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.