The Melbourne Boomers have been in the thick of the finals action in recent seasons, without tasting the ultimate success.
In recent years, it is hard to go past basketball as being our most successful men’s international sport, even though the Boomers have never won a medal at a global championship level. At the 2019 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Australia finished fourth.
So, why do I rate basketball so highly?
First of all, it can be argued that Australia’s high achievement in basketball is outstanding given its position as one of the world’s major professional team sports.
While cricket also ranks high as an international sport, it is estimated that 213 countries participate in basketball internationally, with over 450 million players regularly playing the game.
Basketball is indeed one of the few team sports where Australia can compete at a high level against other sporting powerhouse nations with a shared passion with regard to a significant sport, including the United States, Russia, Spain, Italy and Brazil.
For Australia to achieve such a high ranking in such a major sport with a relatively small population, in a sport that requires a high level of athleticism when compared to most other team sports, this achievement deserves some explanation.
First of all, Australians appreciate basketball excellence. One has only to recall the two 50,000 crowds at Marvel Stadium in 2019 to watch the Boomers play the US prior to the World Cup, where Australia finished higher than the US.
The US side was missing many of its star NBA players for that campaign, but it is worth noting that the US had 25 million basketball players in 2019 – a vastly larger talent pool to draw from.
Australia’s appreciation of basketball has existed for many decades, with Australia finishing in the top eight at Olympic Games from 1976 to 1988.
Great players of past decades included Ed Palubinskas, the top overall scorer in the 1976 Olympics (second in 1972), and Andrew Gaze, who ranks second and third as all-time career points scorer in Olympic Games and World Cup history.
Interest in basketball was further helped by Luc Longley becoming the first Australian player to make it to the NBA and winning the championship (with the great Michael Jordan), and with Andrew Bogut being picked first overall in the 2005 NBA draft.
With Australia ranked number one around 2014 in terms of NBA League Pass subscriptions, as well as NBA store online sales, it was still among the top five subscribers of the NBA League Pass by the end of the 2017-18 season in a market of 200 countries that included China, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico.
In terms of participation in Australia, an important factor in explaining Australia’s international playing success, the 2019 Sport Australia AusPlay survey indicates that basketball had 1,017,968 participants (including 310,461 females), second only to football with regard to team sports.
Basketball also ranked ninth in terms of the most popular participation and physical activities, behind activities such as walking, fitness/gym, swimming, running and cycling.
The survey also found that basketball had a higher percentage of participation for adults of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults (5.6 per cent) compared to the overall population (3.5 per cent).
According to 2018 Roy Morgan research, which also found around 1 million basketball participants in Australia, 298,000 were under 18 years old, 285,000 were aged 18-24 years old, 186,000 25-34 years old, 199,000 35-49 years old, and 23,000 50 and over.
At the state and territory level, Victoria led with 340,000 playing basketball, followed by NSW at around 300,000, Queensland around 150,000, Western Australia almost 120,000, and South Australia, Tasmania, the ACT and NT having the remaining 100,000 basketballers.
With money also attracting young Australians to the sport of basketball, especially with the NBA being one of the most rewarding sporting leagues in the world, Australian NBA players now dominate the list of Australia’s highest-paid athletes.
As of 2019, not counting Ben Simmons’ five-year, $240 million contract, Australia’s NBA players had seven of the top 15 annual earnings behind Daniel Ricciardo, with $29.1 million.
They included 2. Joe Ingles $18.1 million, 3. Patty Mills $16.7 million, 5. Ben Simmons $15.1 million, 6. Matthew Dellavedova $14.8 million, 7. Dante Exum $14.1 million, 10. Aron Baynes $7.5 million and 15. Thon Maker $4.1 million.
In terms of basketball providing more domestic opportunities for Australians to earn a living, there is also a hope that basketball can grow at the domestic level, after crowds averaged 6500-7000 from 2017-18 to 2019-20 prior to the coronavirus disaster, which affected attendances of all of Australia’s major sports.
While the NBL presently only has nine teams, the inclusion of a Tasmanian team from the 2021–22 season will make it one of the few major sports to include all Australian states and New Zealand.
The NBL has come a long way since Larry Kestelman took ownership of the league in 2015, purchasing a majority stake in the entire league for $7 million and declaring he would make the NBL the biggest code in Australia following a period when the league had multiple clubs on the verge of bankruptcy because of poor crowds, ratings, and rising costs.
