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Sports Factor -

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Can Australian basketball bounce back?

Recently the hoop dreams of local basketballers seem more like sporting nightmares, so what does
the game have to do to achieve its goals?

Transcript

This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete
accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying
speakers.

Mick O'Regan: We're looking at local basketball this week. Now this is a situation where hoop
dreams are seemingly turning into sporting nightmares.

Not only the balls are bouncing, so are some of the pay cheques!

In fact to many Australians, basketball is still seen as the ultimate American game: Michael
Jordan, Magic Johnson and Dennis Rodman are emblazoned across the international image of the game.

In fact here's how a mid-1990s edition of this program, The Sports Factor, presented the then
growing enthusiasm for the sport.

BASKETBALL MONTAGE

Mick O'Regan: My dream is to dunk basketball back in the boom times.

Now since then, things have definitely slowed a bit, but we're still not too shabby when it comes
to shooting hoops. In fact, as a basketball nation Australia's ranked second in the world.

So, why is the local game battling headlines of doom and gloom, and why is the current image one of
floundering finances and struggling clubs, where licence owners have other concerns.

Eddie Groves: My concentration solely in my life has to be on ABC [Child Care] right now. And even
today you know, is a distraction for me. But after the nine years that we've put in this and what
Geoff's done as well, you know, I'm not going to just have it said as that Oh well, it's gone, it's
closed you know. I still own the licence, we're still paying the bills, we're still paying the
players, we've honoured our commitments, and that's important to me to do, and I've said if it
hasn't happened by 30th June, then for the respect of the other players and the clubs and the NBL,
then I would hand back in the licence.

Mick O'Regan: Child-care entrepreneur and owner of the Brisbane Bullets licence, Eddie Groves.

At the moment, there are two prominent clubs in the National Basketball League, the NBL, the Sydney
Kings and the Brisbane Bullets, that are trying desperately to get their sponsorship arrangements
in order.

Later in the program I'll speak to the man who's just put up his hand to rescue the Kings, Mike
Wrublewski.

Up until now, the owner of the Kings has been Tim Johnston, of the fuel technology company,
Firepower. Firepower have got sponsorship problems across a range of sports: basketball, motor
racing and both rugby codes.

And it was recently revealed that James Henderson, the man in charge of basketball's imminent
10-year strategy report, also worked for Firepower, though this wasn't revealed to the NBL.

So, how serious is the situation facing Australian basketball?

The bloke running the League is Chuck Harmison, and I asked him to respond to the contention that
the game is on its deathbed in Australia.

Chuck Harmison: Oh heavens, it's not on its deathbed, it's got a cold, maybe some would say it's
got a nasty cold, but it's certainly by no stretch of the imagination is it on its deathbed. We've
got 11 strong teams in the National Basketball League, we've got the Sydney Kings and the Brisbane
Bullets who have caused us a little bit of drama in the last couple of weeks but underlying all of
that is the health of the entire sport, you know, we've got hundreds of thousands of kids playing
the sport on a daily basis, we've got an international reputation that sees us ranked No.2 in the
world by our governing body, FIBA, so I think the health of the sport is sound, it's just there's
some short-term problems with the high profile end in the National Basketball League.

Mick O'Regan: But the high profile end in the National Basketball is very much a sharp point in
terms of the game's public profile. I mean the Sydney Kings and the Brisbane Bullets are both teams
that are well-entrenched in the public's mind as key elements of the National Basketball League. To
start with the Sydney Kings, how serious are the financial problems affecting that club?

Chuck Harmison: Well certainly the problems affecting it under its current ownership are serious,
there's no question of that, I'm not going to dodge that. But in the last couple of days we've
gotten indication from a number of people who may be able to take over the running of the club, and
I'm trying to get a meeting with the current owner of the club, Tim Johnston, who is back in
Australia from an overseas trip, and I hope to see him before the end of this week, sit down, talk
to him.

Mick O'Regan: What do you need to know from him?

Chuck Harmison: Well really, what his plans are.

Mick O'Regan: But do you need guarantees that he's going to financially underwrite the club?

Chuck Harmison: If his plan is to maintain ownership of the club, then I would certainly need that.
My understanding is that he was certainly going to entertain ideas and opportunities to get rid of
the club or to sell the club.

