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.

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New slogan lacks balls

Basketball Australia’s attempt to smash the world record for people dribbling basketballs fell short at Federation Square, but that wasn’t the only thing lacking enough balls.

The event was also used to unveil the governing body’s new branding as it looks to enter a new phase in Australian Basketball.

With perception of the game at an all-time low and the national men’s competition possibly facing its last chance to get things right, BA’s new slogan had to make an instant statement. It had to be bold, in-your-face with attitude. It had to contain the message: ‘We’ve had enough of being the butt of people’s jokes, we’re not going to take it any more. We’re coming back. The giant is about to awoken.’

Instead, the best BA could come up with was “Basketball: everyone’s game.”

It’s weak.

It simply acknowledges one of the game’s main criticisms – as Roy and HG joked, it’s everyone’s game…as long as you’re tall. The slogan instead had to sell the game’s strengths.

All of the NBL’s previous marketing slogans (not that they ever spent enough money to ensure they were effective) focused on the experience of watching basketball. “Nothin’ any better” and “Live and Amazing” were two of the most recent examples. However, “everyone’s game” instead seems to focus on playing the game at the grassroots level. This is not the sport’s problem; new CEO Larry Sengstock hasn’t missed an opportunity to remind media that there are 600,000 Australians playing basketball.

One can only hope that BA makes more of an impression when it finally unveils the ‘newNBL’ in the next fortnight. The composition of the league is unlikely to differ much from the 2008/09 version, so creativity will be required to convince onlookers that it is actually a new league.

One proposed change – shortening quarters to 10 minutes – may suit the game’s broadcasters, but cannot be justified as a positive change for fans who will be paying the same ticket prices for less action.

That’s an impossible sell for the most competent marketers, let alone those who come up with slogans like “everyone’s game”.

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Excuse me Sir, could I have some independence with my McPeake?

 

When each of the National Basketball League’s club owners unanimously voted in favour of an independent board on November 8 2008, the light at the end of the troubled sport’s tunnel finally began to shine.  The shackles of selfish owners acting in their own interests, rather than the game’s, were about to be broken. Or so we thought.

One of the members of the independent board, now named the “Board of Basketball”, is Melbourne Tigers owner Seamus McPeake, who has been entrusted with the role of representing the league’s clubs. The decision to trust McPeake to act in this manner may soon be regretted if his recent interview on Melbourne radio station SEN is anything indication. Asked if the Melbourne Tigers had any influence on the future of Australian basketball, McPeake premised his answer by saying that his power was equal to any of the league’s other owners. He then went on to explain, however, that the Tigers have lodged a non-compliant bid to be part of the NewNBL. This is not because the club couldn’t meet the financial criteria. Rather McPeake, knowing the South Dragons hope to play a handful of home games at The Cage from next season, has told the NBL that his team’s participation in the league is conditional upon them having exclusive rights to their venue. 

There is no logical justification for McPeake, as a member of the independent board, to have taken this action. No one knows better than him the financial fruit of playing at The Cage, for his club is one of the few who actually makes a profit. By permitting the Dragons to use The Cage, and therefore escape the exorbitant costs of Hisense Arena, the NewNBL would be providing the club the opportunity to be more financially viable, which, subsequently, makes for a more stable league. That is a prospect which should be music to an independent board member’s ears.  McPeake, however, has instead decided to act with the same self-interest that has already dragged the league into a nadir by seeking to protect his own backyard.

Venue rationalization began in Australian Football decades ago, and is now being seen in Rugby League. Why? Because it obviously makes economic sense. It may have eliminated a sense of tribalism, for the only thing distinguishing the home team from their visitors is the colour of their shorts, but in the age of commercialization this has been rendered ancillary to a club’s ability to survive.

If the Board of Basketball is serious about independence and the game’s best interests, it must ignore McPeake’s shameless attempt at blackmail. Basketball needs sensible management more than it needs the Melbourne Tigers.

Will BA keep their enemies even closer?

 

New Zealand franchises have never been a cosy fit in Australian sports leagues.

 

With the exception of the New Zealand Warriors making a Grand Final in the NRL, teams from across the Tasman have been notorious under performers both on and off the court. It’s already taken the A-League two attempts to even come close to matching its early success on home soil, while the NBL’s New Zealand Breakers took five years to make the playoffs and have struggled to fill the antiquated North Shore Events Centre.

 

How quickly things can change. The Breakers now sit alongside the South Dragons and Melbourne Tigers as legitimate championship contenders, following the off-season acquisition of Boomers point guard CJ Bruton and a season earlier the homecoming of MVP candidate Kirk Penney. This belated success has brought consistent crowds, an increase in television ratings on free-to-air network Maori TV, a new major sponsor in Bartercard, and the club’s ownership structure – headed by local supermarket entrepreneur Paul Blackwell – is considered one of the strongest in the league.

 

However, the Breakers may have been too successful for Basketball Australia’s liking. Clearly inspired by those up north, a consortium from Wellington has signalled its intention to bid for a license in the NewNBL, meaning Australia’s new men’s competition could create history and feature two teams from New Zealand. This would be at odds with the rasion d’etre of Basketball Australia, who will be governing and operating the national competition for the first time. Until now, BA’s primary focus has been ensuring the success of the country’s national teams. According to its 2008-2012 Business Plan, one of its key priorities is:

 

· To remain in the Top 3 of nations on FIBA rankings with all national teams to be ranked in the Top 8 and the Boomers/Opals to be medallists

 

The biggest threat to this objective is New Zealand, who is traditionally the Boomers’ final hurdle in their Olympic qualification campaigns. Allowing yet another New Zealand team into Australia’s league can only strengthen the Tall Blacks, as there will be further opportunities for their national players to compete at a higher standard and familiarise themselves with their Australian counterparts.

 

New Zealand’s own national competition, also called the NBL, is currently incapable of providing this pathway. Its standard is markedly inferior to the Australian NBL, and it has been dogged by off-court turmoil. In recent times the Otago Nuggets collapsed, the Canterbury Rams were replaced by the Christchurch Cougars, the Bay Hawks looked extinction in the eye and the Auckland Stars were embarrassingly expelled from last season’s finals series for failing to pay their license fee. 

 

Hence the conflict of interest facing Basketball Australia. If they grant licenses to both the Breakers and Wellington they will be giving New Zealand basketball a much-needed boost, with both players and fans given greater access to what will supposedly be an elite, well-run competition. Should there then come a time where the Tall Blacks beat the Boomers in an Olympic games qualifying series, Basketball Australia may be accused of shooting themselves in the foot.

 

However, if the Wellington bid is a strong one and there aren’t enough complying bids from Australia to form a league, BA won’t have the luxury of knocking back teams. After all, nothing could be worse for Australian basketball than not having a national competition at all.

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.