Kestelman, along with league commissioner Jeremy Loeliger, adopted a number of reforms that enhanced the NBL, making it more attractive to viewers and sponsors. These included:
•Promoting fast-paced, high-scoring outcomes
•Increasing pay and conditions with the support of the Australian Basketball Players’ Association, providing incentives for players to remain in the NBL
•Introducing new rules on the new ‘soft’ salary cap; and entertaining fans with game-night experiences that include pyrotechnics, DJs and giveaways.
The NBL has also benefited from involvement by former NBA players, as illustrated by Andrew Bogut returning to play for the Sydney Kings through a deal that reportedly included a potential ten per cent stake in the franchise.
The NBL continued to grow as a world-class product, with Kestleman selling his stake in Melbourne United for approximately $10 million in 2018.
Investment into NBL teams has come from present and former NBA players including Dante Exum, Al Harrington, Josh Childress, Zach Randolph, Shaun Marion and Matt Walsh.
Most promising for the NBL’s future was Kestelman’s introduction of the Next Stars program, which took advantage of the NBA’s existing rule that a player cannot be drafted within one year of leaving high school, and must turn 19 before, or during, his draft year, a stance which usually meant playing at least one season in the US college system.
As Bogut indicated in 2018, offering such players $100,000 to spend that year playing a season in Australia was an attractive option, given he himself had to “get a part-time job” when he was an All-American in his sophomore year by working in a sports bar on Friday nights and Saturday nights “just to be able to pay my rent, be able to eat”.
With Terrance Ferguson being the initial prototype of the Next Stars program playing for the Adelaide 36ers in the 2016-17 season before being taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder as pick 21 in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, the program has delivered a number of quality players to the NBA via the NBL.
They include Roderick “R.J.” Hampton, who played for the New Zealand Breakers, and was then drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks as the 24th pick in the 2020 NBA draft, before being traded to the Denver Nuggets.
And LaMelo Ball, the 18-year-old younger brother of Pelicans star Lonzo Ball, who was later selected by the Charlotte Hornets as the third overall pick of the 2020 NBA draft.
As a result of Ball’s five million followers on Instagram alone, the NBL brand made global news – on television, in magazines, online forums and on socials.
Ball’s triple-double against Cairns enjoyed over ten million views worldwide, and the New Zealand versus Illawarra match was watched by more than two million fans on the NBL Facebook page in the US, the most-watched NBL game in history.
The NBL’s exposure to the world, boosted by the NBL’s deal with social media giant Facebook’s Watch platform to live stream selected games in the US, Australia and New Zealand during the 2019-20 season, was also boosted by the NBL’s global streaming deal with Amazon-owned platform Twitch which allowed all NBL games to be live-streamed around the world on the league’s official Twitch channel.
Ball would also help attract a record NBL crowd of over 17,500 people to the Illawarra Hawks versus Sydney Kings match in Sydney, at a time when live NBL matches were being aired in 33 countries in some form.
But the future of the NBL now faces greater competition, as the NBA provided a massive salary increase from 2020 through its G League, which could pay elite prospects $500,000-plus and provide a one-year development program outside of the minor league’s traditional team structure.
While Adam Silver shot down the notion that the Next Stars program forced the NBA’s hand, there was indeed a fear that future top high school prospects could also take their talents to Australia’s NBL.
Nevertheless, the NBL can remain attractive to foreign players who do not quite make the NBA.
As of the 2020-21 season, of the 117 rostered players (13 players each from the nine teams), 18 were from the US, three had Sudanese backgrounds, two came from Brazil, and one each came from Japan, China and Denmark.
In terms of domestic television exposure, Australians are now able to watch all matches for free with 2020-21 NBL season games shown via SBS On Demand and select games each week televised live on SBS VICELAND.
In the global world of sport, with elite players too experiencing our way of living (including Ball and Hampton), one can only expect more Americans and foreigners to play here, just as Dave Simmons (father of Ben) did many years ago when starring for Melbourne Tigers from 1989, before becoming an Australian citizen.
One can also safely predict that Australian players will continue to feature at the international level, including the NBA, as the seeds for sporting success continue to be evident at the domestic level through high levels of participation and an attractive national league.