Mick O'Regan: And Mr Thompson of course is the owner of the fuel technology company, Firepower,
which has also been embroiled in controversies regarding its sponsorship both for the Western Force
Rugby Union team and for the South Sydney Rugby League football club in Sydney. For you, do you see
basically a poor corporate link here, that Firepower should not be a company within the NBL?

Chuck Harmison: I don't want to go that far. His issues with Firepower are something entirely
removed from his running of the Kings. He is the owner of the Kings, Firepower is not the owner of
the Kings. So his issues with other sports, that's for them to work out, but our problem is, we
need an owner there that will meet his commitments to the players and the staff, and to properly
represent the team and properly market the team in the Sydney market.

Mick O'Regan: Now indeed I want to turn then to the issue of James Henderson. Now James Henderson
is the Chief Executive of a group called Dynamic Sports Entertainment Group, and Mr Henderson is
due to give a comprehensive report on basketball global strategy over the next ten years. But it's
also been revealed that he didn't disclose to you a connection to Firepower.

Chuck Harmison: That's correct. Now that story broke in The Sydney Morning Herald the other day,
and I've got to say The Herald has run a series of articles against Firepower, and this is just
another one, I'm not defending Firepower in any way, but we've spoken to James, we don't as a
sport, and Basketball Australia and the NBL, don't see it as a conflict of interest.

Mick O'Regan: But just to be clear there. I mean Mr Henderson has developed Firepower's 2006 global
marketing strategy according to press reports, and he's also due to give the comprehensive report
on your sport's overall decade-long strategy. I mean that would seem to me to be an extraordinary
conflict of interest and one that wasn't disclosed to the NBL.

Chuck Harmison: I don't agree with you on that Mick, to be honest, that was done two years ago,
James' company, DSEC does work for hundreds of companies in a sponsorship role. He hasn't had
contact with Johnston in 18 months. OK, he took a rap over the knuckles for not telling us that
he'd done this two years ago, but to say that's going to compromise his report, and I would
certainly want to see the output of the report before I even make a comment on that.

Mick O'Regan: But I suppose people are alarmed Chuck, that as they await the report, they now know
it's been written by someone who was also developing a global marketing strategy for a sponsor who
seems to have failed in their ability to finance the club.

Chuck Harmison: That's their opinion if they want to take that view. I'm of the view let's see the
report, and see how good and comprehensive the report is.

Mick O'Regan: When you expect to read it?

Chuck Harmison: We'll get the final report at the end of June.

Mick O'Regan: To turn to the Bullets, obviously Eddie Groves from ABC Child-care, was the person
who was writing the cheques for the Brisbane Bullets. Now how secure are they as a club?

Chuck Harmison: Well again, they're in a slightly different situation. Eddie's problems are arising
outside of basketball completely; it's disappointing because we as a sport, and Eddie thought he
had an owner in place about five weeks ago, a consortium or that group didn't do due diligence
quickly enough and didn't form the syndicate, an economically viable syndicate, quickly enough and
five weeks down the track they decided to pull the pin on going ahead and buying a licence, which
as I've said in the media, put us five weeks behind the eightball. We have got to have some
certainty going into the 2008/2009 season. How many teams are going to be in the league, where are
we going to be playing, what markets are there? So it's really left us in a bind in Brisbane, but
having said that, again I've had two or three expressions of interests from different people up
there, and different groups wanting to help out or take over the running of the Bullets.

Mick O'Regan: What have the crowd attendances been like for the most recent games of the Kings and
the Bullets? Has there been a concomitant drop in crowd numbers as the clubs have struggled
off-field?

Chuck Harmison: Surprisingly the Bullets crowd actually increased last year. They were up some 3%.
The Kings, they were stagnant, maybe down a couple of percent, but the Grand Final series, game 5
in that series had 10,240 people, an absolute sell-out. And that was achieved - and I must say this
- without any marketing dollars being spent whatsoever, it was on editorial and it was on word of
mouth. So that tells me there's an underlying support for the game as long as we put on a good
product.

Mick O'Regan: Because you would be aware, I'm sure more than most people, that there is in the
media a persistent view that basketball in Australia has simply failed to generate the sort of fan
club link, that affiliation, that passion, that would be the hallmark of Australian Rules clubs, or
Rugby League clubs especially, but also increasingly football clubs in the sense of Soccer. Do you
think basketball has welded that link between club and community?

