Global Competitors

To their great credit, the National Basketball League has become the first sporting competition in Australia to deliver their fans with a truly excellent online viewing option. NBL.TV follows in the footsteps of all four major American sporting leagues by providing fans with a subscription service that is far superior to anything provided by either free-to-air or pay tv. For a price – in the NBL’s case $80 for a season or $20 for a month – subscribers can watch any game live or any game from the season on demand.

While most experts agree that the future of television is broadcasting on and through the internet, this certainly seems to be the case with sports-viewing already. Devoted fans across the world are no longer restricted to viewing only the games selected for them by local television networks. Australians can expect to see an AFL equivalent in the very near future, and one presumes that eventually all of the world’s sports and leagues will provide similar services.

What is most interesting about NBL.TV, though, isn’t what they are providing, but rather why most of Australia’s most passionate basketball fans are choosing not to subscribe.

While I was growing up in the late 80’s and the 90’s, basketball was huge in Australia. In fact, unbeknownst to us at the time, it was at the apex of its popularity: the NBL was greatly successful; the Boomers were riding the coattails of Gaze, Heal, Longley and co. to top 4 finishes in 3 of 4 consecutive Olympics; and the sport was regularly cited as one of the country’s most popular participation sports for kids.

At the time, I was a keen junior player growing up in Canberra, where my mates and I feted the local Cannons in the same way that the folk in Victoria have always idolised their footballers. Local sightings of our heroes were day-making events, and moments when a Cannon visited our trainings or school are still ingrained on my memory.

But the NBL fell out of the public consciousness, and the consciousness of many of even its most ardent supporters, somewhere in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. While many reasons have been put forward for its demise amongst more casual fans, most keen basketball people – especially those living in cities which do not have teams – lost touch with the NBL when it was removed from free-to-air tv.

By 1998, the league’s loss of popularity caused its administrators to move what had always been a winter competition into the summer months in an attempt to enhance the league’s media coverage by ensuring that it wasn’t competing for attention with the country’s major football codes.

But now, with the 2012-2013 summer season underway, all of my basketball-loving mates and I haven’t signed up to NBL.TV despite the fact that we are exactly the target audience who Basketball Australia are trying to attract. We are the boys and girls who grew up loving the NBL, and we are now the people most likely to pass on our love for the sport and the local competition to our children.

But in 2012, the NBL is competing in an incredibly different sporting landscape to the one that existed in 1998. For it’s not just the football codes that are a dangerous competitor for the interest of fans in this digital age. In fact, the biggest competition for NBL.TV amongst basketball people is the NBA, and its equivalent subscription service, League Pass.

While none of my mates are willing to pay $80 for NBL.TV, we are all willing to fork out more than twice that much on an annual basis to subscribe to watch the NBA. With the NBL season starting only a couple of weeks in advance of the NBA, the most important question that NBL administrators need to ask themselves is: “After the first fortnight of the season, not one NBL game is scheduled on a day when NBA games aren’t also being played. Why would basketball fans in Australia ever choose to tune in to our product rather than the NBA?”

During the boom years of the NBL, basketball fans could only watch one NBA game each week broadcast on free-to-air tv. We would watch all of the Aussie stuff and then enjoy the one game from the world’s premier league. It’s fascinating to consider the obvious hypothetical question: would we ever have watched Gaze and Copland’s Tigers, Vlahov and Grace’s Wildcats, Loggins’ Bullets, Davis’ 36ers, Smyth’s Cannons, or any of the teams in which Rucker, Rose, Sengstock or Bradtke starred if we could instead have been choosing our game from that day’s NBA slate? Mightn’t we have preferred to watch Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, Isiah’s Pistons, or Olajuwon’s Rockets?

In 2012, the answer is clear: we’d all prefer to watch the Heat, Lakers, Celtics and Thunder rather than the 36ers, Breakers, Wildcats and Taipans.

The NBL isn’t the league it once was. Unlike 10 or 20 years ago, nowadays most of the Boomers are playing in Europe or the NBA rather than the NBL, and the league has no mainstream media presence even during the football-free summer. It seems incredibly unlikely that interest in the league will improve if the biggest basketball junkies in Australia are watching the NBA instead of the NBL.

As such, it’s time for the NBL to reconsider the timing of its season.

The day of the year on which Australian basketball fans are most starved for their sport is immediately after the conclusion of the NBA season. Perhaps if the NBL tipped off at that time of the year, it would find that many of us who are genuinely pining for the next season of hoops to begin would be much more likely to sign up for NBL.TV. And by the time the next NBA season comes around, we might just stick around to follow some NBL Playoff action as we’d know the teams and their narratives by that stage.

Otherwise, there’ll just be more nights like last night when rather than watching the NBL even when it’s on free-to-air TV, the league’s target audience will be tuning in to the Knicks-Spurs game instead.

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