Blinded by vision – no point spending like it’s 1999

Vision is a quality we usually seek in our sporting administrators, yet the demise of the South Dragons shows the danger of having stars in one’s eyes.

Dragons co-owners Mark Cowan and Raphael Geminder had high aspirations when they bought an NBL licence in 2005, launching the club with a whizz-bang presentation at the late-Richard Pratt’s Raheen mansion.

While 5000 was said to be the crowd required to break even, Cowan clearly had bigger ideas. “Every time I walk into Vodafone (Arena) I’ll look up to the back and see if there’s any empty seats. Until they’re all full I won’t be happy. And then when they are full we want to move to Rod Laver (Arena). That’s the next step,” he said in October 2005.

Four years later, instead of moving into Rod Laver Arena, Cowan is now returning to his graphic design business in Prahran with his basketball dream all but over. And, over the past three years, every time he looked to the back of Hisense Arena, instead of seeing filled seats all he saw was black curtains.

Yet, despite the downfall of the league since the time of those comments and the millions of dollars he and Geminder have lost, Cowan’s visionary tune hasn’t changed a beat.

“Our aspiration would be to play a lot of our games back at Rod Laver Arena in front of 15,000 people, that’s what we aspire to,” Cowan said last week during his emotional announcement that the club was shutting up shop.

This, it appears, is the difference between the Dragons’ idea of reform and the plans of Basketball Australia. BA has recognised that basketball at the professional level is in dire straits and therefore needs to take one step backwards before taking two steps forward. The biggest step backwards is the salary cap, which will apparently be enforced this season to put a full stop on an era of reckless spending.

Cowan, however, is such a visionary that he cannot fathom the prospect of taking one step backwards.

While the Dragons could certainly be a viable entity paying below the million dollar salary cap and playing in smaller venues such as Knox or Dandenong , Cowan and Geminder want to own a quasi-NBA team. They want to continue with the 10,000-seat stadiums, the pyrotechnics, the full scale marketing, the expensive imports such as Donta Smith and even the prospect of a marquee player outside the salary cap.

This would have been a raging success in the 1990s, but the landscape has changed. The spending required under those plans is disproportionate with the size of the market NBL clubs are now pitching to.

During Cowan’s press conference last week, he pointed to netball as one of the sports which has achieved significant reform.

“Netball didn’t take any time off, but netball went through a reform of its own volition, and now it has a far better television presence than basketball does — it’s attracting big crowds, and it’s doing really well” Cowan said.

What Cowan conveniently overlooked is that the ANZ Championship only appears to be “attracting big crowds” because it plays in mainly 4000-seat venues. The sport is aware of its limitations and when the Melbourne Vixens do play the occasional game at Hisense Arena, they attract no more fans than the Dragons did at the same venue.

This is the lead basketball should follow – crawling before you can sprint again, as Boti Nagy described it in the Adelaide Advertiser.

When Cowan almost broke down at last week’s press conference, the pain he was feeling was palpable. But what’s really sad is that Cowan’s pain is self-inflicted. No one forced the Dragons to fold.

“The Dragons weren’t a two-year project, the Dragons were supposed to be the next 20 years of my life,” Cowan said.

They still can be, Mark. Just realise that you’re involved in a struggling Australian league and, for the moment, the 15,000 sell-outs you dream of are, as they say, only in America.