a niche sport to receive significant exposure when there is little else happening. Because after all, sailing is a niche sport. Surely there are only so many people who can be mesmerised by a fleet of floating billboards. Yet, the race receives mainstream media coverage, particularly on television. There were extensive, lengthy news packages on the race in the past week, not just during sport reports but even the leading segments. The only explanation for this was that it provided good filler at a time when little else – except the Boxing Day Test – was happening. Sure, there were a few NBL games, but we couldn’t dare give those a mention, could we?

 

Basketball Australia has publicly stated that after the 2009/10 summer season, the timing of future seasons is open for review. But summer should not be the scapegoat for the game’s downfall. If the league is well run and promoted, it can be successful at any time of the year. And if that time happens to be summer, there remains a great opportunity to carve out a larger slice of the sports media pie.