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NBL uses LaMelo Ball’s pulling power to gain new international relevance

Illawara Hawks point guard LaMelo Ball has transformed the commercial outlook of the NBL (Credit: Getty Images)

  • NBA Draft top-three prospect has transformed Next Stars program with participation
  • Initiative exploits gap in market for rising stars who do not want to play in college
  • Oceania league has enjoyed major attendance and broadcast ratings rises this year 

After almost folding in 2015, Oceania’s National Basketball League is enjoying unprecedented growth this year following the creation of the Next Stars program and subsequent arrival of National Basketball Association Draft Lottery prospects LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton.

Ball, 18, who plays point guard for the Illawarra Hawks, is widely expected to follow his oldest brother Lonzo Ball in becoming a top-three NBA Draft pick next year. New Orleans Pelicans point guard Lonzo Ball was selected No. 2 in the 2017 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers before being traded this summer.

Widespread interest in the exploits of LaMelo Ball – as well as New Zealand Breakers guard Hampton, who is expected to be a top-10 Draft pick – has led to a number of major commercial milestones for the Australia-based NBL so far this season. The spike in attention, both domestically and internationally, bodes well for the league’s long-term growth and its aim to become the second most-important basketball league globally behind the NBA.

In November, Ball helped set a new NBL attendance record when Illawarra drew a crowd of 17,514 for a game against local rivals Sydney Kings at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney. It broke a mark that had stood since 1999. Among the crowds at Ball and Hampton’s games on a nightly basis are a significant number of NBA scouts and senior executives, including Charlotte Hornets general manager and president of basketball operations Mitch Kupchak.

Ball and Hampton have also helped set multiple broadcast records for the NBL. Following the duo’s arrival, the NBL secured broadcast deals with Facebook Watch in the United States and globally on Twitch, giving the league a far bigger platform internationally.

Ball’s debut for Illawarra in October was the most-watched game in NBL history, with more than one million people watching the live stream on Facebook. That record was quickly broken when Ball and Hampton squared off later that month, attracting 1.9 million views on Facebook.

The NBL has gained a significantly increased social media presence as well. There were an estimated five million views of highlights of Ball’s performance against Hampton on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube via the likes of SportsCenter, Bleacher Report, Ballislife, Overtime and House of Highlights.

(Left to right) NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger, LaMelo Ball of the Illawarra Hawks and RJ Hampton of the New Zealand Breakers (Credit: Getty Images)

NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger is quick to point out that NBL attendances and TV ratings have been growing steadily in the past four years but he admits there has been a sharp spike in interest in the league this season, particularly from overseas markets.

“Domestic growth is slightly higher than it was compared to last year but really importantly international interest is significantly higher,” Loeliger tells SportBusiness. “The Next Stars program is directed very significantly at driving an international audience…it’s made a significant difference in terms of the relevance of our league outside of Australia.”

Should Ball become the No. 1 pick the 2020 NBA Draft, there is no doubt that the league’s growth in recent years will accelerate that much faster.

“I think everyone is expecting him to go top three…everyone is watching at the moment because they think he will go top three,” Loeliger adds. “I think it will be vindication for LaMelo and it will continue [the process for] athletes coming out of high school to look more closely at the NBL. But whether he goes No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3, LaMelo has already turned so many eyeballs to the NBL that it’s been a huge win for both parties.”

Bouncing back from brink of collapse

Established in 1978, the NBL currently has nine teams: Adelaide 36ers, Cairns Taipans, Melbourne United, New Zealand Breakers, Perth Wildcats, Sydney Kings, Brisbane Bullets, Illawarra Hawks and South East Melbourne Phoenix.

The league reached peak popularity in the mid-1990s but almost collapsed in 2015 after it struggled to continue to generate interest in Australia’s increasingly crowded sporting landscape. Team owners, who had taken over control of the league after a demerger with national governing body Basketball Australia, also failed to gain a consensus over the best way forward.

In stepped Larry Kestleman, a Ukrainian-born Australian entrepreneur who was owner of NBL team Melbourne United. Following an initial A$6m ($4m) investment, Kestelman took a 51-per-cent stake in the league, which has since risen to 94 per cent.

With a firmer financial footing, and a new centralized sponsorship and marketing approach, the league has gone from strength to strength, with attendances increasing by 25 per cent, TV ratings up by 40 per cent and social media interaction and engagement up 400 per cent.

“We took this league from the brink of disaster,” recalls Loeliger. “I came in at the time as the chief executive and when we took over there was not a dot of revenue coming into the competition. I think we had one sponsor which was the supplier of the balls and we had no TV deal. It was bereft.

“Now every game is live on TV in Australia, we’ve got a really good host of sponsors, the most trusted brands in Australia have backed the sport, we’re now showing games in 33 different countries. We’ve turned around the fortunes of the competition.”

