Basketball in Australia has seen a fluctuation in popularity over the years. From record crowds in the late 1990’s to the increase of Australian athletes playing in the NBA, the National Basketball League [NBL] is seeking to reach its full potential as we approach a new decade.
With the league’s regular season played throughout the Australian summer, basketball has usually played second fiddle to cricket. Now, as a fresh season gets underway and the league prepares to add a ninth franchise in 2019, the NBL is on the verge of a golden age.
One major move from league CEO Jeremy Loeliger has been to use the exposure of Australian players and teams in America.
In 2017 the league sent over the Sydney Kings, Melbourne United and Brisbane Bullets to play against the best players in the world. A year later, it was revealed that the crossover of pre-season games between the NBA and NBL was going to be expanded.
Over a one-week period at the beginning of October the tour saw five NBL teams play an increased seven matches, scattered across six cities in both the US and Canada. This was Australian basketball history, and most of it can be highlighted by the work of one man.
High-profile businessman and current owner of the NBL Larry Kestelman is responsible for not only the league’s booming popularity, but for the way Australian people observe the sport of basketball.
Kestelman took control of the league’s financial operations prior to the 2015 season. With a $7 million investment, he quickly transformed a declining competition that couldn’t sustain financial support throughout.
The NBL’s General Media and Communications Manager Nick Johnston says the trend of growing crowds and exposure means the opportunities are endless for the league.
“Last season we had record attendances [762,871] and crowds have increased 16 per cent over the past two seasons. Last season we had a cumulative broadcast audience of 17 million – a 51% increase,” Johnston told upstart.
Inbox: the NBL broke its record for highest attendance for an opening round of the season. A total of 48,820 people attended this season’s Round 1 games, breaking the previous record of 48,007 (1995).
It was the third highest attendance for a round since the NBL’s inception.
— Olgun Uluc (@OlgunUluc) October 14, 2018
He says the accessibility of games overseas should see an increase in viewership, and it’s a step in the right direction.
“Every game will be live on Fox Sports again but this season we will also have two games live each week on 9Go,” he said.
“Games will also broadcast across the world including the USA, China, Africa and New Zealand.”
Continuing to build a relationship with the NBA is a pivotal objective, and Johnston says that bringing these pre-season games to Australia is “something we will continue to look at”.
Overseas, the sport of basketball is used as a tool to connect sport, fashion and art, and this is commonly referred to as basketball culture. Household names like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook can be seen making their own statement off the court, whether it be on social media accounts, magazines or simply getting off the bus prior to a game.
Along with his father, Justin Kestelman wants to create a culture within the NBL that appeals to a wider audience of sport fans and non-sport fans.
Justin is a 23-year-old entrepreneur and owner of streetwear label First Ever. Prior to 2018/19 NBL season tip-off, it was announced that First Ever would team up with the NBL to create brand new jerseys, a fresh look for a rising competition.
Olgun Uluc, the lead basketball writer at Fox Sports Australia, says this collaboration means so much more than just bright colours on match day.
“First Ever is a brand that’s committed to its investment in Australian basketball, from grassroots to the NBL, with its literature saying that the money made from jersey sales will go back into the game,” Uluc told upstart.
First Ever also have their own streetwear range, and fans can now order their favourite teams jersey which is both easily accessible and affordable.
Uluc is also complimentary of the work of Larry Kestelman, confirming that the NBL is in firm hands.
“He’s been able to lift the NBL to the point where it is now, and it shows no signs of slowing down with regard to his monetary investment in the league and basketball in Australia,” Uluc said.
Uluc also praises the work of a man that doesn’t garner as much attention as he should. He says that Guy Neville, the NBL’s delivery content and digital manager, has played a vital role in the association’s resurgence.
“Across social media and within its website, the NBL has really created a brand providing well-timed, relevant, topical and up-to-date content for the masses,” Uluc said.
The league’s blueprint to further expand to Asian and American cities is one that has put basketball in Australia in good stead.
There are many other factors, both internal and external to the NBL, that have boosted the status of basketball all over the country.
A key reason for the hype around the NBL’s 41st season is the Sydney Kings’ signing of former NBA champion and number one pick Andrew Bogut, which Uluc says will benefit the league in the long term.
“The thinking behind that is: if the number one overall pick can swallow his pride and not be in the NBA, then so can I. Bogut really does add a level of legitimacy to the league, and it’s one it hasn’t had in a while,” he said.
With the emergence of global icon and Philadelphia point forward Ben Simmons, an upcoming two-match schedule of team USA versus Australia in front of a projected 100,000 fans at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne and a much tighter national competition, basketball in Australia is peaking, but not slowing down.
Kristian Amenta is a third-year Bachelor of Media and Communications (Sport Journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @AmentaKristian
Photo by Jacob Doole.