Fox fairer to fans but neglects Hodge homecoming

While the relationship between sport and television is typically a reciprocal one, it is the broadcast networks that usually wear the pants.

Sporting bodies around the world are pressured into scheduling games at the behest of their broadcast partner’s demands, with the lure of rights fees and advertising exposure usurping the convenience of those who still like to sit in the stands.

In the National Basketball League’s case, the Wednesday night timeslot on Fox Sports has been a necessary evil. Necessary because it allows the league to escape the competition of other summer sports such as soccer, evil because a mid-week clash is hardly family-friendly during the chunk of the season before and after school holidays.

It’s also particularly evil for those in Queensland, who have been expected to be in their seats by 6.30pm so Fox can maintain its regular 7.30pm timeslot in New South Wales and Victoria. The effect that this can have on attendances was evident in the Round Eight meeting between Cairns and Townsville. While no official crowd figure was given, the number of empty seats was embarrassing for a FNQ Derby which could have sold out the convention centre had it been played on a weekend.

It is appears, however, that common sense has prevailed. Just weeks after the Gold Coast Blaze happily announced that Fox had agreed to push back their remaining Wednesday night games to 7.30pm local time, the Townsville Crocs have struck a similar deal. This is a win-win situation. Fans now have ample opportunity to be in their seats by tip-off, while a larger crowd makes for an enhanced atmosphere and television product for the broadcaster.

This decision bucks the aforementioned trend of networks wielding their power to the detriment of fans, and symbolises a gradual turning point in Fox’s treatment of the NBL. The number of games being shown this year is a significant improvement on last season’s coverage, which didn’t commence until Round Six and included just one live game each week.

There has also been the introduction of regular “every second counts” promos filmed during the pre-season tournament in Darwin, and the decision to replace Steve Carfino with football commentators Brian Taylor and Dwayne Russell has assisted the league in its efforts to “Australianise” the product. Taylor’s wittiness has proven incredibly popular in the AFL and will attract the curiosity of mainstream viewers, although his lack of research and occasional inaccuracies must make some purists cringe.

Fox’s relationship with the NBL still has plenty of room for improvement, however, as all basketball fans will realise on Saturday 5 December. That’s when Melbourne Tigers recruit Julius Hodge makes his much-anticipated return to the Distinctive Homes Dome after walking out on Adelaide last season due to a pay dispute. Sixers fans are known for their passion and hostility at the best of times, meaning Hodge’s reception will make for a compelling spectacle in front of what will surely be a near-capacity crowd.

Compelling for those that can see it, at least.

As it stands now, the clash will only be shown on Rivus TV, a pay-per-view streaming service marred by technical difficulties.

The NBL should have done everything in its power to ensure this game would be accessible to the masses. If Fox refused to increase its broadcast schedule on economic grounds, the league could have asked to swap a future Saturday night broadcast for next week’s showdown. For example, the January 16 clash between Perth and Cairns is hardly going to have fans salivating in their living rooms and could have been sacrificed for the good of the game.

Instead, the only thing being sacrificed is another opportunity to showcase the best the NBL has to offer to a national audience.

Despite Fox’s improvements, it remains an all-too familiar story of neglect for Australian hoops fans.

Fox Sports' improved coverage has been a pleasant surprise, unlike the surprise Shane Heal received when he commentated a recent Snakes game.

Hip Hop Hoops

 

Julius Hodge’s return to the Adelaide 36ers last round may be just as influential to the future of Australian basketball as any recommendation in the recent Henderson report.

 

Hodge may not have turned around his team’s fortunes on the court – the Sixers lost back-to-back games against Sydney and South Dragons – but his signing appears to be a boon for the club off the court.

 

A crowd of 5358 turned out to the Distinctive Homes Dome for Saturday night’s clash with the South Dragons, a healthy figure considering the home team entered the game with a 5-8 record and Adelaide United were playing simultaneously at Hindmarsh Stadium. All this came off the back of a week where there was a genuine buzz in the city about a club that, on the back of just one signing, appeared to have regained its mojo.  Lights, camera, title – Julius sets the scene”, “Julius seizes interest surge”, and “Importing the WOW factor” were just some of the headlines during the week in the Adelaide Advertiser. A similar turnaround occurred last season when Hodge joined the team late in the competition, with Sixers crowds soaring from 3500 to 7000.

 

The significance for basketball as a whole is the consequent question of how much effort, if any, should be put into using imports to leverage greater interest in the game from next season. Considering Basketball Australia will now have some control of the national league, it is expected that most of the marketing budget will be spent on top local players. But surely the case of Hodge cannot be overlooked. The Advertiser’s veteran basketball reporter Boti Nagy went as far as writing last Monday:

 

“So there is my recommended import formula for each new franchise in 2009-10.

 

One workmanlike, quality import such as Adam Ballinger and one high-octane entertainer such as Julius Hodge.

 

Or TWO entertainers… “

 

 

Signing these bona fide entertainers could be made possible by the recent report’s recommendation that the new league should allow a marquee player outside of the salary cap (although, the league’s considering not having a salary cap at all). It’s a policy that has been used effectively in the A-League, with Dwight Yorke instrumental in generating hype prior to the inaugural season and Adelaide United going as far as releasing a special membership package for games featuring Romario.

 

This must not mean trying to turn the sport into a circus, however, for that will gradually kill the league’s credibility. For example, the South Dragons tried to lure Dennis Rodman to play an exhibition game on the eve of last season. While this would have gained some column inches and potentially filled Hisense Arena, if it was to infiltrate into the home-and-away season it would make the league look more like a traveling American road show than a serious sporting competition. But if clubs were to use the marquee player rule to import legitimate, flamboyant entertainers near the prime of their careers, it would go a long way in seeing crowds swell.

 

It is worth considering the following quotes from Richard Cashman’s book Paradise of Sport. Writing in 1995 – the apex of the NBL’s popularity – Cashman attempts to explain basketball’s success in Australia:

 

“The growth of American sports [in Australia] undoubtedly reflects the decline of the English connection and a greater interest in things American or things modern and global.”

 

“It is also possible that the game [basketball] has become popular because Australian teams feature a large number of African-Americans. Black entertainers, whether they be musicians or sportspeople, have long held a special place in Australian society and have enjoyed a greater measure of acceptance than in North America.”

 

This interest in Americana certainly hasn’t waned in Australia since this book was written. Hollywood blockbusters continue to gross millions, television schedules and Top 40 music charts still feature a strong American flavour, we still eat at fast-food franchises and the schoolgirl at the bus stop still pronounces literally as “litter-ra-lee.”

 

Yet, paradoxically, so many Australians seem to dismiss basketball as being “too American.”

 

It’s time to make the NBL, and its imports, “hip” again.

 

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