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.

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    The Crowd Says (38)

    • January 20th 2012 @ 9:51am
      B.A Sports said | January 20th 2012 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      I agree that pay TV isn’t the place for the NBL, certainly not right now. If the NBL is on Foxsports, then it is competing directly with the NBA on ESPN, and a genuine basketball fan is, in most cases, is going to watch the NBA game because it is of a higher standard and because the coverage is more professional.

      One HD have shown, as I am sure it has been discussed at length on this site, that they wanted to do sport on the cheap, with no consistency in their programming and low and behold it has backfired. I am not sure that One HD is a great situation for any sport now, but Free to Air is a much better situation than Pay TV for the NBL.

      • Roar Rookie

        January 20th 2012 @ 10:59am
        traread said | January 20th 2012 @ 10:59am | ! Report

        The NBA and NBL can co-exist on Pay TV. NBA Live games are during the day and NBL live games are in the evening… Even though ESPN show replays of their games in the evening, Fox Sports could just not show Live games on the nights that the ESPN have had a game on that day!

        • January 20th 2012 @ 11:01am
          Ian Whitchurch said | January 20th 2012 @ 11:01am | ! Report

          Traread,

          If people prefer to see NBA to NBL games, why would Fox Sports want to do so ?

          • Roar Rookie

            January 20th 2012 @ 11:30am
            traread said | January 20th 2012 @ 11:30am | ! Report

            There are a number of reasons. I’m sure that Fox Sports want to have the NBL on their network, if the price is right.

            Fox Sports want to have as many live sport rights as possible, especially Australian content.

            One big thing for them at the moment is increasing the amount of live content on their channels, especially seeing as they are creating ‘single sport only’ channels that are taking away content off Fox Sports 1,2,3 such as the new AFL channel and Speed.

            Summer is traditionally a lull in quality content/ratings for Fox Sports, with the only major sport programs that they have on in Prime Time in summer is the Big Bash (for a month), The Australian Open (for a couple of weeks) and A-League, compared to winter where they have AFL, Rugby League & Rugby Union on week in week out, completely filling their prime-time friday & saturday night schedules.

            Their last deal, for the 2009-10 season was a bit of a farce. Fox Sports wern’t that interested in the NBL then because there was no Sydney or Brisbane teams. Foxtel’s biggest markets are Sydney (42% penetration) and Brisbane (35% penetration) and they felt that without a presence in those cities, it wasn’t going to work out for them. They cut a last minute deal that was to show a game a week as Fox Sports decided to show ‘good faith’ to the NBL after their decade long partnership. This is a different situation now that the Sydney Kings are back and there will more than likely be a Brisbane team in the competition by the time the next TV rights deal will be set.

            It’s not a matter of Fox Sports not wanting the NBL, it was that the NBL wanted to be back on FTA and signed a deal with what they thought was going to be a ‘Sport only’ channel with more than 1 live game every week and a magazine program “Overtime”. At the time it looked like a great deal, however, 18months into that deal, it’s a different story. One isn’t a sport only channel anymore, there are no Live NBL games being shown and “Overtime” isn’t on air either.

            So I wouldn’t be surprised if the NBL in their next broadcast deal approach both Fox Sports and Ten/One to try and work out a deal where they get a few live games & a magazine program on Fox Sports and a game or two on delay or highlights on One.

            As I said before, Fox Sports have never said that they don’t want the NBL, the NBL just didn’t want Fox Sports this time around. And hey, they got a good deal… Until Murdoch came and changed Ten’s future plans….

    • January 20th 2012 @ 10:10am
      Chris said | January 20th 2012 @ 10:10am | ! Report

      I also wonder whether the introduction of the Big Bash League will impact on the minor sports who also play over summer. It certainly seems to have had an immediate impact on the A League. If cricket can provide regular T20 games over summer then it will be very hard for the other sports to make significant inroads into the sporting psyche of the nation, particularly if the BBL gets on free to air TV.

    • January 20th 2012 @ 11:59am
      fathrtime said | January 20th 2012 @ 11:59am | ! Report

      The Bullets demise started after the disgraceful way they sacked Leroy Loggins. The fan base reacted and deserted the franchise. The NBL has always seemed to struggle with poor franchise ownership and decision making.

