When Jeremy Loeliger became CEO of the National Basketball League in June 2015, the league’s future was grim. Less than a month later, the only significant funding that backed the NBL were federal grants – that were expiring.
The only notable money that was coming into the NBL came via Wilson Basketballs, which supplied the game balls. Outside of that, the NBL had no big media rights deals to lean on. It also had no advertising partners or sponsors to turn to.
At that point, the NBL folding might have been viewed as more likely than it finding success.
“The league was really on its knees, and it was pretty dire,” said Loeliger, now the league’s commissioner. “But it was also the opportunity that gave rise to us, thinking that we could rebuild this thing the way that we wanted to from essentially a blank sheet of paper.”
Four years later, the league is on drastically different footing, staking its claim as the best basketball league outside of the NBA.
One reason for NBL’s burgeoning popularity? Serial entrepreneur Larry Kestelman, said Loeliger. For more than two decades, Kestelman served as owner of the Melbourne United Basketball team and helped escalate attendance figures. When Loeliger left his job at a law firm for the NBL, Kestelman followed suit to acquire a majority stake in the league in 2015.
When Kestelman became the owner and executive director of the NBL, Loeliger bonded with him over their shared concerns about the league’s viability. The salary cap hadn’t changed in a decade. Unlike the NBA, which caters to 1.6 billion basketball fans worldwide, it had never looked into international markets as a source of potential revenue.
Before it could expand overseas, Loeliger looked to generate buzz among local fans. The NBL wasn’t marketed as a mainstream domestic sport since the mid-1990s, he said, where it often played third-fiddle to Australian stalwarts like the Australian Football League and National Rugby League.
“There was a real tall poppy syndrome in Australia,” Loeliger said when describing Australian sports fans’ past preferences for tough, rugged sports like cricket and rugby over basketball’s glamour. “What we had to do was change the dialogue around basketball and say, ‘look, if we were the second-best football league in the world, all eyes would be on Australia.’ Everywhere else in the world would be looking to say how a small country like Australia had managed to the second-best football league in the world.”
“Now, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case with respect to basketball,” Loeliger added. “We happen to be a very small country which punches well above its weight in terms of its national standings and reputation. We think with a little bit of work and elbow grease and capital that our league can be one of the best in the world.”
One could argue that the NBL wasn’t given a domestic or global spotlight until the recent arrivals of NBA-bound youngsters LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton. Each spurned college to join the Illawarra Hawks and New Zealand Breakers, respectively, but the league was making strides even before they took the court.
That was thanks to more Australians paying attention to basketball. Basketball is now the second-highest team participation sport in Australia, according to the NBL. There are more than one million participants, with that number doubling in the last three years. Basketball is the only major sport in Australia that has increased in popularity over the past seven years, the NBL said.
Naturally, basketball’s rise in Australia has trickled down to the NBL and its nine teams across the country and New Zealand. During the 2018-2019 season, the NBL had a cumulative TV audience of 3.52 million viewers.
Roughly 800,000 people attended games last season – with attendance figures up 32% since 2015. Most notable to Loeliger is a contest that took place on November 17 between Ball’s Hawks and the Sydney Kings. Although Ball’s stat-stuffing night – 16 points, eight rebounds, and six assists – weren’t enough in the Hawks’ 92-87 loss to the Kings, the game set a league attendance record with 17,514 spectators.
“That’s a true indication of how successful the league is,” said Kings CEO Chris Pongrass. “In the next couple of years, you’re going to start to see more players come out of the NBL and play in the NBA, but you’ll see several players that are wanting to come down and play here. I want to be part of something pretty special – and [Ball and Hampton] have just pretty much paved the way to show what that process looks like.”
Across the NBL, Ball and Hampton’s impact has been undeniable, said Loeliger. When the duo faced off for the first time on October 24, nearly two million people in the United States streamed it on the NBL’s Facebook page, becoming the most-watched game in NBL history. Less than a year ago, NBL wasn’t even using the social media platform to stream games.
Now through its partnership with Facebook Watch, 75 games will be made available to viewers in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. U.S. viewers can watch 52 NBL games on the platform this season – with a focus on matchups featuring either Ball or Hampton – and fans in Australia and New Zealand can stream 23 regular-season fixtures.