Chuck Harmison: Not as much as we should have. We had the opportunity, if you go back 10 or 15
years during the '80s and the mid-'90s. We had the opportunity I think to create that fan avidity,
but as a sport I think we started to focus on being an entertainment product rather than a sports
product.

Mick O'Regan: Which is the reverse of what people like John O'Neill at the Rugby Union and formerly
the Football Federation, it's the reverse of what they say. They keep talking about how their sport
has to be an entertainment product and compete in the entertainment market.

Chuck Harmison: It does, but it has to have that underlying fan avidity, because the entertainment
market has become so much more cluttered over the last 10 or 15 years.

Mick O'Regan: And the hallmark of that for basketball is the quality, the skill base of the game.
And at the highest level, people will see basketball of the highest quality?

Chuck Harmison: That's exactly right. I mean if you ask anyone in the world their perception of the
National Basketball League, they will say it's the top ten professional league in the world.
There's no question of that. We attract world-class players, we develop players that go and play in
other leagues in the world, including the National Basketball Association of America.

Mick O'Regan: The CEO of the National Basketball League, Chuck Harmison.

So, what does local basketball have to do to entrench itself in the national sporting psyche?

Lindsay Gaze has been connected with the sport for as long as almost anyone in the country.

He's played for the Boomers, as well as coached them at Olympic and World Championship level.

When I spoke to Lindsay Gaze I suggested that basketball hadn't insinuated itself into the fabric
of our national sporting culture in the way that Australian Rules or Netball or the Rugby codes
had.

Now in Lindsay's opinion, that's not basketball's problem, it's mine.

Lindsay Gaze: Well, I don't think you're being observant, because everywhere you go now, around
Australia, you see the basketball hoops in the backyard, in playgrounds, in school yards, it's all
over. So I think you might have blinkered vision there, with all due respect, and the sport is
growing from those very basic foundations. I mean I suppose it's more so here in Victoria than it
is in other States, and Victoria sets an example to other States, and that's acknowledged, but
nevertheless, around Queensland and Brisbane when I've travelled around there, I see it there in
the same way as it is throughout the rest of the country.

So it is being played there. But the one thing I think basketball has done a very poor job
throughout my time, and I've been as much responsible as anyone else, is that we've been very inept
in regard to propagating the sport and the propaganda of the sport. And we're not so good at
dealing with the anti-propaganda either. So those people say Oh, basketball's gone on the wane a
bit, hasn't it? And they don't understand the sport, and we don't do a very good job of countering
that and getting the facts out to the public at large. In fact, right throughout Australia, we
don't have enough facilities for the demand.

Mick O'Regan: There are more people wanting to play than can play?

Lindsay Gaze: Exactly. Right throughout the country where everyone's proclaiming that if only we
could get another basketball gym, if we could get a gym in a school, if the local government would
put up a gym, then we'd have that many more that would be able to play. So right now, we're having
multiple byes in competitions where people have to sit out on a regular basis enabling other people
to play. So generally there's a very strong demand, and this is at the recreational level of
course, there are more people than we have facilities available.

Mick O'Regan: Just in terms of what happened, because if I think back a decade, the mid-'90s seem
to be a real flowering of basketball. It was regularly on free-to-air television, it attracted the
sort of corporate sponsorship of the calibre of Mitsubishi Motors, it was a sport that to me at
least felt as though it was on the move. But it has waned since then. Where do you see the points
of decline and why do you think they occurred?

Lindsay Gaze: You know, you can't answer that in one sentence. But the National League had a very
good sponsor this year with Hummer, in fact the contribution that they made to the National League
this year was greater than in any given year that Mitsubishi did. So that was there, and it should
be recognised that sport on television these days right throughout the world, with a few
exceptions, is a product of cable or pay-tv. There are very few sports now that are the domain
exclusively of free-to-air television. So that's happened throughout the world, and in our case,
Fox [Sports] have been great for basketball. They are very pleased with the response that they get
from basketball on Fox, so we are in probably as good a shape in regard to television, as most
other countries around the world, given the population of Australia.

