Remember the NBL. You know, Australian basketball? It’s that thing we used to watch in the 80s and 90s, with teams like the Cannons, the Tigers and Bullets. While none of those teams still exist, the league still does, although we’ve tried our damndest to ignore it for the last 15 years. This year it’s back with a vengeance, thanks mainly to a benefactor named Larry Kestleman. He was the man who brought us Dodo, which he sold for a pretty penny, and now he’s turned his attention to the NBL. There is probably no one more qualified to try and save the NBL from the brink of extinction than the man who made Dodo a household name.
Kestleman’s list of achievements in the two months since he took over the league is nothing short of remarkable. From rebranding the NBL logo into something cohesive and cool; a new website that actually works and looks good; a myriad of new sponsors (after no one wanted to go near the league for years); a professional season launch; and, the jewel in his crown: a television deal with Fox Sports. The league now boasts HD coverage of EVERY SINGLE GAME (as well a Sunday simulcast on Gem). Compared to last season’s delayed and borderline incompetent coverage on Channel Ten, and the woeful, pixellated student film style of nbl.tv, the league is finally in a position to be seen on TV properly, to have highlights on the news and the web, and to look professional.
But through all of Kettleman’s achievements in such a short space of time, there are still a couple of glaring issues that need to be fixed for the NBL to truly become everything it could be.
The improvement that has been made to the NBL logo needs to happen to nearly every club logo. They all suffer from the same problem: over complication. Take the Sydney Kings logo — it has the outline of the opera house, a crown, a basketball, and the word “Kings”, all slammed together to create a purple mess. Cairns and Townsville both have large animals that have detailed designs; Melbourne United is an M with a diamond — it’s a lot of nothing; both the 36ers and Breakers have basketballs but no actual symbol for the team name; the hawk in Illawarra’s logo is too large and detailed, and while the Perth logo is the closest to usable, it too is too dark and difficult to make out.
The NBA logos are a great example — most of them are simple and striking. Take the new Milwaukee Bucks logo.
Even with an animal as detailed as a deer, they’ve made it simple, clear and effective. And we could do it here, the more marketable the logos, the more attractive the teams are to follow, and the more merchandise fans want to buy. Which leads us to uniforms…
Well, the uniforms suck. I wish I could put it more kindly, but they are just hideous. Bad colours, too many sponsors and badges everywhere, along with logos, team names and numbers that are simply IMPOSSIBLE to see. Even in HD. And that’s part of the problem — now that the league has great coverage, the bad colours are even more glaring.
It’s not like the teams need to change the base colours they’ve chosen (though a couple maybe should), what needs improving are the shades and combinations. They’re too dark, too bland, or they clash, or are simply unappealing. And when two teams have bad uniforms, it doesn’t make the game appealing to watch.
Sydney’s purple isn’t rich enough, the team name and logo is a blurry mess if you’re further than a metre away, and the numbers are too small. Perth’s red is too dark, and combined with black lettering makes the name and numbers illegible and impossible to read. Melbourne’s uniform is the newest and the worst. The navy is close to black, but the choice of white as the secondary colour is a terrible decision. I understand the connection to Victorian state teams, but it doesn’t work as a commercial look. It’s bland and boring. Worst of all, the design of the uniform is a complete mess, the numbers too small, and the writing impossible to read (contrast these uniforms with the Brooklyn Nets, which are black and white — clear, striking and effective…)
I don’t know how much money a team makes off a sponsor logo that’s 5cm x 5cm (and let’s face it, for the NBL, who have struggled to attract sponsors for years, it can’t be that much), but the cumulative effect of them dotted all over a uniform makes it look confused and messy. And who wants to buy a jersey in a bad colour that’s littered with logos and sponsors? Look at NBA uniforms — team name and number on the front, name and number on the back. Tiny NBA logos on shorts and singlet. It’s never confusing, never unclear, either in photos or on television, and they look cool. Everyone wears them. Look at these…
Which would you want to wear? Which looks good?
