Numbers are fundamental to basketball. Points, rebounds, assists, for starters, can tell the story of how a game unfolds and the contribution from its various parts. And for Australian basketball right now, the figures make for excellent reading.
Try 13,000, the number of Sydney fans who attended the opening NBL finals game against the Tasmania JackJumpers last Friday night at Qudos Bank Arena. On Wednesday, with the Kings one game away from victory, that figure should be surpassed, setting a new attendance record for an NBL finals match.
Or participation numbers that are climbing (6. 3 per cent to 6. 8 per cent from 2016-21) while even the grassroots behemoths of AFL and soccer are struggling to maintain and upward trend.
Then there are the record number of players in the NBA and WNBA, as well as more than 400 rising talents in the NCAA ranks across both genders. Australians love watching, as well. Australia is the largest per capita market outside the US for the NBA League Pass, which streams games, and the second-largest overall behind Brazil.
Bigger isn’t always better. There is only one Lauren Jackson, the Australian hoops great now back on home soil as Basketball Australia’s (BA) head of women; and one Patty Mills, who bewitched the nation with his heroics in Tokyo. Both are priceless.
If it looks and feels like basketball is having its biggest run since Michael Jordan and the cultural and streetwear revolution of the early ’90s, you’d be right.
It’s going through the roof, said Matt Scriven, BA’s chief executive. There has been significant growth for us versus declines in other sports. Soccer, AFL have gone back; basketball is growing.
We have athletes in Europe as well, then you have these tent-pole moments, like the Boomers winning bronze in Tokyo. We’re very blessed to have someone like Patty Mills but the stories that came out of that were teamwork and culture and team before self, and that is what basketball is all about.
The WNBL, our website grew 150 per cent season-on-season. The NBL has gone gangbusters, look at Tasmania and the Kings. The growth is grassroots to global. And a lot of other sports don’t have that benefit.
Even when Australia had headliners in the NBA, it didn’t always reflect a healthy local scene. But years of work and strategic planning has basketball in a position of strength that should be the envy of some of its sporting peers.
The pathways are crystal clear from the bottom to the top, the domestic leagues are not only high quality and entertaining but have a clear sense of place in the wider hoops universe. That, in turn, is luring top-tier playing talent and administrative talent back home and the circle is complete.
Seeing the success of the NBL in the last two to three years before I came back was a big reason for me wanting to get involved, said Chris Pongrass, the Kings CEO who had been working with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies.
I’d always had the intention of learning from the NBA but wanting to bring that back to Sydney if I could, and the opportunity presented itself. I wasn’t even looking for it.
We’re slowly pulling away exclusive NBA fans that are now taking interest, and we’re getting basketball fans that just have a renewed interest in the sport because of the level of talent that we’re putting on the floor [in the NBL].
I think both internally you’ll see the code in Australia continue to grow but then we’re going to see continued growth overseas as well.
Those involved in the lower tiers of the game are seeing the clear benefits of the success of teams like the Kings and the NBL and WNBL as a whole. Where the gaze once went straight to the US or Europe, Ed Summers, director of the Hoops Capital Academy, said that is now fixed much closer to home.
Grassroots basketball has been strong for a while. I think maybe the major difference right now with the Sydney Kings being strong is that the eyes of those boys and girls aren’t necessarily going towards the NBA as much – they’re going towards the team that’s right in front of them, Summers said.
Basketball has been the biggest second option for a lot of kids. So they’ll be a soccer player and play basketball second, or they’ll be a rugby league player and be basketball second. But what we’re finding now is that more and more kids are choosing basketball or identifying as basketball-first kids . . . which is awesome.
At least in the last five years it [the NBA] has been a big part of the kids’ lives but now you can go and watch the Sydney Kings game and that product is not too dissimilar, and I think it’s more relatable now for kids.
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