That's part of the change. Now if you think back to the '90s, what was happening there, Michael
Jordan was voted the most popular sportsperson in Australia, and when that happened of course, the
AFL football and other codes, went into meltdown mode, and said We've got to do something to
counter basketball, because it's taking over. And concurrent with that is that the NBA had an
office in Melbourne, they were doing a lot of promotion of the NBA, hence the attention and the
attraction of NBA players to our youth at that time. So there was a lot going on at that time. The
NBA's merchandise was second to any country in the world to the United States, and that was the
reason why they had staff and marketing here.

So all of that had an impact at that time, and they were spending a lot of money, but that didn't
work for the NBA. They closed down their office here and just had an Asian office, so the marketing
campaign of the NBA has changed, albeit that that's cranking up again with so many of our players
doing well in the United States, and I don't know whether it was very well reported recently,
Andrew Bogut, one of the Melbourne products, just signed for $80-million, so he'd be the highest
paid sportsperson of Australian sport. Not bad for basketball.

Mick O'Regan: And of course, Andrew Bogut plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. I'm very interested in the
role of people like Andrew Bogut, because as you've mentioned and as Chuck Harmison mentioned
earlier in the program, at the grassroots, basketball does seem to be going well. There's a lot of
young people who are joining teams, albeit that I don't see enough of them in the street, I
acknowledge. But I'm interested in the sort of models, the sort of role models. Now you've got
someone like Andrew Bogut playing in North America, you've mentioned that in the mid-'90s, Michael
Jordan was simply the sporting personality that everyone knew. Has there been a problem in
Australia that even though there's enthusiasm at youth levels, that our club competition always
paled into insignificance compared to the NBA, in the way football (and by that I mean Soccer) once
paled into insignificance compared to say the English Premier League?

Lindsay Gaze: Well I guess that's your perception, but in the United States and other countries
around the world, they marvel at Australia and wonder why or how we can be so competitive. So I
said before that we don't do a very good job of promoting ourselves. But around the rest of the
world, they give great recognition to Australia, and the way that they have developed to the point
where now Australia as a country is ranked No.2 in the world.

Mick O'Regan: What does that mean that we're ranked No.2? That our national team is ranked No.2?

Lindsay Gaze: No. The way it is, because it's always been a bragging point for different countries
to say how good they are, and FIBA, the international body, has developed a ranking system that
gives the results of the national teams at the various FIBA events. And so these FIBA events are
the Junior Men, Junior Women, Youth Men, Youth Women, Senior Men, Senior Women, players with
intellectual disabilities, or Wheelchair Basketball. Australia ranks, or has ranked, in the last
four years, within the top five in all of those divisions. No other country's come close to that.

In every division we've been ranked in the top five, and so they measure it over the last four
years with our women winning the Gold Medal and youth teams winning Gold and Silver Medals, and
others competing very, very well and being in medal contention, it's not particularly well known
that Australia has done so well internationally at one of the most popular sports around the world,
and one wonders what would happen to the image of Soccer if Soccer happened to be No.2 in the
world. It's quite a comparison really.

Mick O'Regan: It is. I mean it's very interesting to think of the way in which people from the
Football Federation drew from the 2006 Football World Cup, and obviously Australia competing very
well and surprisingly well I think for many European and Latin American commentators.

Look just finally, you've mentioned the success of our teams. The Olympics is a key crucible for
evaluating the relative strength of teams. What should we be expecting as spectators from our
National Basketball teams in Beijing?

Lindsay Gaze: Well we're very hopeful for our women's team of course because they won the World
Championships just two years ago. We have the best player in the world, well arguably the best two
players in the world, and they would be ranked, despite what I've just said, they'd be probably
ranked No.2, and the United States No.1, but any time they play the United States sees Australia as
their main rival. So we are expecting big things from the women. I think our men's team will have
the best quality players that we've had in our history, we're just a little bit fragile in the
guard spot, but we're very optimistic and we think that they should be medal contenders.

The draw will be important of course, and in any tournament like this, it's not just when you win,
or if you lose, the timing of a loss can be absolutely critical in the way the draw happens. You
might just have one loss for the tournament, which our Youth men team did, we had one loss for the
whole tournament, and finished fifth. So the timing of those losses could be important. But we are
expecting both teams to be medal contenders and we're hoping that there'll be a lot of attention
given to those games and they get a good result for us.

