Santamaria vs Ward III: NBL Off-Court Dramas

The NBL’s latest round of off-court dramas serves as the topic for another interesting email exchange between Liam Santamaria and Roy Ward.


SANTAMARIA: What a wild few weeks it’s been for the NBL, Roy Boy.

It began with MVPgate, accelerated with Wollongong bringing in the administrators, gathered speed with the Breakers winning their fourth title in five years (did anybody notice that?!?) and went into hyperdrive with the Crocs following the Hawks into voluntary administration.

Just to calm everybody down, Andrew Gaze – the league’s G.O.A.T. – tapped into his inner Chuck D and suggested they shut the whole thing down for a while.

Hold on, I need to pour a drink.

I tell you what though, hasn’t it been great to see the major media outlets (including Channel Ten!) covering basketball during prime time? It’s about time!

But seriously, let’s talk this through like the rational thinkers we sometimes pretend to be.

Let’s start with Gaze…

“…I have reached a position where I think they are better off regrouping and shutting it down.  Even if these two teams (Wollongong and Townsville) somehow find a way to get through administration, nothing is going to change significantly to turn around their plight because it is a slow burn. So shut it down, regroup and get the right model because the model is broken…. This is death by a thousand cuts.”

Do you think he regrets that call at all?  Was there, as has been suggested, some Basketball Australia agenda to his comments?  Or is it simply that Drewy is seriously concerned about the future of the pro men’s game in this country under the current ‘NBL’ brand and structure?


WARD: I tweeted that Andrew might have done the league a massive favour by airing the misgivings a lot of people were feeling early last week.

So many people I was talking to felt the same way - mostly because of the silence we had heard from people like Bret Mactavish and the other leaders in the NBL.

The clubs speak for themselves but the league needed a spokesman and until Drewy spoke out there wasn’t a go-to guy.

My thoughts were beginning to side with Andrew’s until I spoke with new NBL chairman Graeme Wade.

I hadn’t had the chance to speak with him since he joined the NBL board and I think he made a lot of sense with his calm, measured approach to the problems in front of the league.

This year’s NBL was run on a shoestring as the league attempted to fight out the end of those painful media deals - it was a job from hell for those involved and clearly pushed two, possibly more clubs to the bring of their lives.

Now is the time to mend our wounded and get ready for the next battle - Andrew Gaze needs to be a part of it, he is our Jerry West, Bill Russell - whatever big game you can pick.

But he took a few public tongue lashings from people around the NBL - that might take some repairing.

If the NBL is going to go back into its hole for the next few weeks then it needs to make some big strides in the board room and come back with a TV deal, a Brisbane team and a at least one of Townsville or Wollongong.

But most importantly I’d love to see key NBL club bosses reach out to Gaze and other past NBL greats, go get a coffee or lunch and spread their plans for the league and the short terms moves which set these up.

Gaze was right that the NBL model isn’t working for enough teams but I would add too many NBL clubs have not found enough sponsors or budgeted accurately hence why they get in trouble.

I would also like to see future NBL management teams take a much greater influence on the fine points of stadium deals as it’s clear too many sides are either charging too much for tickets or paying too much in stadium fees.

We’ve moved into autumn but the business models of our clubs needs a serious spring cleaning.


SANTAMARIA: You bring up a number of interesting points.

Firstly, Graeme Wade does present as intelligent and thoughtful and his business/accounting background has to be good for the league.  Was he the driving force behind cutting the league’s awards dinner this year, do you think?  I’m picturing him putting a big red line through that one as soon as he arrived.

As for Drewy’s sugestion of the league shutting down it’s current brand and model, or even taking a hiatus, I can’t help but feel that should’ve happened back in 2009.

The lack of a proper revamp back then, while the league was operated by Basketball Australia, was the reason Mark Cowan pulled the South Dragons out of the league.

It still amazes me.  I mean, the Dragons had just won the title and were completely debt-free. Boom - they were gone.

Gone because they felt BA’s overhaul of the league had been a bandaid effort.  That sufficient time should’ve been taken to get it right before relaunching a stronger league, but wasn’t.

“The Dragons board of directors believes that more time is required to develop the league as a commercially viable entitiy,” was Cowan’s statement at the time.