      The NBL also never really capitalised on sales and marketing of branded merchandise. For a long time there was no NBL store to buy team gear (and when there was they had a limited range). Fortunately, they seem to have addressed this now bringing them in line with other sports. This is critical to excite the kids and get them coming back to the games.

    • Roar Pro

      January 20th 2012 @ 12:02pm
      Reece Jordan said | January 20th 2012 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

      Fantastic article Michael,
      Personally, I just find it so pesky getting to The Cage via public transport, and getting home after the game. I doubt that’s what’s keeping the NBL from growing, but that coupled with the delayed games is really killing my interest in the league. What happened to that basketball show on One, Overtime? I actually quite enjoyed that when it had its run.

    • Columnist

      January 20th 2012 @ 12:04pm
      Michael DiFabrizio said | January 20th 2012 @ 12:04pm | ! Report

      Thought I’d put this up for a bit of balance/to add to the discussion. An NBL press release today:

      “The National Basketball League is on track to record its third successive year of attendance growth on the back of a string of sell-out crowds at iiNet NBL Championship matches in recent weeks and what will be a season-high crowd tonight at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.

      Tonight, the Sydney Kings are guaranteed to record their largest crowd of the season with more than 6,000 tickets pre-sold to see their clash with the Perth Wildcats. Club officials have advised that demand remains strong this morning and are confidently predicting a crowd of between 8,500 and 9,000 when the game tips-off at 7:30PM local time.

      A crowd of that magnitude would easily surpass the largest crowd so far this season in the iiNet NBL Championship, which was 6,900 set by the New Zealand Breakers for their home game against the Kings at Vector Arena in Round Four. The Kings’ previous largest crowd this season was 6,165 set in Round 13 against the Adelaide 36ers. […]

      Three out of the NBL’s five matches last round were sell-outs, with New Zealand and Perth joining Melbourne in recording capacity crowds at their venues. There have been 10 sell-out crowds in the NBL since Round 11.”

      http://anzballaz.com/nbl-experiencing-strong-growth/

      • Roar Rookie

        January 20th 2012 @ 12:13pm
        traread said | January 20th 2012 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

        That’s great! Wish I was in Sydney tonight to go to the game! Would love to see my boys beat the Wildcats in front of a packed Kingdome!

        • January 20th 2012 @ 1:16pm
          Jess said | January 20th 2012 @ 1:16pm | ! Report

          not going to happen 😛

          GO THE WILDCATS!

    • January 20th 2012 @ 12:08pm
      Hawks forever said | January 20th 2012 @ 12:08pm | ! Report

      The Melbourne Tigers Venue is terrible, it’s like going to watch your sister play netball at her school’s stadium. Surely the city of Melbourne with all it’s sporting glory and famous Melbourne tigers have a better venue than that. Wollongong, the smallest & poorest team in the Comp’s stadium is unreal. We need to let more imports into the league, Fundamentaly Australian players are good, but there to safe & boring. Let more athletic dunk machines in.

      • January 20th 2012 @ 8:12pm
        AB said | January 20th 2012 @ 8:12pm | ! Report

        Couldn’t agree more the venue is a disgrace unfortunately rod laver and hisense are too expensive to rent out, luckily melbourne park is going through development and Margaret court arena will be made to accomodate basketball seating 7500 people the problem will be solved in a few years time. Another huge problem with the venue is it isnt easily accesible to the eastern suburbs ( which basketball has nation high participation in) and MCA will fix this creating a centrally located venue. Just wait basketball in melbourne will be back up again

        • January 23rd 2012 @ 11:05am
          Lucan said | January 23rd 2012 @ 11:05am | ! Report

          I sincerely hope the MCA option will go ahead.

          Another factor to be considered (well, for me personally, at least) is the ticket price point. The current prices at the Cage may be a necessaity to start covering the costs, but as an average punter I don’t see the dollar value in physically attending games any longer.
          I don’t mind the delayed coverage on OneHD. I can spend some family time in the earlier parts of the evening and then tune into the game guilt free.

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