I understand the need for sponsors, but there are multiple ways of making revenue. Making uniforms that look appealing, along with logos and colours that are simple, striking, and easily identifiable, is a way of selling the league on television and in the arena. Not only does this help the league get noticed, it also creates more opportunities for merchandise…
On some levels, the NBL would be better off just looking at the NBA and copying what they do when it comes to merchandise. One of the biggest problems is the merchandise isn’t centralised — there’s no NBL shop, and no common items you can get every team (well, there probably are, but I couldn’t look through every team’s shop and stay sane.) Teams all create their own merch, they have their own stores, which means there’s no uniformity to the available merchandise and you can’t buy different team’s merch without going to each different site. Worst of all with everyone doing their own thing, the NBL can’t control quality.
The NBL should bring out a t-shirt for every team in the same design (similar to the NBA “(TEAM NAME) BASKETBALL” t shirt — the Kings even have one already.)
You could do one for every team, with year they entered the league (Est. 1984 etc). Then, right around the time of the heritage round (which itself is still a great idea), you bring out one shirt for each of the old clubs in the league — the Cannons, the Falcons, the Bullets, the Supercats — people would go nuts for them. It would remind people of the history of the league, it would connect with old fans and help to bring them back in, (and the number of people in Canberra alone who would buy a fresh looking Cannons t-shirt would pay for the cost of making them all).
By sharpening up the uniforms, the colours and the logos, you create brands that are cool and hip and that people want to be a part of. This will only attract people to the league, to help it expand and to increase attendance.
The NBL ticket prices are outrageous. There’s no other way to say it. I’ve been to a few games this season, and I have been completely and utterly stunned by the prices. Kings games started at $25 for the upper bowl, to $50 for the lower bowl, Hawks were even worse — $40 for the upper bowl and $60 for the lower bowl (don’t get me started on what the Wildcats charge). Take Townsville and Cairns — two teams with captive markets and no competition, offer the same prices — why? What is achieved by having a half-empty stadium? I mean, good God — IT’S THE NBL!! I’ve paid less than that for NBA games!
These prices exceed the NBL’s seasonal competition. The Big Bash costs between $10 and $25, with kids at $5. The A League is about the same — between $15 and $25. If you’re a casual sports fan and you’re deciding on one of them, you’re not going to pick the sport that costs two to three times as much as the others to get a seat with a half decent view. And if you have a family, goodnight.
When you’re a sport that is struggling the way the NBL has for years and you’re trying to attract new fans (and old ones back), you have to make the choice easy for them. High ticket prices kill interest almost immediately.
The Hawks offered a great deal to start the season: two tickets to the first two home games for $50. You couldn’t pick your seats — it was first in, best dressed, but they included upper and lower bowls, so you got good seats for those prices. The stadium was full — it was a fabulous atmosphere and a couple of great games. It completely sold me on either becoming a member, or going to more games, but when I called up to ask about the same seats for the rest of the season — they were $70 each.
The solution is simple: lower prices. Something like what the Hawks offered: $15 tickets lower bowl, $10 upper bowl — first in best dressed. Kids that accompany an adult are $5. 5000 people paying $10 each is worth the same amount as 1000 people paying $50 each — but that 5000 makes for a better atmosphere, more food sales, more merchandise and more people talking about how much fun the basketball was last night. Fill the damn stadium! Watching a Kings game with people dotted all over the arena was a horrible experience, and it doesn’t need to be like that (and don’t even get me started on the cheesy, unfunny American PA guys.)
I know the argument against lowering prices is a financial one, but you can only milk the same base for so long, and at these prices, that base will never grow. If the league has a hope of financial stability and survival, it must attract fans outside the basketball community, and the only way to do that is to make the prospect of going to a game an attractive one. And speaking of making the game more attractive…
The achilles heel of the NBL is the officiating. The marquee game a few weeks back between Melbourne and New Zealand was a prime example — a close thrilling game that wasn’t decided by the players on the floor, but by a series of horrible calls. It has been bad for a long time and it needs to change.