Interestingly, he wasn’t alone in his views.  Seaumus McPeake (briefly) pulled the Tigers out for the same reason.  “We don’t see it being sustainable,” McPeake said at the time. “We believe it’s in the best interest of the sport to sit out for this year and get this set up properly, get the reform completed, get the proper governance in place and the commerciality of the sport.  The time out of the sport to get it right, get the right people involved… will deliver us what we need.”

Of course, McPeake changed his mind, the Tigers stayed involved and the rest is history (well, that team is at least).

Anyway, it seems as though the league will likely plough on.

But it begs the question: is the ‘NBL’ name and brand too damaged in the marketplace to ever really flourish again as it once did?

The general perception from most sports fans out there - not necessarily the basketball fans but the general sports fans we need to be attracting - is unfortunately that the NBL sucks.  They’re wrong, clearly, in term of the on-court product…but it’s what they think.  And they think it because every year they hear about teams falling by the wayside, going into voluntary admin, etc. etc.

The sad reality is that perhaps that perception, built up over the past 10 years or so, is a hurdle too big to jump.


WARD: Firstly I don’t think Wade was the guy who killed off the awards dinner - I’m pretty sure that fell off the budget as soon as they started feeling the financial pinch at league headquarters.

When you think about flights, catering, room hire - those nights get expensive in a hurry!

But onto your last point - completely agree we need a new name for the NBL.

But we can’t put a new sticker on it if the same problems remain! This league needs to get itself into tip-top shape on all levels before even thinking of re-branding.

In my mind the NBL name has been a dead carcass in the sporting marketplace for a long time and hasn’t improved its odour in recent times.

I was debating another point with a notable elder in Australian basketball this week - is the NBL the face of our Australian basketball anymore?

For so long it has been the only way the average Joe judges our sport even when we were killing it at near all other levels.

But as the internet expands and people move away from TV and more online - I’m convinced this debate has moved away from the NBL - in my mind the face of Australian basketball today is our NBA and Opals players.

I think many people have just wiped the NBL from this discussion and judge the sport by how Bogut or Mills or Dante or Delly are doing.

But this creates another problem as now the NBL has to find a way to re-gain lost relevance at the same time as it needs to fix its clear financial and governance problems.

I really liked Wade’s quote about “We can drive and talk at the same time.”

But I do worry about whether there are enough quick-handed drivers in the car to stick up the NBL’s tattered clothes as they drive and talk!

It’s a big job that isn’t getting any smaller!


SANTAMARIA: Those NBA players being the face of our sport isn’t an issue for mine.  Having those guys playing well Stateside actually has the potential to help grow the local league.  Heck, Aussie Joe played three years of local ball before venturing overseas and eventually landing with the Jazz.

As for the big challenges facing the league’s administrators, it’s such a shame the board hasn’t been able to lock in a new, permanent CEO over these past few months.  There’s so much at stake right now, it’s disappointing that we’ve still got an interim chief executive in the chair while the league navigates such a difficult situation.

Now, I’m not saying that’s entirely the fault of the board - if there’s no suitable candidate available there’s not a lot that can be done - but Wade did list the new CEO as one of the three major short term challenges that faced the league when he first came aboard (along with striking a broadcast deal and finalising the expansion plans).

One thing I’ve found a little difficult to decode over the past few weeks is the variety of different agendas people bring to the debate about what’s best for the NBL moving forward.

I mean, obviously those currently employed within the league (players, coaches, staff, etc) are keen for it to soldier on.  Of course they are - they’re relying on its continued, uninterrupted operation to pay their bills.  But is that 100% in the interests of what’s best for the sport?  What if Gaze was right and the league does need to take some time to get thing’s right?  The kind of time it didn’t take back in 2009.

Then, of course, you have Gaze’s position on Basketball Australia’s Board of Directors.

Mark Worthington jumped on Melbourne radio yesterday and suggested that Gaze’s recent comments might’ve been driven by a desire for BA to re-gain control over the league.

It was an interesting morning on SEN, actually, as Drewy’s longtime friend, former teammate and brother-in-law Nigel Purchase then called up and said Wortho was out of line and lacked class, before demanding that both Wortho and Melbourne United apologise to Gaze.