Mick O'Regan: Let's hope so.

Basketball legend Lindsay Gaze who's both played for and coached the Australian team.

In the end it was always going to take money, new money, to restore the financial integrity of the
Sydney Kings basketball team.

And that's what seemed to have happened yesterday, when the original licence owner, Mike
Wrublewski, leapt back into the fray with a plan to buy back the licence and organise a new
sponsorship deal.

For the deal to go ahead, Wrublewski will need the other NBL owners to approve the transfer of the
Kings licence over to him at a meeting in Sydney today.

So, what prompted him to act?

Mike Wrublewski: Oh, you know, I just think the publicity that the Kings have had recently, and
everyone's aware of the problems that are there at the present time, I think they were facing a
position where there was no future, it looked like it was going to go into extinction, and
truthfully, as one of the people that started it many, many years ago, 20 years ago, I just
couldn't let that happen.

Mick O'Regan: And you spoke personally to Tim Johnston from Firepower?

Mike Wrublewski: I did.

Mick O'Regan: I realise that would be commercial-in-confidence, but is it possible to give us the
contours of that conversation?

Mike Wrublewski: Well all I can tell you is that I haven't had any other details except what I've
met with the person, and I can tell you he's a very charming man. He genuinely loves the sport. He
spent in the tune of $4-million to support the Kings, and I don't know many people that are
prepared to do that. Now he's copped a whole lot of bad press and he realises that, and I think he
realised after speaking to me, that there was just no way that he was going to be able to recover
the situation while he was involved. It just wasn't going to happen. So he agreed that the best
thing forward would be for me to take over the team.

Mick O'Regan: Now according to a report in yesterday's Daily Telegraph newspaper, you basically
said to him that he needed to draw a line in the sand and move away, that he shouldn't consider
re-entering the fray, and remaining as a sponsor of the Kings.

Mike Wrublewski: Yes, I did say that. I didn't say anything about being a sponsor of the Kings,
although I don't think that's going to happen. I was talking primarily about his ownership of the
Kings, and the fact that it's got to a position where the debt problem, the player problem, the
media problem, the problem with the NBL and all the threats that are going on, we had to draw a
line in the sand. No-one can take on those responsibilities and think that they're going to be able
to continue the team in its current shape.

Mick O'Regan: When you sold the team to a consortium led by the former Sydney coach, Bob Turner, I
think back in 2000, the brand was riding high, the '90s had been an extremely good period for
Australian Basketball; what went wrong?

Mike Wrublewski: Well it was a great period for Australian Basketball, but truthfully, one of the
reasons I sold was because at that time, I saw that we were making some decisions that I think
we're living with right now.

Mick O'Regan: What were they?

Mike Wrublewski: Well you know, we changed the season to summer, and I warned everybody that we're
very much a corporate sport, very much around hospitality, you start switching the summer you're
going to lose people, and you're going to lose dramatically your corporate support. And that's all
we relied on to survive. We didn't have leagues clubs to fund us, we needed to be a business as
well as a sport. And I fought so hard, but in the end I lost, and unfortunately I couldn't move
them, and I just gave up. I couldn't go any further.

Mick O'Regan: What's this going to cost you to put together this plan that you have to get the
Kings back on track? How deep are your pockets?

Mike Wrublewski: Well it's not about how deep are my pockets, I'm now a lot older than I was 20
years ago, and so I don't have quite the energy that I had at that time, but it's a huge
commitment. I would say there's a budget of at least $4-million to run a professional basketball
team today. That's an annual cost. And I don't expect that to be coming out of my pocket. In the
days when we were really doing well, we had a budget of over $5-million a year, and we could afford
to at least to do that, and spent quite a considerable amount of money marketing the game, and
that's where it needs to get back to.

Mick O'Regan: Do you think there are the potential sponsors out there? How will you pitch this to
people who you think might be interested?