(Credit: NBL)

Exploiting a gap in the market

In order to gain greater relevance, the NBL initially focused on trying to attract NBA stars back to the NBL at the end of their careers. Most notably, veteran Australia center Andrew Bogut signed a two-year deal with the Sydney Kings in 2018 before he returned to the Golden State Warriors late last season, helping the team reach the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors.

But it has been the Next Stars program, which inversely focuses on the development of rising stars on their journeys to the NBA, which has proven a far more successful initiative to expand and engage the league’s fanbase.

It was created following the success of a pilot program by the Adelaide 36ers, who recruited American high school star Terrance Ferguson in the 2016-17 season. When Ferguson was drafted No. 21 by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2017 NBA Draft, the NBL decided to try to expand the initiative league-wide. “It was a penny-drop moment,” says Loeliger.

In the first year of the Next Stars program in 2018, McDonald’s All-American Brian Bowen Jr signed a professional contract with the Sydney Kings. Although Bowen went undrafted in the 2019 NBA Draft, he signed a two-way contract with the Indiana Pacers soon after and now plays for G League affiliate Fort Wayne Mad Ants. “We were then able to to trump it as a success story to other players in the US,” Loeliger adds.

The initiative took off with the arrival of Hampton, a five-star recruit who bypassed college offers from the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Memphis as he felt that playing professionally for a year would better prepare him for life in the NBA. “Once we signed RJ, the floodgates opened, there was a huge amount of interest. That a clear top-10 Draft pick had made a decision to the exclusion of going to college, to the exclusion of going to other professional leagues, was a real sign post that the NBL had its show together, had its ducks together,” says Loeliger.

RJ Hampton (Credit: Getty Images)

The arrival a month later of Ball, who had already gained nationwide fame in the US thanks to the on-court exploits of brother Lonzo and off-the-court antics of father Lavar, was the game-changing moment for the program.

Significantly, Ball was almost certain to have been declared ineligible to play college in the US having already played professionally in Lithuania in early 2018 and had been represented by his own agent, which are against National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules.

And in the creation of the Next Stars program, the NBL has exploited a current gap in the market to attract rising stars who either do not want to spend a year playing in college (like Hampton), are ineligible to play at the college level (like Ball), or are seeking alternate routes to reach the NBA.

Notably, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has given the Next Stars initiative his seal of approval. “Australia has a fantastic development system,” Silver told ESPN show Get Up! in June. “[Hampton] thought he was better off in Australia than our G League, [so] I think I’m going to talk to commissioner Shareef [Abdur-Rahim] of the G League and say, ‘what should we be looking at differently?’”

NBA, NCAA changing its rules

The Next Stars program offers a rare chance for NBA Draft prospects to play a season against more experienced and physically more developed professionals.

It also provides a full-time salary, reportedly $68,400, as well as other benefits – such as housing, cars, flights and individual development training – while are no restrictions on the rights to secure personal marketing and sponsorship endorsements. “All of their living expenses are taken care of…you name it, everything is taken care of,” says Loeliger.

Salaries and other expenses are paid for by the NBL itself, which assigns successful Next Stars applicants to teams following discussions with the teams, the players and agents.

Currently, the NBL allows one Next Stars player per team, with applications for the program rocketing since the success of Hampton and Ball. Loeliger says it might be possible to allow teams to have two Next Stars players in the future but it would have to be at the expense of one the three international players that NBL teams are allowed on their rosters. In such a circumstance, the team rather than the league would also pay for the player’s salary.

(Left-to-right) Lonzo Ball, LaMelo Ball, Tina Ball, LaVar Ball and LiAngelo Ball (Credit: Getty Images)

While the Next Stars program is enjoying great success, there is chance that over the next five years that the initiative may lose some of its current novelty and appeal.

The NBA and its players are moving forward on plans to eliminate the “one-and-done” rule in college basketball by working on a proposal to lower the minimum age for entering the NBA Draft from 19 to 18. Plans to revert back to the policy that will allow players to go into the league right out of high school could be in place in time for the 2021 Draft.

Furthermore, the NCAA has taken its first step towards allowing college athletes to cash in on their fame after the Board of Governors voted unanimously to permit students to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness. The developmental G League, meanwhile, has created its own alternative to the one-and-done route by creating a newly-formed professional path which offers “Select Contracts” worth $125,000 to elite prospects who are at least 18 years old but not yet eligible for the NBA Draft.

Despite these potential challenges, Loeliger remains bullish about the long-term potential of the Next Stars initiative.

“There will still be a role for us to play,” he says. “If you remove the one-and-done rule, it doesn’t change the fact that a Draft pick is a very expensive risk to take if you’re planning on picking up a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old straight from high school. In terms for NCAA allowing payments, that conversation is still in its infancy but also limited in its scope in terms of what payments they will allow.

“But these changes are three, four years away and by then I think we will have an impressive precedent in terms of the role that we can play in terms of getting these players ready to play at the highest levels of the NBA.”

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