Interestingly, Wortho’s Twitter account - which has been constantly buzzing over the past fortnight - has been silent ever since.

Anyway, the point is that it’s difficult to find stakeholders or decision-makers with a truly objective perspective on this situation.  Even those who consider themselves beyond bias are, more often than not, affected by the emotion of watching past teams fall away, etc.

One positive development, from my perspective, was the league delaying the beginning of free agency. Mactavish, the NBL’s aforementioned interim CEO, said the delay would “allow clubs every opportunity to get their house in order, which in turn benefits players.”

Surely that move suggests there remains a genuine possibility that a) at least one of Wollongong/Townsville will survive into next season and/or b) the Brisbane bid ain’t dead yet.  What’s your feel on this?


WARD: I think with the board still turning over members it wouldn’t be easy appointing a CEO - I hope they can find someone who’s a better communicator than Mactavish - maybe he is a stellar administrator but I’m yet to see proof of that yet either.

Bottom line - they went out to the market and came back with Fraser Neill last time, there are always executives who are keen to get top-dog experience so we should look far and wide then pick the most ambitious, forward looking candidate.

The vested interests have been all over this debate and it shows just how desperate people who earn their wage from NBL basketball are getting as teams subtract and problems keep arising.

I’m not buying the Andrew Gaze playing double agent for Basketball Australia angle - not completely.

I think Drewy spoke from the heart and expressed what so many of us were thinking about the constant short-comings from the league.

I think we are seeing that better managers are starting to take charge of the league and putting back free agency certainly shows the league expect at least 7 if not 8 teams next season.

My mail on Brisbane is that it’s still too close to call but I’m still hopeful both the Crocs and Hawks will be back.

My gut feel is we have the same eight teams in next season - without any real bonafide info from Brisbane I’m not willing to guess they will be in the league next season.

But much is going on behind the scenes and I hope we see some fruits from that labour in the weeks to come.


Follow Roy Ward on Twitter @rpjward

Follow Liam Santamaria @liam_santa

Follow Downtown @Downtownball


Author of the article

After leading my under-18 side in baldness and bench minutes I realised my basketball talents were best outside the court. I’ve covered basketball and other sports for Fairfax Media and Rural Press, I’m proud to have met and told the stories of many of Australia’s best basketballers both in country and overseas. I love basketball in all forms and all levels. Follow me on twitter: @downtownball

One Response

  1. Darren McGinty at |

    Great, well considered article guys. As you rightly point out, there’s a myriad of issues involved here and I don’t know a single ‘basketball person’ who doesn’t have a take on each of them. One of these many though that bobs up a lot (and you rightly touched upon) routinely gives me the irrit’s.

    The notion that with the emergence of League Pass and Foxtel etc providing more unfettered access to the NBA than in times past, and of this rendering the NBL commercially redundant, is way off-base in my view. I hear it a lot.

    Any basic situation analysis of the relevant Australian marketplace shows the various codes of rugby along with Aussie Rules virtually unassailable in their popularity. Agreed. The thing is, soccer via the A-League is also more than healthy too. The litmus test for this is any major media outlet. Major papers (while they still exist), the nightly news bulletin on TV etc etc constantly provide results, highlights of not just the EPL, but the Champions League and then finally the A-League too. That’s three different leagues, almost every single time!

    Basketball’s lack of investment, vision (and crucially) effective back-room lobbying etc with Australia’s media editors/decision makers, has a lot to answer for in all this. Basketball simply has no media traction whatsoever. It’s not the olden days. Media real estate must by proactively and aggressively (and sometimes expensively) gained.

    Soccer demonstrates on a daily basis that there’s an appetite for multiple levels/standards of a popular sport. Consumers get it. They can understand and appreciate it. When people suggest otherwise – with relation to basketball – they’re both oversimplifying and badly misjudging the issue and the commercial factors that drive it.

    Access to the NBA has nothing whatsoever to do with the woes of the NBL. Poor strategy, poor management and in particular, either insipid or even non-existent media deals, media relationships and media management in general, have way, way more to do with it.

    In my humble opinion.

    You guys are part of the answer to all that. Keep up the good work!

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