What is the NBL?
A closer look at Australia's basketball
Lamelo Ball. Andrew Bogut. Josh Giddey.
If you’re a fan of the NBA you’ll know these guys, but did you know that all of them played in Australia’s NBL at some point in their career?
Recently, I got the opportunity to dig deeper into this exciting league, a place where you’ll also find familiar names like Matthew Dellavedova or Ian Clark. The more I pay attention, the more I realize how perfect the NBL is for NBA fans.
The main reason is both leagues have similar playing styles. Instead of a defense and strategy heavy games like Europe, NBL’s rules prioritize offensive flow. The league does this to make the game more appealing for both NBA-level talents and the NBL’s target audience (young adults and families).
As a young league, the NBL needs a way to poach the best talents to better the competition and generate high viewership. Enter the Next Stars program. Taking advantage of NBA’s rule that doesn’t allow high school players to get drafted, the program pays young stars up to $500k to forgo college and prepare for the NBA by playing in a league with grown men.
The program is a win win for the players and the NBL as they get the much needed press and public attention to soar their stock while the fans get to enjoy high quality and entertaining games. After seeing success with Lamelo Ball and Josh Giddey, the initiative has steadily gained traction and this year it has landed international names such as Filipino phenom Kai Sotto and French standout Ousmane Dieng.
Like any growing business, the NBL has some challenges they need to overcome before becoming the best:
The Next Stars program is a great start for a league trying to be on the map, but the long term success of this initiative is questionable given that the NBA’s own development program, the G League is offering a similar initiative. Plus, to get to the top and dethrone the NBA’s monopoly, the league doesn’t just have to lure the best talents, they have to keep them.
Aussies’ lukewarm enthusiasm for basketball doesn’t help either. With soccer and football capturing the majority of public’s attention, the summer competition has a long way to capture the local audience which is their most important market if they’re looking to become NBA's rival.
The NBL's biggest threat might be coming from themselves. Most of the teams don’t make money, and those who are worried about their history of team bankruptcies can only hold on to Larry Kestelman’s promise that no team will fold under him (Kestelman owns a controlling stake of the NBL and is currently the executive chairman of the league).
Momentum is on the NBL’s side. With the success of men’s basketball in last year’s Olympics - the first time in history they win a medal and Aussie players in the NBA (Mattise Thybulle, Joe Ingles, Patty Mills to name a few), this is the best time for the league to expand and they know it.
They’re going all in on the marketing efforts, from building the marketing team to partnering with the NBA on various events. Lately, they’ve made a conscious effort to attract NBA players to become NBL team owners, giving the players the opportunity to own a team (NBA teams are usually out of budget) and deepening their relationship with the NBL.
For now, focusing their efforts on increasing awareness amongst NBA fans should pay dividends. Since they already have a great product, the next step now is about getting basketball fans to become familiar with the NBL.
If you want to start watching, keep an eye on these three teams:
Melbourne United: you'll see the familiar face of Matthew Dellavedova at the helm. Together with shooter Chris Goulding and a blossoming center in Jo Lual-Acuil, the reigning champs are looking to repeat as they stand at the top of the standings.
Perth Wildcats: 3X NBL MVP Bryce Cotton forms a formidable one-two punch with Vic Law. If I have to pick a team that’ll beat the United, I’m putting my money on the Wildcats.
Sydney Kings: One of the highest profiled teams just recently added Ian Clark to their roster to keep their playoffs hope alive. It remains to be seen how big of an impact he will make in the second half of the season as the Kings are hanging on the 4th and final spot for the playoffs.
For domestic fans, you can watch the game on Foxtel (ESPN) and Kayo Sports. If you’re outside Australia, here’s how you can watch the game 👇
Find out more by following the guys who’ve been covering the NBL for years: Liam Santamaria, Boti Nagy and Tom Hersz.