Basketball

The WNBL turned 40 this season and stands as Australia’s oldest semi-professional female sporting competition. But with women’s AFL, rugby league and cricket surging, is it losing ground? By Daniel Herborn.

WNBL put through the hoops

Marianna Tolo of the University of Canberra Capitals (left) in action against Adelaide Lightning’s Kayla Alexander during the WNBL grand final series in February.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

When Adelaide Crows co-captain Erin Phillips lifted the AFLW champion’s trophy aloft in front of more than 50,000 fans, the Australian women’s basketball fraternity could have been forgiven for viewing the moment with a bittersweet pang. The triumph was the apex of a remarkable cross-code transition by one of the best Australian basketballers of her generation, but the headlines and record-breaking crowds would have been foreign to many involved in Phillips’ old WNBL stomping ground.

Adelaide’s women’s basketball team, the Lightning, also made their grand final. Yet the latter’s journey was accompanied not by the surging crowds and sense of momentum the footballers enjoyed but a flirtation with extinction and a bid to attract more attendance through free entry.

The current season has again seen some dismal crowds, with a recent Friday night fixture in Sydney not drawing many more than 200 people. Media coverage has also been sparse, with even the launch of the landmark season going unremarked in most mainstream outlets.

Meanwhile, other women’s sporting leagues look to be on a sharp upward trajectory in terms of exposure. AFLW and the Women’s Big Bash League both set new benchmarks for attendance in their most recent seasons, while in rugby league the Women’s State of Origin was watched by more than 10,000 live and 1.5 million on television. The newer competitions may be enjoying what economists term late-mover advantage, or at least the fortuitous timing of having the gleam of newness when public sentiment is trending strongly towards a greater interest in female professional sport.

Four-time Olympian Lauren Jackson, the newly appointed women’s head of basketball for Basketball Australia, wrote in a recent op-ed that the WNBL “can take a lot of credit” for the trend and that it has “broken down barriers” on the path to gender equality in sport. The challenge for the league now is to navigate the newly rich landscape of women’s team sport where once it competed with little other than netball.

The league’s relatively low profile belies a richly talented and genuinely cosmopolitan playing group. Import players such as uber-athletic Canadian Kia Nurse (University of Canberra Capitals) and silken American point guard Lindsay Allen (Melbourne Boomers) add genuine star wattage.

The local talent is also outstanding, with all but a couple of Australia’s national team, the Opals, now back in the competition. Having corrected course after missing a podium finish in Rio, the Opals are among the leading contenders for a medal in Tokyo, though the public perception of their place in world basketball may be lagging behind the reality. “We have to tell people that we came No. 2 at the World Cup last year,” says Townsville Fire and Opals guard Tess Madgen. “And they’re always like, ‘Oh wow.’ ”

Opals captain Jenna O’Hea says expectations are sky-high for the 2020 Olympics. “We’re all extremely competitive people,” she says. “We want to win a medal and we’re not going to be bashful about saying that.”

Madgen and O’Hea, who have both had stints in Europe and the United States, firmly believe the WNBL is as strong as any league short of the unassailable WNBA. “In terms of that pathway into the Opals, it definitely stems from the WNBL,” O’Hea says. While it is less lucrative than some other leagues, O’Hea believes the WNBL offers players more in terms of the individual coaching and skill development that is so vital in the pressure cooker of international competition.

Even the Opals’ feats have not always provided a long-term boost for the WNBL’s profile. One possible circuit-breaker for a lift in exposure could come via telco entrepreneur and rich-lister Larry Kestelman. Earlier this year, there were reports the NBL owner was doing due diligence on the WNBL with a view to acquisition. Kestelman hasn’t expanded on what the league would look like under his ownership, but one obvious path would be aligning the franchises with those in the resurgent men’s competition, possibly playing double-headers.

For O’Hea, the possibility of such a radical reimagining of the league evokes mixed feelings. “It’s so great seeing the NBL advertised on billboards, the crowds they’re getting and all the marketing and support Larry’s putting behind it,” she says.

“On the flip side, I do worry that you’re sort of second fiddle to the NBL [under private ownership], always playing before the [men’s games] and people just show up at half-time or three-quarter-time. I think we’re capable of getting really good crowds ourselves. “

Perth Lynx coach Andy Stewart also believes any move towards remaking the WNBL as a sister league to the NBL is not the answer. “The challenge for the WNBL is to become a solid, productive, standalone product,” he says. He believes the resilience of the league will win out. “It’s a brilliant compliment to basketball people across four decades to keep this thing going.”

With or without a white-knight figure such as Kestelman, there are green shoots around the league. While the wage deals achieved by soccer’s Matildas and the women’s national T20 cricket team are some way off, pay conditions for players are improving. Current estimates on the percentage of players who are full-time basketballers during the WNBL season range from 50 per cent to 70 per cent. A minimum wage of $13,000 for the condensed season was introduced earlier this year, representing a whopping 73 per cent increase on the previous minimum.

While some franchises still struggle to attract sponsors and media coverage, coach Paul Goriss’s Canberra charges were warmly embraced on their winning run as more than 8000 fans poured into the AIS Arena for a grand final series charged with drama. The value of the media exposure and advertising the team generated across the season has been estimated at $66 million.

Beyond the numbers, Goriss believes his team has achieved something more intangible, having carved out a unique niche in the nation’s capital. “They inspire young girls and boys who aspire to be them because they’re professional, tough, great role models and great people.”

The WNBL has also regained a foothold in broadcast land after a concerning absence from television. Foxtel picked up the rights in 2017 and the league introduced live streaming of every game this season.

Players and coaches are bullish about the Foxtel impact, though regular free-to-air coverage remains elusive. Many miss the routine of the old Saturday afternoon ABC games. For a young Tess Madgen, the fixtures were essential viewing and a chance to see her hometown hero Rachael Sporn in action.

The absence from television fed into a fear that the newer AFLW would pick off the best high-flying, long-limbed young athletes. There is now more of a consensus the codes can coexist and that the growth of these apparent rivals can help demonstrate the viability of professional leagues for women.

No one is kicking stones, but there is a real yearning for a new dawn. For Goriss, a higher media profile for the league would be welcome. “That’s what the girls deserve,” he says. “They’re world-class athletes. They deserve that recognition to be on TV in front of everybody.”

O’Hea also strikes a note of optimism. “The product just keeps getting better and I think those opportunities will come,” she says. “There are some exciting things happening, but I always want more.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 7, 2019 as "Through the hoops". Subscribe here.

Daniel Herborn
is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.