Look at the bright side, NBL fans.
Only four times in the league’s history has two or more years passed without a team folding, merging or going through a major re-brand.
2010 to 2011 was the fourth such period.
In a sense, we can be grateful we’ve gone this long without it happening again.
For two whole years, we went without players being uncertain of their future, fans being tortured (often not for the first time) and of course, those embarrassing “basket case” headlines.
Okay, there were still basket case headlines. But they lacked the same punch they do in times like now. They didn’t have the same sting, basically because the sport was more or less moving in the right direction.
Well, it was fun while it lasted.
Last night, the Gold Coast Blaze officially became the latest member of the NBL scrapheap. They withdrew their submission for playing next season after Basketball Australia demanded more information, including proof of a $1 million bank guarantee.
While many will put this down to Gold Coast simply being a “sporting graveyard”, there’s more to this than such a simplistic answer.
Where it all began
The origins of the Blaze’s demise can be traced back to 2009. That’s when Basketball Australia had some pretty tough calls to make and ultimately, as we now know, didn’t go hard enough.
The Sydney Spirit and Cairns Taipans had both limped to the end of the previous season with bailouts and BA had been promising stakeholders major reform for some time.
At this point, it was obvious that stricter financial criteria was needed for teams participating in the NBL.
“We have said this right from the start that we need to make sure that this league is sustainable from an economic point of view and provide what the players and the spectators want and the market wants,” said BA’s chief executive, Larry Sengstock, at the time.
He was right. Players and fans did not want any more teams to fall over. As a result, a stronger criteria — including the requirement of a $1 million bank guarantee — came into effect.
And publicly, BA were taking a hard-line stance on the guarantee.
This new requirement meant the Wollongong Hawks were on the verge of extinction, with BA prepared to let this happen, up until an eleventh hour agreement from mining magnate Arun Jagatramka to provide the bank guarantee.
The South Dragons actually did fold at this time. While it’s true they walked away from the league upset with the level of reform BA had offered, ultimately the NBL worked hard to win back the Melbourne Tigers — another team that walked away — and the financial requirements have always been the biggest sticking point for the Dragons.
Despite the hard-line stance, though, it remains that three years on we have a team that has fallen over.
But how? How could this possibly happen after such a strong criteria was introduced? When things started to get turbulent at the Blaze, why didn’t they just dip into their bank guarantee?
The answer is simple. Basketball Australia did not take their reform as seriously as their stakeholders wanted them to or as they promised to.
Former Blaze captain James Harvey told the Gold Coast Bulletin weeks ago the club did not post the $1 million guarantee when it was granted the license. While the exact nature of that has been disputed, it’s been widely acknowledged the lack of a full guarantee has been the big hurdle in the Blaze’s campaign to play on.
Worryingly, the talk is that the Blaze are not the only team to have been let off the hook.
Bulletin journalist Daniel Meers tweeted emphatically last night: “There will be clubs in the NBL next season without the $1m guarantee.”
If you want to trace the current situation with the Blaze back to any single event, BA bending its own rules has to be it.
The “new NBL” was meant to put an end to players not getting paid and clubs folding. The tough financial criteria was meant to put a gigantic barrier against it.
But when push came to shove, the NBL let it’s guard down. And so here we are.
The circus of the past few weeks
In Basketball Australia’s defence, those trying to shift the entire blame on them for the Blaze folding are far from on the money.
That the Blaze itself seems to be immune from the criticism by some is surprising. They flirted with this outcome as soon as they entered voluntary administration.
They are responsible for the decisions, including what would appear to be gross over-spending, that led them to voluntary administration in the first place.
If they can’t meet one of the basic requirements for entry into the NBL — albeit a requirement that has been poorly enforced — they shouldn’t spit the dummy when asked for more information.
Yes, BA’s communication has been poor. Fans deserved more updates. Players, especially, needed to be kept in the loop more than they were. And if it’s true that they changed their mind about the size of the bank guarantee they were after, that’s just poor form.
But the Blaze’s communication has also been terrible.
Last Friday night, after a key deadline had passed, the Blaze could not be contacted. The basketball community was waiting desperately for an answer, yet no one would even pick up the phone.
Then today, it was revealed coach Joey Wright was not informed the Blaze owners decided to pull the plug last night.
Absolutely, BA could’ve handled the last few weeks better. But the same could be said of both sides and to be fair, BA do have an excuse: they are between administrations.
Until Kristina Keneally starts as CEO on 1 August, they have both an acting chief executive and an acting chairperson.
Many would look at Keneally’s starting date as just a minor detail given such a big crisis was taking place. (Put it this way: If the Gold Coast Suns were going under, you think Andrew Demetriou wouldn’t return from his holiday in Europe immediately?)
But simply put, it was just poor timing from a BA perspective. There was probably a combination of prior commitments and a lack of extensive knowledge on the Blaze situation that prevented Keneally from being more actively involved.
Try as you might, you can’t blame Basketball Australia for poor timing.
At any rate, it needs to be remembered that the Blaze need to get their fair portion of blame too.
The simple fact of the matter is that the NBL, once again, has a situation in which it must learn some hard lessons from.
It’s got to the point where you suspect if the NBL genuinely learned from all the mistakes it has ever made, it’d be the best-run league in the country. Fans can only hope this time the lessons are heeded.
And there are plenty out of this latest saga.
Priorities: If you are going to make exemptions, do it for the right reasons. The Gold Coast as a market did not live up to the hype that saw all of Australia’s sporting codes clamour over it, but currently there’s a big massive void in our second-largest city that mightn’t have existed with some special treatment.
Don’t make exemptions: Alternatively, you can just enforce your own rules. When you’re playing with fire, or in this case a Blaze, you will eventually get burned.
Look beyond the numbers: Gold Coast’s population might look good on paper, but as Adrian Musolino notes, there are good reasons why sports teams struggle there — “greater competition from the entertainment sector, a transient population and poor transportation options” among them.
Strong leadership is critical: Larry Sengstock has since been moved aside, and we need to give Kristina Keneally time to leave her own mark on the sport. But this just shows that the decisions being made now can have a great impact down the track.
The less competition from the AFL and NRL, the better: Apart from Sydney, the most popular NBL markets are where there’s no more than one of the country’s two biggest sporting leagues. See Perth, Adelaide, Cairns, New Zealand, Townsville … in cities like Sydney and Melbourne it’s necessary, but in a regional market it makes life incredibly tough.
Don’t let this happen again: The NBL needs stability. It needs to show it’s past all this stuff. Whatever needs to happen to ensure this doesn’t reoccur, including enforcing the $1 million guarantee, do it.
We need to go another two years without losing a team.
Heck, to be taken seriously again, another ten years is probably needed.
AboutMichael DiFabrizio is a journalism student at the University of Wollongong. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009 and has appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio.