There wasn’t a more fitting name for Melbourne’s newest basketball franchise than the Phoenix.
Rising from the ashes of the Giants, Magic, Titans and Dragons, who all at one stage occupied the role of Melbourne’s second team, the South East Melbourne Phoenix have taken the National Basketball League (NBL) by storm in their short history.
In just their third match, over 10,000 people packed into Melbourne Arena.
It’s a significant milestone for the league. Only seven years ago Melbourne United (then known as the Melbourne Tigers) played their home matches at the 3500 capacity State Netball Hockey Centre.
Seemingly on its deathbed at the time, the relaunch of the Tigers as United and the vigorous investment by league owner Larry Kestelman set the NBL on the path to where it is today: on the verge of something truly big.
“I think basketball’s becoming that third-biggest sport [in Melbourne]. Footy and cricket are the two main sports but the A-League has dipped so dramatically,” says Val Febbo, producer of 1116 SEN’s live coverage of Melbourne United matches known as ‘United Live’.
“It’s all to do with what Larry Kestelman and Jeremy Loeliger have done. They’ve been awesome for the league.”
It’s been a long road back for the NBL. The halcyon days of basketball’s boom in the 1990s ended at the turn of the century, mirroring the fall in interest in the NBA with the retirement of Michael Jordan. But unlike the NBA with its financial stability, the NBL collapsed hard. Teams came and went like clockwork, and media coverage seemed to shrink year on year.
Nowhere was the NBL’s suffering felt more than in Melbourne, the heartland of the game in Australia. Such was the fragile nature of the league that the South Dragons immediately disbanded following their NBL championship in 2009, citing financial difficulties after only three seasons.
The fragility created a lost generation of fans without a team, who the NBL are now trying to win back.
“I started watching games when I was 11 or 12,” says NBL fan and Betfair basketball expert Dylan Piscioneri.
“My team the Brisbane Bullets got kicked out of the league later on and I didn’t really know who to follow. That’s when I started watching the NBA instead.”
A foundation team, the Bullets folded in 2008, meaning the NBL was without a franchise in Australia’s third-biggest market. Following the Kestelman takeover of the league, the aims were simple: to stabilize the league and then to start fishing where the fish were.
The Bullets re-entered the league the year following the Melbourne United relaunch.
“When the Bullets came back I pretty much dived straight back in and ever since then I’ve been trying to watch it every single week and read up on it,” says Piscioneri.
It’s no surprise, Piscioneri says, that as the star-studded Melbourne United began to shine, the league started to come into its own.
“When Melbourne United started to get good, people started to take notice more in Victoria.
“It helps with the broadcast too. Fox Sports pulled their finger out and began to broadcast every single game. Knowing that you have access to every single game on Fox is a big help.”
With the game financially stable and United crowds booming, it was only a matter of time before Melbourne gained a second team. In came the Phoenix.
“Any derby in any sport is really good and to have it in the biggest sporting city in Australia is a bonus.” says Piscioneri.
Febbo agrees and says there’s no signs of a stop in growth.
“The crowd at the first Throwdown was huge. What they’re doing creating this rivalry is phenomenal.
“In the last year the league has gone from strength to strength. The atmosphere is a lot better than I thought it would be. The gameday experience for fans, you truly get goosebumps.”
With Melbourne United and the Phoenix now selling out arenas, what Piscioneri says is the best atmosphere in sport will only get better.
“The atmosphere at NBL matches is the best. Nobody does it better than the NBL, I tell that to everybody I know. The players love that as well, they love getting the crowd involved. Anyone that hasn’t been to an NBL game is sorely missing out,” he says.
“I love footy but if you head to the MCG and there’s only 40,000 people in it, it’s just not the same. You’re not going to get 100,000 unless it’s the finals. You go to any regular season Melbourne United game and it’s bonkers. It’s the best atmosphere in sport.”
But how do you maintain that growth and strengthen that connection with fans? Febbo says that the league and clubs are on the same page when it comes to media strategy.
“The basketballers are well and truly above any other league in terms of media output,” he says.
“From a media point of view the teams are really easy to deal with and they make things run like clockwork. The clubs are always there willing to help and willing to promote their brand.
“It’s so hard to get players from A-League soccer clubs from what I’ve experienced and they’re not as willing to promote the brand.”
The A-League and the NBL are summer competitors, and while the A-League seemed to have its moment in the sun earlier in the decade, the NBL is well and truly on the winning wave right now.
Piscioneri says the NBL has a chance to one-up the A-League again if they take advantage of the current talented crop of Australian basketballers.
“Ben Simmons is great when he comes back to Melbourne by holding camps and promoting local basketball in the community, same as Patty Mills. It’s up to the NBL to leverage their success.”
The NBL recently launched the NBL1, a second-tier competition played during the winter to help develop and nurture the next generation of men’s and women’s basketballers in Australia.
Michael Thompson is an NBL1 and WNBL commentator and says the sport is in good hands.
“The crowds were really good in its inaugural season. There were a couple thousand at the men’s and women’s grand finals and solid numbers throughout the finals,” he says.
“The NBL want to grow it into a tired-competition where you have the best teams from across the country take on each other in the finals.
“I saw scouts from both Phoenix and United at matches, and there were scouts from the 36ers as well as Illawarra, which is how Sam Froling won a contract. You also have a lot of NBL players who decide they want to play in the NBL1 like Dave Barlow and Majok Majok for Frankston.”
What’s the next frontier for the league? The oft-neglected apple isle it seems.
“The NBL is pushing really hard to get a Tasmanian team, they really want to grow the sport there as there’s few professional sporting teams,” says Thompson.
“The Blitz (pre-season competition) was very successful down there.”
The basketball boom has no doubt paved the way for many future Australian Boomers already.
Will it conquer the deep south? Anything seems possible for this league right now.