Mike Wrublewski: Well look, the finals series and the way the Kings have been playing, shows that
they're a potential support there. They had 10-1/2-thousand people here at the last game that
filled the Entertainment Centre, so there's obviously still a huge love and a desire to see the
team stay alive and to be successful. We just haven't had the management off the court. I agree,
it's really difficult at the moment with the sponsorship dollar and the corporate dollar, and it
might take a few years. But my fight is going to be to try and change the NBL again and change the
way they're operating and where they are at the present time. We need to change our season, we need
to become a little bit more media friendly, we need to get back to the schools and the grassroots,
we need to have a serious look at the mistakes we've made and maybe we can recover the sport.

Mick O'Regan: Now Lindsay Gaze a few moments ago on this program, challenged me when I said that I
didn't see lots of kids shooting hoops around parks and on courts around the place, that it seemed
to me that basketball had retreated as an obvious sport at street level. Do you think it has? Do
you agree with him that I'm not looking in the right place, or do you think it has retreated?

Mike Wrublewski: No look, I think it's a little bit of both. I think down in Melbourne there's
still a huge groundswell of basketball and at the schools level, if you look at it and analyse, the
kids that are playing sport at schools level there are more kids playing basketball than ever
before. Is it as social a sport as it used to be? Does it have the awareness level and the
consciousness and everybody's general perception? The answer's most probably No, we don't have a
clear commercial television partner and therefore it's not in your face all the time. Whereas in
the '90s, we were in your face and we were the growing sport. We just didn't capitalise on it
properly.

Mick O'Regan: Right. So to get a TV partner, is that crucial to the changes you want to see?

Mike Wrublewski: I think it's absolutely crucial. I think FoxSports have done a fantastic job and
continue to do a great job, but we need to find a commercial television station that sees some
value in being involved with us.

Mick O'Regan: Needs to be free-to-air?

Mike Wrublewski: It needs to be free-to-air.

Mick O'Regan: If you don't see the game, the game won't grow?

Mike Wrublewski: That's my belief. You know, right now it's situations like the Andrew Boguts of
this world who have just signed a contract for $80-million are a result of what we did 10 to 15
years ago. Ten and 15 years we may not see that, because we've got kids that should be playing
basketball, maybe playing AFL, because they see a greater future there. So you know, we need to
create that path again for young kids to aspire to play at the highest possible level.

Mick O'Regan: So for you coming back in to buy the licence back, is it heart or head?

Mike Wrublewski: Oh God, right now I think it's more heart than it is head. I think it's a
challenge that is going to be a tough challenge and truthfully, if they weren't in the dire straits
they were in, I'd most probably still be just a spectator and not be throwing my hat in the right
to try to do something about it. But you know, it hurts me to think that the players can't get paid
and the clubs in such disrepute and on the verge of falling over. I think I've got to do something.
You've got to try and do something.

Mick O'Regan: Have you got confidence in the current executive, the current leadership of the NBL?

Mike Wrublewski: I think Chuck Harmison is doing an excellent job and I think that the people at
the NBL are doing the best they possibly can, and they're trying to do some changes and I'm more
than happy to be a part of those, and discuss those. I'm not blaming the current people, I'm
blaming the people ten years ago when I was involved. I think we're the ones that have left them
with the headache. The only thing you can blame these people for is for not reacting to that
headache and making further changes.

Mick O'Regan: Just a final question: What will be the indication of your success or failure? How
long will we have to wait, or will you wait, for that key criterion to emerge that Yes, this has
been a good move, or No, we've wasted our dough?

Mike Wrublewski: Well you know, first of all I've got to get past the NBL and the other owners, and
that's going to happen today, so we've going to have to wait and see how they think about it. They
may have just about had enough and decided that they don't want to actually transfer the licence,
if that's the case well so be it. Then we won't have to wait very long at all. Otherwise I'd say
two or three years to see some dramatic change.

Mick O'Regan: Two or three years, well let me invite you now back onto the program in two or three
years.

Mike Wrublewski: No, invite me next week, I might need your help next week, don't worry about two
or three years, mate!

Mick O'Regan: All right. Mike Wrublewski thank you very much for being on The Sports Factor on ABC
Radio National.

Mike Wrublewski: Thank you, Mick.

Mick O'Regan: Mike Wrublewski, the once and likely future Kings owner.

And that's The Sports Factor for this week.

My thanks to the team of producer, Andrew Davies, technical producer Jim Ussher, and to Sabrina
Lipovic in Archives.

Head to the web for all the details on accessing the show online.