Is it time for the NBL to think bigger?

The National Basketball League (NBL) has experienced an unexpected and certainly welcomed renaissance since Executive Director Larry Kestelman took majority control in May 2015.

The demise or merging of 30 plus teams since the leagues inception in 1979 had left an indelible stench, a stain that appeared nearly impossible to overcome for many. League administrators all too often continued to jump the gun and make the same mistakes time and again.

In July 2015, Kestelman appointed General Manager Jeremy Loeliger to oversee a rapid commercial transformation of the NBL brand. In doing so, Loeliger has relaunched the league, propelled it back into the public psyche and established the much needed foundation for sustained success which had been missing too long.

NBL General Manager Jeremy Loeliger (on the left) with Philly Coach Brett Brown and NBL E.D. Larry Kestelman

The NBL rebrand and launch last season, coupled with the leagues high level presence across all social media platforms, has ushered in the new era.

Errors of the past have seemingly been washed away, nearly forgotten, the positive ‘buzz’ around the league is most definitely back and it’s palpable.

A return to the high water mark of the early 90’s, with nationwide sell-out crowds, prime time free to air TV slots and profitable teams playing exciting basketball, now appears a certainty rather than an impossible dream.

“… the reach and expansion potential for the NBL is immense. We have made no secret of our desire to see the league expand and strengthen further. In the long term we see Asia having a greater involvement across our Australian NBL season” – Larry Kestelman

The next phase of continued growth appears to be yet another attempt at pushing into the Asia-China regions. We all remember the unmitigated disaster that was the short-lived ‘Singapore Slinger’ experiment in 2006/2007 but the recent announcement of live streaming partnerships with Ali Sports and Sina Sports, brings with it the potential to stream every NBL game live into millions of Chinese homes each week.

The deals Larry and Jeremy have brokered here can only be viewed as an absolute success.

“…nothing short of a new frontier for Australian sport” – Jeremy Loeliger

Whilst the presence and push into the Asian market is a solid business decision,  as it will heighten league exposure and swell the leagues coffers, there is a bigger possibility out there. One that could potentially push the NBL and Aussie Hoops overall to unprecedented heights.

From both a financial perspective, yet more importantly for Australia’s top flight basketball development, there is a bigger fish that any growth in Asia will never be able to replicate.

NBA/NBL Club Affiliations could be the answer.

At the Australian Basketball Challenge held in Brisbane Sept 23-26, there were initially NBA scouts from at least 6 teams on hand, with more arriving throughout the four day event.

US High School phenom and new Adelaide 36er recruit Terrance Ferguson was clearly the hot topic but according to NBL writer, Liam Santamaria, the high level of play across the board had most NBA people very excited about the season ahead.

“All 30 NBA teams will have someone here this season” – Anonymous NBA Scout

From an NBA point of view, it’s clear Aussie Hoops has never been hotter. The recent run of championship success for a number of Aussies in the NBA, the eye-catching display of the Boomers in Rio and the media love affairs with recent lottery selections Ben Simmons, Dante Exum and Thon Maker, signals that the NBL should strike while the iron is hot and start discussing NBA/NBL team partnerships, feeder club alignments or even expansion club ownership.

Partnering with the NBA brings with it a plethora of serious questions, starting with the reality that there are currently 30 NBA teams and only 8 NBL teams.

The numbers don’t easily match, so how could an affiliation/alignment work?

Would NBA and NBL teams on opposite sides of the globe even be interested?

The American D-League provides a working model and possible framework for how it could be done.

The D-League just added 3 more NBA aligned teams and has expanded to 22 teams for the upcoming 2016/2017 season. The end goal is for a full alignment of the 30 ‘D-League’ teams with the 30 NBA ‘parent clubs’.

Currently 14 NBA teams have full ownership of their D-League affiliate, 7 teams have ‘hybrid’ agreements separating the basketball ops, which is NBA team run, and the business/marketing side which is independently team run. The other 9 NBA teams are all aligned with the 1 remaining D League team for now.

The NBL could not possibly expand to 30 teams, clearly, but with the correct planning, NBA input/backing and a growing brand awareness, the NBL could potentially balloon to as many as 15 ball clubs in the future, perhaps including an Asian club, a Northern Territory club (I’m putting it out there now – the ‘Arnhem Land Warriors’ has an awesome ring to it) and maybe the reinstatement of a Tassie team.

Remember, the NBL was able to sustain a 14 team league in the halcyon days from 1993 to 1996 and there are currently 3 import spots on each NBL team roster, which is key to how alignments might be of benefit to both leagues in the future.

The term “draft and stash” has never applied to the NBL.

When the term “draft and stash” has been used by NBA General Managers or NBA beat writers in the past, it is nearly always associated with European League players remaining in Europe to work on their weaknesses, strength and conditioning and prepare as professionals to get ready for the rigors of a daunting 82 game schedule after being drafted.

Recent examples are the Chicago Bulls bearded wonder Nikola Mirotic, Minnesota’s passing savant Ricky Rubio and Philadelphia’s dance machine Dario Saric, who all stayed home for two years after being selected in their respective drafts.

