Greg Evans, the owner of the Sydney Spirit, formerly known as the West Sydney Razorbacks, wants to put the team into administration mid-season. A rescue package from the league, and acceptance of lower pay by the players, is the only way the team will play out the season. Australian NBA player Andrew Bogut is reportedly willing to help keep the club afloat in the short term. No matter what happens with the Spirit in the immediate future, it appears that the NBL is not likely to exist after this season. It will be replaced by a new competition, probably containing only a few of the existing clubs.
Basketball is not unique in Australian sport in struggling to sustain its national league. In the last few years, national netball and soccer leagues have been wound up in favour of new, “re-branded” versions. A few years before that, a national baseball competition disappeared entirely. What makes the NBL different is that during the late 80’s and the first half of the 90’s, it enjoyed a level of popularity well beyond what those other leagues ever did. So what went wrong?
Well, possibly the biggest reason for the game’s popularity in that period was Michael Jordan. He was the most popular sportsman in the world, and most Australian school kids at that time really did want to “be like Mike“.
Although the NBL was always a poor cousin to the NBA in America, it did clearly benefit from the popularity of Jordan and the NBA, and since the Jordan era ended, no basketball player has anything like his worldwide profile and popularity.
Basketball was also a gentler alternative to the traditionally violent football codes in Australia. This made it an attractive to parents as a sport for their children to play. Since the basketball boom, the football codes have put a lot effort towards “cleaning up” their sports, which has lowered the amount of violent thuggery that takes place. Soccer, another sport generally considered a gentler alternative to the Rugby codes and Australian Football, has also become more popular.
I suspect that the shift towards soccer and away from basketball is also a part of a broader cultural shift away from America and towards Europe. The international sports stars that Australian school kids imagine being like are no longer basketball players in America, but instead soccer players in Europe. Where you used to see school kids wearing Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers singlets, you now see Barcelona FC and Manchester United shirts. The language they mimic is no longer from the movie Boyz ’n’ the Hood, but instead from Football Factory. It is obviously not as clear as that, but that does seem to be the trend.
So, basketball is less popular amongst school kids than it used to be, but that doesn’t explain why the “Be like Mike” generation has largely abandoned the sport as adults. The main reason is a lack of continuity in the league. The Sydney Spirit is just the latest in a long list of clubs that have faced similar problems, and subsequently disappeared from the league. At the end of last season, the Sydney Kings and the Brisbane Bullets, two long-standing NBL clubs, went out of existence.
These are just the recent examples though. Wikipedia lists 31 clubs that have participated in the NBL that are not a part of the current season. That is an attrition rate of better than one team a season. To put it into context, the VFL/AFL, despite the biggest and most enduring off field issue in the last 30 years being teams merging or folding, has only 3 clubs that have ever participated in the league that will not be a part of the 2009 season. Even when AFL clubs announce major financial losses, as both Brisbane and Port Adelaide have in the last couple of days, and the battle continues over whether the AFL’s 18th club should be in Tasmania or West Sydney, one of the strengths of the competition is that there is relatively rock solid continuity from one year to the next, and one decade to the next.
That means that many people who supported teams in the NBL in the late 80’s and early 90’s stopped having a team to support between then and now. For those whose teams are still in the league, important rival clubs have been lost, and inevitably, the competition as a whole barely resembles the one remembered, where exciting nights with sell out crowds in big venues were common.
Ironically, Australia seems to be producing more good basketball players these days. Andrew Bogut was drafted 1st in the NBA draft and there is a large number of Australians in the American college competition. Unfortunately this has not resulted in any noticeable increase in popularity of the sport generally, or the NBL particularly.
Whether the period in the 80’s and 90’s when the NBL was popular will forever be the “golden age” for basketball in this country, never to be seen again, is difficult to judge. Maybe the game can follow the path of soccer, whose A-League is a major success relative to the predecessor NSL, which suffered from similar continuity problems as the NBL. Either way, it seems certain that the NBL itself is about to come to an end.