In recent years the NBA has become accustomed to having brothers in the league.
Lately, basketball seems to be making headlines in Australia. The response to the recent record NBL crowd from the general sports media has been swift and somewhat direct – that the sport shouldn’t get too far ahead of itself after just one very healthy crowd.
But if you look at the facts around the Sydney Kings versus Illawarra Hawks game on Sunday – which drew a crowd of 17,514 – it is quite impressive and the other codes with no reason to panic should at least take note of the NBL’s impressive rise.
The crowd in and of itself is impressive, but if we actually take note that this game was at Sydney’s Olympic Park the feat reaches new levels of laudability. Even for those who live close to the venue it is a Burke and Wills type journey to get to the place – outside of a major event. If you drive, parking is expensive and compacted – and for those who don’t drive it’s even more difficult. Buses are infrequent and in small numbers, leaving trains travelling directly to the precinct from the city centre as the best of limited options.
In fact, the reason Sydney is so forgiving of weak NRL, AFL and BBL crowds is that so many of them are forced to play at Olympic Park.
The NBL has been quietly growing for the past few years – and last year when NBA superstar Andrew Bogut signed for the Sydney Kings, the game seemed to finally break into the mainstream after a long hiatus. This year, the league seems to have gone to another level once again, with record crowds, merchandise sales and streaming figures on the rise. It truly seems to be the current good news story of the Aussie sporting landscape.
The NBL seems to be very happy at present to ignore its limitations and play to its strengths. From the minute you walk into a basketball game in Australia you get the feeling that it’s trying to emulate something a little bigger and all the fans and administrators alike seem to have no issue with the competition acting like a little brother to the NBA. In fact NBL owner Larry Kestelman all but admits that a lot of the recent success that the NBL has had is directly due to unprecedented global interest in the NBA, particularly here in Australia due to players like Ben Simmons and Patty Mills starring regularly in the US – and the NBL are unashamedly riding the coattails.
More so than any other Aussie sport, basketball seems to be happy to sell pure entertainment – from the American game day announcers to the time out dance and high five cams, hardcore rivalries and tribalism seem to take a back seat to the overall game day experience – with the fans and particularly the kids lapping it up. Most kids are there to watch a single superstar and almost all are aware that if you took out superstars like Lamelo Ball, Andrew Bogut and Didi Louzada, the crowd would be a mere fraction of what it was last Sunday – yet at present no one seems to mind.
The NBL is gaining a global reputation as a stepping stone competition for talented young players on their way to mega fame and riches. It’s easy to compare the recent successes of the NBL in contrast to the recent struggles of the other competitions – particularly the A-League – but that’s not exactly fair or accurate. The NBL has had some exciting growth this year and the A-League has had some well noted difficulties, but the truth is that the two sports are poles apart.
In almost every metric the A-League leads the NBL convincingly, except in one key area – growth. As of the first six rounds A-League crowds are down about 3.5 per cent on last year, and Fox Sports ratings have once again shrunk – although ABC free to air ratings are steadily growing weekly after being introduced this year – to around 50,000 viewers every Saturday.
So at present the gulf between the two is notable and perhaps a reason why figures within the game – such as Mark Bosnich – fired back at suggestions the NBL was a threat to the A-League, describing it as “a wind up”. Yet it doesn’t mean that other codes – especially the A-League – can’t learn from what the NBL is doing well.
There is no conceivable reason that the Sydney Kings versus Illawarra Hawks game would draw a bigger crowd than the now infamous big blue between Sydney FC and the Melbourne Victory, especially when it was scheduled at the fan friendly Jubilee Oval in contrast to the NBL game at Homebush. Concessions can be made as Victory were down on troops due to FIFA Internationals being scheduled last weekend, yet the weekend before it was weather which kept crowds away – and before that it was insufficient venues. At what point do concessions and considerations become just plain old excuses?
The A-League have been emphatic in stating that they don’t need big name overseas marquee signings to revive public interest, but surely this policy needs re-examining when you look at the impact that players like Ball and Louzada have had on basketball in Australia.
We are in unprecedented times with broad sweeping changes in how we watch and consume sporting content. Whilst most codes keep their streaming numbers a closely guarded secret to be shared only with advertisers and partners, the NBL all but shouted their seven figure streaming numbers – in the US alone – on Facebook. The league’s reputation as a place for future NBA stars in waiting to hone their skill set has fans in big markets paying attention.
Optimism in Australia is cautious at present, because the NBL has been here before. In the early 1990s – at the height of NBA popularity with players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley – the NBL had a purple patch of success with Aussies like Shane Heal and Andrew Gaze becoming household names briefly, only for the league to slip into virtual obscurity in the following decades. So no one is getting too far ahead of themselves.
Yet it is still heartening to see an Australian league creating so much success in such challenging and dynamic times – which all other sports would be wise take note of.