In April I wrote about the lack of a TV broadcast deal for the WNBL, which appeared to be inconsistent with the television coverage and the increasing number of viewers watching other women’s sports like the WBBL and Matildas.
Since the publishing of the initial article, the situation for the WNBL has been further exacerbated with the significant deal announced by Netball Australia, Channel Nine and Telstra, particularly when three of the teams have never thrown a netball.
While other sports appear to be continue scoring goals, for basketball the fortunes are quickly regressing. This may be a strange statement the for a period of time a TV deal was the least of the WNBL’s worries.
More concerning, or at least of equal concern to Basketball Australia, is the distinct possibility that the WNBL could go from a nine team competition in 2015/2016 to a 6 team competition in 2016/2017.
The teams, where at some stage there was doubt, for 2016/2017 are the South East Queensland Stars, Melbourne Boomers and Adelaide Lightning. For each, the problems that plague them appear to be a symptom greater systemic issues within Australian women's basketball.
South East Queensland Stars
The Stars started off with a bang heading into their first season with the signings of Opals stars Rachel Jarry, Bec Allen and Erin Phillips and the announcement of Shane Heal as coach. (Phillips didn’t play for the Stars due to injury but has been suiting up for the Dallas Wings in the WNBA and is off to Rio with the Opals).
— WNBA (@WNBA) May 14, 2016
The Stars were placed into liquidation with around a month left in the season. A temporary rescue package saw them play out the season and incredibly make it to the preliminary final.
Unfortunately they have headed the same way as the Logan Thunder and will not be back for a second season.
The Bulleen Templestowe Basketball Association has operated the Boomers (originally the Bulleen Boomers and now the Melbourne Boomers) for 32 years and winning one championship. The Association has formally handed in their licence. There is a private consortium pushing to take over the licence.
The Boomers have been the home of Australia’s best players including Michele Timms, Elizabeth Cambage, Jarry, Allison Tranquilli and Hollie Grima.
A private consortium was pushing to take over the licence but their bid required some support and approval from both Basketball Australia and Basketball Victoria. Thankfully in May the Boomers announced they would continue for a 33rd year and that they had appointed Australia's greatest basketballer, the recently retired Lauren Jackson as Commercial Operations Manager. Jackson recently had the honour of being named in the WNBA’s top 20 players in the competition’s 20th year and Seattle Storm retired her number 15.
It is great that the Melbourne Boomers are continuing, particularly because of, despite not getting the results on court, some great off-court work from General Manager Justin Nelson.
Nelson and his team were the driving force behind some great initiatives including themed game nights such as Dads and Daughters night and Super Heroes night and mascot Dexter’s congo line, as well as initiating home matches v Townsville Fire on Melbourne Cup Eve and v Dandenong Rangers on Australia Day Eve. These initiatives resulted in a 60% increase in home crowds for the Boomers. So it is great that this hard work did not go to waste.
I originally thought that the Boomers might be behind the eight ball in terms of player signings as other teams had announced some player signings before the ownership announcement. But they haven’t missed a beat announcing a number of re-signings including Boomers 2015/2016 MVP Maddie Garrick, the dynamic Alice Kunek and the tenacious Olivia Thompson. The Boomers are covered in the tall department with the re-signing of Elyse Penaluna and signing of Tegan Cunningham from the Dandenong Rangers. The Boomers have also signed Australian Sapphires under 17 world championship winner Monique Conti and WNBA veteran Chante Black. Just as importantly the Boomers have announced that Deakin University will return as naming rights sponsor and Ikon Services Australia has signed on as a major partner.
The Adelaide Lightning has been in the competition since 1993 and has won five championships. Like the Boomers, the Lightning has been home to some of Australia’s best players including Rachael Sporn, Erin Phillips, Jo Hill, Carla Boyd and Abby Bishop.
The owners of the Lightning’s licence relinquished their licence at the end of the 2014/2015 season. There were some off court struggles but the Lightning were able to field a team in 2015/2016. Again there were some doubts about whether the Lightning would make the start line in 2016/2017.
They are further behind the eight ball than the Boomers but have made two very important signings. They have signed Chris Lucas as coach. Lucas returned home to Adelaide from Townsville so he wouldn’t be away from family for seven months of the year. Lucas has coached the Fire to the last 4 Grand Finals and the last two championships. When Lucas took over the Fire they were on the verge of extinction. So hopefully he can bring some of that magic to the Lightning.
The Lightning has also announced the signing of Laura Hodges who will re-join the Lightning after her fourth Olympic campaign.
In some more good news, the Adelaide 36ers has announced that they will take over the management of the Lightning on behalf of Basketball Australia for two years.
In 2016/2017 we will have a WNBL with no presence in south east Queensland.
For all these teams, the overriding theme is a lack of sponsorship. This struggle is compounded by the absence of a national broadcast deal to lure potential sponsors and provide them with exposure.
There are also further reaching consequences for the highly successful Opals. If the WNBL reduces to six teams it also raises the question whether Australia will be able to develop sufficient quantity and quality of players to be able to continue being the leading challenger to the world’s best nation the USA.
Although the Australian Sapphires recently became the first nation other than the USA to win the Under 17s world championships.
Around this time last year, the NBL was in a similar situation with the league almost on its knees with the Wollongong / Illawarra Hawks and Townsville Crocs both in voluntary administration. Enter businessman Larry Kestelman, who took over the league and in a short space of time was able to negotiate new free-to-air, pay tv and sponsorship deals.
For the WNBL a similar lifeline could be just the revitalisation needed for a storied league. There are plenty of positives to sell to sponsors from world class players, quality play and entertainment and a dedicated supporter base.