“The NBL has been able to reach audiences that may not have been watching on TV,” said Karren Rogers, sports media partnerships lead, Australia and New Zealand at Facebook. “That’s what’s been particularly interesting here – while you can watch the games on TV, you can watch some of the games on Facebook Watch In Australia and New Zealand.”
“Then there’s the opportunity for the U.S. fan to be able to watch the games, which is an entirely new audience for the NBL that they’ve never been able to target in a way that they have until this year,” Rogers added. “So U.S. fans just simply would not have been able to see the games this year if it wasn’t for the partnership through Facebook.”
The LaMelo-RJ effect is especially visible at the Spark Arena in Auckland, the Breakers’ home arena. Of the six home games they’ve played in 2019, three have seen more than 8,000 fill into the 9,300-seat venue – and two of those were a Ball-Hampton showdown. For Sky Breakers COO Lisa Edser, Hampton’s influence has extended beyond the game and into the lives of others.
“The immediate thing we noticed when we [signed] RJ was the growth of our social audience – in particular within the younger age groups,” Edser said. “The demographic has sort of peaked at 25 [year-olds], so followers and engagement around our social have just gone through the roof. Thankfully that has also translated into ticket sales and particularly when we have the two games against the Illawarra Hawks with LaMelo Ball, we’ve had sell-out crowds, which we haven’t had for a long time.”
While business opportunities around the NBL lacked in 2015, more companies are beginning to work with the league. Months after Ball signed with the Hawks, SLAM inked a deal to become their jersey sponsor for the 2019-2020 campaign.
For SLAM COO Dave Schnur, pairing with Illawarra was a natural fit. With the rising profiles of Ball and Hampton moving to Australia, which Schnur said is one of SLAM’s biggest audiences, the earned media opportunities were plentiful.
As the focal point of the Hawks, Ball’s jersey quickly became one of SLAM’s best-selling items. His play has also drawn viewers to SLAM’s Instagram feed, with a November 30 Instagram video of him against the Breakers eclipsing 495,000 views and one million impressions. Those videos have also been shared by Overtime, BallisLife, and other sports media platforms.
SLAM declined to comment on the financial details surrounding its Hawks partnership. The Hawks did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s been amazing to see the amount of earned media that we’ve gotten for SLAM over the last couple of months, and [Ball] still has three more months to play in Australia,” Schnur said. “Overall, I think it’s been an incredibly productive deal for us.”
While Schnur believes that both Ball and Hampton are good for the league, they’re basketball unicorns – much like LeBron James in high school. For Ball, he earned a global notoriety at just 15-years-old when brothers Lonzo and LiAngelo were also budding star players. More than five million people follow Ball’s Instagram, and his family has their own Facebook show, “Ball in the Family.”
Even though his Instagram following of more than 441,000 is significantly less than Ball’s, Hampton has also become a well-known name for his unprecedented business moves. While 19 of the top-20 recruits in the class of 2019 committed to blue-blood programs like Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina, Hampton was the only player to opt-out of college.
“The fact that [Ball] is going to be a top-three pick probably and he’s playing well in Australia – and if RJ Hampton’s also chosen in the first round or the lottery, it’s going to incentivize other players to go over to Australia and play in the NBL,” Schnur said.
With Ball’s Zion Williamson-esque appeal and Hampton’s unconventional path, Loeliger knows that the success of the 2019-2020 campaign will be difficult to duplicate. Thinking ahead, he’s already had discussions with class of 2020 and 2021 recruits to join the NBL under its Next Stars initiative, a program created for players not yet eligible for the NBA Draft but who don’t want to play college basketball.
Established by Loeliger, the NBL identifies players – regardless of home country – it thinks will fit the Next Stars profile, with the league working out professional deals with them. With Ball and Hampton as the two clear faces of Next Stars, it has given the players an opportunity to develop their craft – and also receive financial compensation and professional perks until they declare for the draft.
Loeliger concedes that the NBL finding the next LaMelo Ball – or even RJ Hampton – is easier said than done. But for him, he’s accepted that fate, because they both – and especially Ball – are bringing the masses to a league that in 2015 was closer to peril than prosperity.
“All eyes are now on the NBL,” Loeliger said. “LaMelo has turned a lot of heads, and now people are waiting to see who we bring through to follow in his footsteps. I think we’ll land some very significant talent that will ensure that people continue to pay very close attention to the NBL.”