Often the players may remain in Europe because of expensive buy-out clauses on their existing contracts.

Somewhat surprisingly, there have been over 100 players drafted to the NBA, that signed with an NBL club.

Not forgetting the solid NBA careers of some past players, most notably Rick Brunson, Stephen Jackson and Doug Overton after one year in the NBL, it has been the strong NBA play of 2014 NBL Champion and former Perth Wildcat James Ennis, first with the Miami Heat and later the Memphis Grizzlies, that has firmly changed the way our league is now viewed, by players with NBA aspirations and NBA teams themselves.

“Everybody uses James Ennis for an example,” Jordan McRae

Since Ennis left our shores, Jordan McRae turned his very strong 2015/2016 season with Melbourne United into a guaranteed contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a spot on their playoff roster and he is now an NBA champion.

“I knew I didn’t want to go to the D-League – in my opinion this [playing NBL] is way better than playing in the D-League plus I get to see the Australian culture.” Scottie Wilbekin

DeAndre Daniels, Scottie Wilbekin, Jahii Carson, Marcus Thornton and Kendrick Perry have all tried to emulate the successful pathway Ennis blazed, further strengthening the NBL as a viable development option and even preferred destination for players on the NBA fringe.

Former Perth Wildcat James Ennis, changed the way the NBL is viewed globally.

“I think that whole Ennis thing was big for our league, the pathways are open, NBA teams aren’t scared to send their players here” 

“I think they want to play and prove themselves – prove why they got drafted – that’s where the NBL can be a better fit.”  Former Melbourne United Coach Darryl McDonald.

Powerhouse Foreign Investment is not new.

In January 2014 the powerful Manchester City consortium City Football Group (CFG) announced a takeover of the Melbourne Heart football club and subsequently rebranded the team to ‘Melbourne City Football Club’ a short time later.

As a result of CFG taking over the Heart though, long term sponsorship deals with global icons Nike and Etihad Airways were immediately reached, pulling the team into line with other clubs owned by CFG.

The two-way development concept of the sister club, which could be emulated by an NBA/NBL affiliation, is highlighted by Aaron Mooy being transferred from Melbourne City to Manchester City on a three year deal after only two years developing in the A-League and also Luke Brattan joining Melbourne City on loan from Manchester City for the upcoming season.

Anthony Caceres also extended his loan deal with Melbourne City after joining the Club in January 2016 from Manchester City, allowing him further opportunities to mature and develop.

The influx of City money, the stability, the corporate know how and the network of global connections that CFG has provided can’t be understated both for the team and the A-League as a whole.

NBL Team Licences – NBA owned?

Maverick Owner Mark Cuban provides name recognition and business acumen

One possibility to fast track the expansion of our league, could be to negotiate and grant new expansion NBL licences to NBA team owners.

“I’d like to introduce Mr Mark Cuban, the new owner of the Gold Coast Mavericks and also Joe Lacob, owner of the Arnham Land Warriors”

The appeal the NBL provides here for NBA ownership, is the live streaming deals into Asia and India. The possibility for increased exposure of the “Mavericks” and “Warriors” brand for example, is sure to be a huge selling point to NBA owners looking to increase revenue streams.

The fact they could send their own players here to get greater exposure as professionals, or send assistant coaches to develop as the head coach of their own team, could be enough to pique the interest of some NBA owners looking to gain an edge.

Who among us, wouldn’t prefer young players like Thon Maker or even Brandon Jennings, developing here in our league, rather than the D-League or Europe for a year or two. A league where the next iterations of High School phenoms like Terrance Ferguson or second round draftees like James Ennis arrive every year to develop.

Rather than plying their trade in the D-League: for miniscule dollars, in front of barely there crowds, with ‘me first’ teammates trying to catch scouts eyes; if affiliations are fostered with the NBA, they could be playing in front of rabid and parochial packed houses, earning much better money and developing far quicker.

NBA to NBL development pathways is the real ‘new frontier’.

There could be opportunities to gain elite level training, mentoring and experience from the best in the world for Australia’s  current/junior players and coaches; Access to the latest science for our Strength and Conditioning personnel and Corporate know how for Management, Business, Marketing and Administration employees.

Would Mark Cuban be interested in NBL ownership?

The financial stability from an influx of NBA investment and the future TV and sponsorship deals that would come with that, should mean no more teams that fold unexpectedly under a cloud of debt, seemingly every couple of years.

Smart management and heady negotiating by Kestelman and Loeliger, has seen the NBL’s tentacles quickly branch out globally. Under their stewardship, the future outlook is now secure and exciting.

Let’s not be narrow-minded here, the league has an opportunity that must be explored. Strike while the iron is blazing hot.

Taking the initial steps to formally build a working relationship with the NBA and NBA owners, could propel the NBL to it’s rightful place as the second best basketball league in the world.

Give Adam Silver a call, what’s the worst that can happen?

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