Australian basketball experiences ‘unparalleled’ growth


The Sydney Kings and Melbourne United during the 2020 NBL finals season. By Giacontigers (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Watch out Euro League, the NBL is on your tail – and it has no plans to slow down anytime soon

In 2015 Australian billionaire Larry Kestlemen purchased a majority stake in the National Basketball League for $7 million – a decision seen as the equivalent of buying a sinking, but beloved ship.

Before the purchase, the league was adored by diehard supporters but struggled to grow and stay afloat.

With the league historically struggling to find sponsors who would bring in funding, 30 clubs had gone broke or merged.

Ever since the leagues inception it was missing something other sporting codes in Australia had – a  major TV network deal.

Before the monumental shift from majority ownership by Mr Kestlemen, leagues such as the AFL and NRL were garnering the lion’s share of money from established TV networks.

But the NBL made one of its smartest business decisions in the 2018/19 season, when the league introduced the correctly titled, “NBL Next Stars Program”.

The program’s goal is to lure players away from the traditional route of college basketball and under the tutelage of the best Australian basketball has to offer.

The NBL would have one player per team under this program and have each of their respective teams give the best coaching available to aid the players in making it to the NBA [National Basketball Association in the US].

This has allowed premier talent to enter the league which once seemed possible.

The initiative was introduced following highly touted prospect Terrence Ferguson getting drafted to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder after playing in 2016/17 with the Adelaide 36ers, opting to turn professional straight out of high school.

The program reached a new stratosphere over the last few seasons on the back of marquee talent choosing to play in Australia – the most notable names being home-grown talent Josh Giddey or American high school superstars who brought world-wide attention such as LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton.

The league has boomed in popularity ever since.

“Our games are being broadcast to a potential reach [of] 130 million people across the world, including the U.S., Europe and Asia, but our numbers are also exploding across all social media platforms,” Kestlemen said after LaMelo Ball’s NBL debut.

With the league gaining more popularity, Kestlemen and the NBL finally gave the sport the profile it deserved.

In 2019 the league struck a major partnership with TV networks Foxtel, Ten and ESPN for games to be broadcasted locally and internationally in the United States – the home of basketball.

The $45 million deal over three years marks a significant stepping stone in the league’s progression to becoming the second-best in the world, behind the NBA.

What does all this mean?

The growth of the sport since Kestlemen bought a stake in the league is one that is unparalleled in the sports world and one which fans hope continues over the coming years.

“[A value of] $35m is just normal now,” Kestlemen said.

“We think we’re the second-best league in the world behind the NBA, where the teams can be worth $3bn.”

“So, we’re 1 per cent of that now – I think there’s no limit to where we can go.”

NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger has credited the league’s partnership with the Australian Basketball Players’ Association as the most understated part of the leagues ascension, as it has allowed pay to improve and the ability to sign more marquee free agents – peaking fans’ interest year after year.

This has been evident with crowds rising 32 percent since 2014-2015, and it is certainly no coincidence that Kestlemen and others lifted the salary cap to coincide with increasing crowds, as there’s now a seven percent increase in teams salaries for the upcoming season.

With the continuation of strategies to allow the game to flourish and for it to reach more eyes, it won’t be long before the league is recognised worldwide as the second-best in the world.