Question: What’s 6’7″, has a fear of crowds and flies economy?

Answer: An NBL player.

It’s probably all Michael Jordan’s fault. When he was at his peak in the early 90s, everybody wanted to “be like Mike”, including the tens of thousands of Australians caught up in the sport who wanted to see their own domestic version.

Briefly, basketball in this country was big. But then the bubble burst. Teams went bankrupt and disappeared, and those that survived, such as the Melbourne Tigers, went from playing at the 15,000 seat Melbourne Tennis Centre to the 3,500 seat State Netball Centre. While their marketing department put a positive spin on the venue by calling it “The Cave”, in reality it was the Tigers simply “caving” in to financial pressure, as fewer people wanted to see them.

But this season the NBL is once more showing a flicker of life, with the introduction of two new teams that could mean far more to the sport than just an expanded fixture.

The inclusion of the Singapore Slingers into the NBL has been touted as the most significant move in its 28-year history. The Slingers have already done their job by acting as a catalyst for the Asian TV network, StarHub, to broadcast NBL games into 470,000 households in Singapore. Rumours suggest that if this Singapore experiment proves successful, a Hong Kong team may be next on the cards.

Perhaps this is why Channel Nine has taken a sudden interest in the NBL (the first free-to-air network to do so for at least ten years), by announcing today that, starting 15 October 15, it will show a one-hour highlights program every Sunday morning at 11:30am.

The inclusion of the South Dragons team is also significant, as it could demonstrate that a team with the right backing and a highly professional administration can make a profit. But they’re taking risks in the process.

They’ve focused on offering plenty of hoopla and signing big names, such as NBA All Star Mark Price as coach (despite no experience), and past legend Shane Heal, who was yanked from retirement and a Queensland deckchair (he injured his back in the warm-up before the first game and has been out since). Those choices indicate high impact rather than long-term survival. Their three-year deal with the 10,000 seat Vodafone Arena also suggests that by thinking big, they hope to become it.

Or perhaps they’re hoping that the Asian experience works before they run out of money. In that they’re not alone.

Peter Fray

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