Many of the problems stem from the connection to the FIBA rules. The simple solution is to move away from adhering to the FIBA rules verbatim, and adjust the officiating to allow a more open and free flowing style. And these refereeing problems get to the very heart of what I’m talking about: this isn’t about basketball purity. It’s a business. Entertainment that happens to be basketball. If it’s basketball purity you’re after, then go somewhere else. Watch Hoosiers. Or some Indiana tape from the 50s. This is about making the sport as watchable and sellable as possible. And right now the talent is at an all-time high — ex NBA players are coming here, second round NBA draft picks are being sent here to play — it’s a quality the league has never had. Why would we jeopardise that talent and such an amazing opportunity to sell the game by officiating them badly?
Look at what happened to Josh Childress last year. (First, what an amazing coup to get him here for starters — not enough credit is given to the Kings for that.) Everyone talks about the cheap shot he put on Jesse Wagstaff (and it was one, no question), but what so many people overlooked was everything that led up to it. He was manhandled for much of the game, calls were missed and Perth was allowed to get away with a level of physicality that grew out of control, and resulted in his boilover.
I’m not saying we should lose the “Australian” quality of physicality — it’s a mark of our league and who we are — we’re tough. But it’s a balance. Too much of it becomes both dangerous and unwatchable. And the only people who control that are the referees. Call fouls and it stops. Simple. The game opens up. It’s more fun. More people watch. And the biggest way to get people to watch is…
Get an NBA game here
It’s not a revelatory idea, I know, but it is the most important one. It doesn’t matter what it takes, or even what it costs, but it has to happen. Australians are the largest international subscribers of NBA League Pass. Take a second to digest that statement. The largest. And we have the population of New York. The popularity of basketball in Australia, especially the NBA is at an all-time high, and will only rise in the coming years with the influx of top level talent like next year’s number one draft pick Ben Simmons, as well as Thon Maker, Isaac Humphries and the seven Aussies playing in the NBA right now. There has never been a better time to do this.
And hell, it’s not like this is a pipe dream, governments and promoters have shown a willingness to bring marquee sports out here — from Manchester City, to Liverpool, the LA Dodgers — now there’s talk of bringing an NFL game out here because one Australian made a team. Yet we’ve had NBA Champions the last two years and we can’t get a game here? The NBA has shown a willingness to take preseason games all over the globe — China, Brazil, England, Europe — give them the right pitch and they will be here in a heartbeat.
The key for the NBL is to make it happen (and I believe Larry could do it), but more than making it happen, is to capitalise on it. It is literally pointless to spend the money and do the work to get an NBA game out here if you don’t sell the NBL alongside it. Turn it into an event, make the weekend into an NBL tournament — your ticket for the NBA game on the Sunday night gets you into 15 NBL games across the weekend, into coaching clinics, a festival, autograph sessions and whatever else you can think of. Brand your league alongside the NBA and you automatically elevate the product, and because of the “event” nature of having an NBA game here, you’ll appeal to the casual fan, and in the end it’s those fans that the NBL needs in order to go from strength to strength.
I want to like the NBL. I want to cheer for local talent and local teams — I want to be invested in Australian basketball. There’s a lot to like about the new league, Larry Kestleman has done an amazing job at revamping and relaunching it in such a short period of time. With a few more changes and improvements, the sky is the limit. Come on NBL, you can do it!!
 Without Kestleman, there’s a real argument that the NBL would’ve gone under completely in the next couple of years, with multiple clubs going through receivership in the past few years, thanks to Basketball Australia’s management of the competition, but that’s a whole other column for another time.
 It’s worth noting that for the first time in a very, very long time, the League has reacted and addressed the officiating problems shown in this game, something that the old NBL was always reluctant to do. By changing the rules, and suspending the officials involved, the League has shown it’s willing to make changes. This is an enormous positive.