Author’s Note: This is yet another digression into talking about sports. Those of you who are not interested, please feel free to tune out. I’m sure I’ll write a technical post soon!
The title says it all: the WNBL (the Australian Women’s Basketball League) needs an All-Star game.
Oh, you wanted more than that? Sure thing.
Firstly, though, a confession. This was not my idea first. In fact, the whole idea was suggested to me by watching the WNBL video podcast. In hindsight, however, it’s obvious. To explain why it’s obvious, though, I need to cover a few things.
The Problem in the WNBL
Let’s start by getting something cleared up: Australia is sports mad. This is an acknowledged fact around the world, but I want to provide some evidence. The single most popular sport in Australia is Australian Rules Football. The overwhelming popularity of this sport is such that the Grand Final, which determines the overall winner of the league, is the best-attended national sporting league event in the world. The Final is held in the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG), the tenth largest stadium in the world, with a seating capacity of 100,000 in normal usage and closer to 110,000 when it hosts the Grand Final. In this enormous arena, the Grand Final is nevertheless sold out every year, and has been for at least as long as I’ve been alive.
According to Wikipedia, last year’s Grand Final was also watched by 5 million Australians on television. This is in a nation with a population of 22 million. Put another way, very nearly 1/4 of Australia watched the game live, not counting the number who were in some manner unable to see it.
I tell you this to highlight the fact that Australia has no shortage of people prepared to watch sports. The next most popular sporting event is probably the annual State of Origin Rugby League series of games, which will also regularly sell out stadia and reaches enormous television audiences, despite only involving teams from two of Australia’s six states and two territories. There is enormous appetite for watching and enjoying sports in Australia.
We now turn our attention to basketball. Historically, Basketball has always been a relatively small sport in Australia. The Perth Wildcats probably have the highest registered membership of any basketball team in Australia at nearly 8,000, and the Melbourne Tigers play their home games at Hisense Arena, which seats just over 10,000, though I doubt they ever fill it.
These numbers, however, are hugely better than the WNBL. I’ve struggled to find good numbers here, but my best guesses are that the smallest mid-season games are likely held in front of comfortably less than 1,000 supporters.
Given the numbers I pointed out earlier, it’s unlikely that this poor attendance is due to lack of interest in additional sporting events. The next suggestion is that it could be due to the league being of a low standard.
This is hogwash. Currently, the league counts amongst its active players eight who played for the Australian National Team at the Olympics, several others who have played for the national team in previous competitions and missed the Olympics either due to injury or age, and a few who played for other national teams at the Olympics. In fact, if I do a quick headcount of just the Australians, I count 6 Basketball World Championship Bronze Medals, 4 World Championship Gold Medals, 8 Olympic Bronze Medals and 13 Olympic Silver medals.
The league also counts amongst it several players who play in the big-league (by which I mean the WNBA). It was tough for me to get a good set of squad numbers here, but off the cuff I can point to at least 4 active in the WNBA, with a few extra who either used to play there or have been drafted but are yet to start playing there (I’m talking about you, Rachel Jarry).
What is clear is that the league is almost certainly at a higher level than the NBL (leaving aside the discussion about men’s versus women’s basketball). So what’s with the low viewership?
My guess? Exposure.
Right now, there is one WNBL game televised a week, at 4pm on a Saturday on ABC. I’m actually impressed that there’s this much, given the relatively low viewership numbers for the sport. This, along with relatively poor reporting in other media, means that there is little exposure to the WNBL in Australia.
The Olympics will almost certainly have helped, but unless something is done to capitalise on the exposure gained there this gain will be steadily lost. What should we do?
The answer is deceptively simple: hold an All-Star game! The NBL has reintroduced theirs this year (it’s on the 22nd of December, you can watch it on NBL.tv), and it’s going to be awesome.
The All-Star game is a huge draw. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the fans vote for their favourite players in the league, and the top twenty are chosen and sorted into two teams. These teams then play an exhibition game, with nothing on the line but impressing the fans. This allows people to get to see the best players in the league showboating and generally playing some great basketball.
Why would this help with the WNBL’s popularity? There is one simple reason: the All-Star game, with its high standard of play and lack of regular-season teams, is approachable. You don’t need to support a team or know anything about the league to get something out of it. This means that people who already follow the league will have an easier time convincing new people to come and see the game, or at least to watch it on television. Furthermore, this lower barrier to entry encourages more aggressive television promotion, which will also lead to more people watching the game.
And fundamentally, each new person who watches the game is another person who might get converted to watching the sport. Realistically, high profile events like this are what acts as a gateway to entry to the sport. This is what this sport needs. The WNBL is a great league with a viewership well below what it deserves, and having a high profile event like this is exactly what it needs.
The event would have a side benefit as well: it would make the league more attractive to players. This is not actually something the WNBL struggles with, as you can see from the number of Australian Opals who play in the league, but it’s always helpful to be a bigger draw. Currently, if you play a great season you get nominated to the All-Star Five or win MVP or Finals MVP. These are great honours (by the way, my picks for MVP? Jenna O’Hea. With Lauren Jackson injured at the minute, Jenna O’Hea is probably the best player in the league, though she’s yet to really show off), but ideally we want to be able to honour the broader spectrum of players who play excellent basketball but might not get to make the All-Star Five: people like Elyse Penaluna or Jess Bibby. This would be the perfect venue to show the incredible talent of these ladies off to a wider audience.
Finally, there’s the obvious benefit to the league: more viewers means more prestige and more money. This benefits the league in such an obvious way that I refuse to devote any more than the following sentence to it. Liz Cambage, fundamentally, plays in China because the money is better; if the league had more money, she could play in it again. That should be reason enough.
Let’s Get It Done!
Realistically, I’m one fan with a website that 20-odd people read. I have no pull here. But this is what I get to do: write opinionated pieces about how we can improve an awesome league. So I’m going to do my part, by tweeting everyone I can a link to this article and ask them to petition the league to introduce an All-Star game.
Because it’ll be awesome.