The start of spring prompts two important questions every year: will the ol’ board shorts still fit and, how excited should we get about the local basketball season?
Inevitably the answers are always the same – ‘yes, though more tightly’ and ‘mildly enthused’.
This year feels different however.
For a start I’ve cut down on the choc wedges, but there’s also been chatter in NBL circles about how the game can reach the “next level”.
This assumes of course that it’s steady after years of floundering. At the very least, attendance improved last season, with crowds up by an average of 24% and TV audiences on Channel Ten up 59% per game.
If support is indeed better, then the next step is moving the NBL back into the mainstream and that depends on a couple of things.
The first is giving casual punters a reason to watch and the second, which has oddly posed a high hurdle in recent times, is better promoting the sport.
As a nation, we’ve proven that if you offer a good night’s entertainment, we’ll turn up, especially if there’s a bat or ball involved. I’m quite certain we’d support a ping pong tournament if there were colourful uniforms, cheerleaders and a decent pie on offer.
Throw in a trophy with two shirtless blokes embracing and we’d be fighting over season tickets.
After attending several NBL games last year, I genuinely think the league is on the way up. It’s competitive and the calibre of athletes is certainly stronger than it has been.
You only have to consider the league’s newest recruits to see that things are headed in the right direction. Perth’s marquee signing, James Ennis, the 50th pick in this year’s NBA draft, is a prime example of the type of talent the NBL is chasing and signing on.
There’s significant potential along this route.
Scores of college players and NBA D-Leaguers who would revel in the chance to play professionally here, if not just for the basketball then for a chance to tick-off Oprah’s must-dos around the country.
In all seriousness, playing in the NBL would be a more enticing prospect to some Americans than playing in Greece or Italy, simply because of the cultural similarities and stable economy.
This can’t be underestimated.
There’s also the fact that Australia as a basketballing nation has earned some stripes of late. For a start, the Boomers are well regarded in international circles, especially since challenging the US at the London Games.
Now young guns like Dante Exum and Ben Simmons are poised to propel the Green and Gold even further.
Then there’s Andrew Bogut’s ascendence with the Golden State Warriors and Patty Mills also proving a fan favourite in the NBA, regardless of the fact his minutes are scarce.
People know who he is and that counts for something.
More recently, Matthew Dellavedova has had NBA scouts scratching their chins contemplatively, because if you’re a team, anywhere, why wouldn’t you want a hard working point guard who can distribute the ball?
In the end, Delly’s feet might not be quick enough for The Bigs but it’s a moot point. He can play and therefore Aussies can play in the eyes of America.
By association, the NBL looks more inviting to foreigners, even when many of our best players have never been in the league.
Foreign players are important in all of this.
Some of the NBL’s head honchos have been thinking about upping the import quota from two per team to three.
This would be a sensible and productive move, I think, mostly because we need to boost the number of point scorers and high-flyers in the league, but also because the two-player cap no longer makes sense.
All of our best projects are targeting the US college system and even the NBA, so the idea that an import-heavy NBL blocks Aussies in the pipeline is no longer valid.
In addition, we need to entice Australian players such as Dellavedova back to our shores by making the domestic league better.
Listen, I’ll run off a couple of posters from the Officejet in my basement if need be.
I was thrilled to hear the NBL will likely bring back a Brisbane team next year. My hope is it will be the Bullets specifically and not some misguided attempt at political correctness, a la the Washington’s Wizards.
The NBL’s interim chief executive Steve Dunn is onto this by all accounts and it’s pleasing to see. How the league operated with clubs in Townsville and Cairns but not Brisbane is mind boggling.
That’s not a knock on those fan-bases by any means. They’ve shown they deserve their teams.
But the Bullets are one the competition’s great clubs and the lack of urgency in resurrecting them has been alarming. I’d liken it to the NRL losing the Bulldogs or Sea Eagles and just forgetting about them.
It would never happen.
Neglecting its heritage has been an issue for the NBL and this needs to be rectified quickly. If the league’s powerbrokers have any sense, they’ll push for further expansion back into once celebrated markets.
I consider the Canberra Cannons, Newcastle Falcons and Geelong Supercats chief among these, if only because of their proud histories, loyal fan-bases and effective brands.
Andrew Gaze has vouched for these towns in the past and if they’re good enough for Drewey, they should be for the league.
The Cannons standout and should be counted as the tenth team in my book. They were one of the most dominant outfits in the eighties, winning three championships and regularly selling out at the AIS Arena.
Of course, arguments could be made for other capital locations, including Hobart and even Darwin, which has a prospering population.
But maybe not a large enough stadium.
Dunn has said places like Melbourne, Sydney and New Zealand are among the contenders for a second team down the track, which I’m not against, as long as those teams are confined to regions, like Western Sydney or North Melbourne.
Even then though, why water down existing markets when there are communities who would take a charge from LeBron James for a shot at a team?
The NBL board has also hinted it will try to forge closer ties with Asia and the NBA in the coming years.
The NBA, sure, though I’m not convinced turning to the Asian market is feasible just yet.
There are glaring issues at home, least of which is better advertising.
One thing I constantly hear from people in the office kitchen and at barbies is that they follow the NBA, but have no interest in the NBL. And yet many of these people can talk at length about both the English Premier League and A-League.
The problem, as I see it, is perception.
The NBL doesn’t excite the masses because they hardly know about it. They disregard its existence. NBL HQ needs to back itself and promote the game. It should focus on the product – it’s star players, excellent coaches and best brands.
The rivalry between the Sydney Kings and Melbourne Tigers is among my favourite in Australian sport.
It should be whipped up like CJ Bruton’s classic fuzz.
As a Sydneysider, I look forward to getting down to the Kingdome each year. I’m sure many more would too, to every NBL arena in fact, if there were less bells and whistles (and verbose courtside announcers) and a greater emphasis on the game itself.