What’s really holding back the NBL

Michael DiFabrizio Columnist

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    The Melbourne Tigers want a rename, how about the NBL? (Image: mcsimmo)

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    There’s no shortage of NBL fans willing to complain about this season’s TV situation. With games being shown by One on delay at 10.30pm, it’s a fairly valid thing to complain about.

    However, the complainers go too far when they imply it’s killing the sport or that no one’s watching. It’s not and, remarkably, they are.

    The ratings for the delayed telecasts are just as good as ratings when the games were live. In fact, earlier this season Perth Wildcats chief Nick Marvin told ABC Radio there had been an improvement ratings-wise on last season – and as someone who’s watching the numbers closely, there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in ratings since.

    Obviously, the delayed telecasts make it hard to actually grow the game’s audience and are absolutely dreadful in terms of getting children to watch. That’s a given.

    But you can’t make the argument no one is watching because of the timeslot, the numbers simply refute this.

    Predictably, there are those yearning for a return to Fox Sports. But we can’t forget that basketball’s status only went backwards during the time it was on Fox, an obvious sign that cutting yourself off from two-thirds of the population mightn’t be such a bright idea.

    Sure, games would probably be live on Fox. But the audience would decrease – there’s a reason the NBL’s ratings improved 298 per cent when it moved to free-to-air.

    The status quo isn’t perfect. However, even if you choose to overlook the numbers and the lack of a genuine alternative, there’s one more point that’s worth noting: the status quo is only temporary.

    The Network Ten deal requires more games to be shown as it progresses which means – as I explain in far more detail here – there will either be five games on free-to-air by the final year of the contract (2014-15), or less games but live coverage included.

    You can lament the TV situation all you want, but perhaps it’s more wise to look beyond the obvious when it comes to what’s stopping the NBL from growing at a faster pace. One only needs to look at the events of the past week at the Melbourne Tigers to get a glimpse of what’s really wrong with the league.

    First, though, some perspective. Right now, Perth sell out every home game and are about to move into a new 12,000-seat arena. In Adelaide, the 36ers have been out of contention for years yet still get healthy crowds and attention from the media.

    New Zealand last night had their third-consecutive sellout and are clearly riding a wave of momentum. The North Queensland teams are, as always, doing great. The Gold Coast Blaze continue to grow and their typical crowd is now noticeably bigger than that of the A-League’s Gold Coast United.

    So, overall, the NBL seems pretty healthy in most of its markets. The outlook in these markets is likewise positive.

    Then you look at Melbourne, the nation’s second biggest market. Now yes, the Tigers have had five sellouts this season, but selling out a 3,500-seat venue in a city as big and sports-mad as Melbourne is hardly an achievement.

    This week revealed the true nature of the modern-day Tigers: a team with a shambolic ownership that makes it near impossible for the sport to actually move forward and build its Melbourne supporter base.

    After the Tigers went down to the Blaze on Sunday night, owner and chief executive Seamus McPeake stormed into the locker room and confronted the players, a confrontation that included him sacking import point guard Ayinde Ubaka on the spot.

    Given Ubaka was a fan favourite, McPeake’s actions infuriated supporters. What made it worse was the unprofessional nature of what took place, especially on the back of the Daryl Corletto saga, the Al Westover sacking and countless other examples.

    One fan, Tim Grimes, summed up the mood of the Tiger faithful in an open letter to McPeake.

    “I worry that fans will become disheartened after losing one too many of their heroes,” he wrote.

    “I worry that players will think twice about coming to the club as it builds a cavalier reputation for sacking them at a moment’s notice and that current players will be forever watching their backs rather than focusing on the game.

    “And more than anything, I worry that the club I love because it always stood for something important will one day soon stand for nothing at all.”

    Clearly, though, it’s McPeake’s way or the highway at the Tigers. After all, this is a club that charges $1020 for its cheapest full-season family membership, when AFL clubs in the same market charge $370.

    While Patrick Mills provided a nice injection of buzz into the club, as long as it’s run the way it is now – that is, constantly disenfranchising current fans while putting up as many barriers as possible for new fans – then the Tigers will always lag behind other sports in the competitive Melbourne market.

    And make no mistake, lag the sport does. The Ubaka story – as big as it was in basketball circles – only warranted a spot on the very last sports page in the Herald Sun.

    The same paper last year had a story on Mills’ signing dwarfed by a one-and-a-half page spread covering results from the English Premier League.

    Things shouldn’t be this bad in such a crucial market.

    Thankfully, though, Melbourne isn’t as bad as Brisbane. The Queensland capital still don’t even have a team.

    Brisbane is the third-biggest market in the country and there’s currently zero representation from the NBL, save for a token Blaze game or preseason fixture that really don’t mean too much.

    There’s a good chance the Bullets will be back next year, however the fact it’s been allowed to get to the point where there hasn’t been a team for three seasons is ridiculous. Hopefully the fans return if and when the team does.

    Finally, it’s hard to avoid looking at our biggest market, Sydney. While the Kings post very healthy crowds given they haven’t been terribly successful on the court, the concern isn’t whether fans are showing up but whether there’s much wider interest in the team throughout the city.

    For one Kings game last year, there were only 1000 Sydneysiders watching on TV (there were more fans at the actual game).

    The season-opening clash between the Tigers and Kings had 10,000 more viewers in Melbourne than in Sydney (even though the Kings were in the news all week due to all that Andrew Bogut speculation).

    Speaking of the media, it’s also interesting that the Daily Telegraph – even though they sponsor the Kings – do not have a basketball section on their website.

    Obviously, it’s a good thing the team has a solid platform to build on with its strong core of supporters. But it appears there’s still a lot of work to do.

    The importance of getting things right in Australia’s three biggest markets cannot be underestimated. These cities, Sydney and Melbourne particularly, are where the bulk of the national media come from. They are where the most people are.

    It’s no coincidence that the current A-League season started with plenty of momentum on the back of Brisbane Roar’s championship, Harry Kewell signing with Melbourne Victory and Brett Emerton signing with Sydney FC.

    The AFL hasn’t plonked new teams in Sydney and Southeast Queensland simply because they thought it’d be a neat idea.

    Heck, the NBL itself should know its glory days were when three well-supported teams represented Melbourne, the Kings truly captured the attention of Sydney and people in Brisbane idolised Leroy Loggins and the Bullets.

    While the NBL is right where it should be in most markets, the fact it could be so much more in the three biggest – and most important – markets in Australia is preventing it from taking a more prominent position in our sporting landscape.

    Having a TV deal that’s set to give the NBL more games on free-to-air per week than the AFL isn’t, evidently, the greatest of the league’s problems.

    Michael DiFabrizio
    Michael DiFabrizio

    Michael DiFabrizio is based in Mildura, Victoria. He has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009, leading to appearances on ABC News 24 and in the Age. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelDiFab.