From Andrew Bogut to LaMelo Ball, NBL Owner is Attracting Major Eyeballs with Australian Hoops

MELBOURNE -- This year, 2015 NBA champion and Australian Andrew Bogut played professionally outside of the United States for the first time with the Sydney Kings in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL). This summer, fellow Aussie and Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum joined the ownership group of the NBL’s expansion team, the South East Melbourne Phoenix. And LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, both 2020 projected first-round picks in the NBA draft, have joined the NBL’s Next Stars program.

Then, on August 24, the Boomers earned their first-ever win over USA Basketball's Senior squad, 98-94, as longtime San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills erupted for 30 points. The result was one of two exhibitions games staged as part of Australia’s biggest basketball event ever, in front of more than 100,000 fans total at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium. That same squad will look to ride that success into the FIBA Basketball World Cup, which tips off in China on August 31.

This truly is the golden age of Australian basketball.

CloseUp360’s Aussie contributor Nick Metallinos sat down with NBL owner Larry Kestelman, who took over in 2015, at the Mitchell & Ness Australian distribution HQ in Melbourne to go inside the country’s recent basketball boom, including the league’s collaboration with the NBA.

(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Larry Kestelman NBL

Larry Kestelman became the owner and executive director of the NBL in 2015. (Courtesy of the NBL)

CloseUp360: We’ve seen the game grow in Australia over the last few years. Now, we’re hosting Team USA here for some exhibitions. Just give me your thoughts on the current state of basketball at the moment and what you’ve seen from it.

Larry Kestelman: Well, I think it shows, No. 1, how much love there is for the game. It was always there. I can’t take any credit for the grassroots and the love of the actual game of basketball. I think it was always there, and it was our professional game that probably led it there. So to see 100,000 people, 110,000 people showing up for a couple games of basketball [at Marvel Stadium for two games between the USA and Australia] is pretty surreal considering, when we took over [in 2015], there were 800 people showing up to a game of basketball.

We’ve definitely come a long way, and not for one second do we take anything for granted or rest on our laurels. There’s still a lot of work to do, but you do have to pinch yourself and say, “I think we’ve done something right.” And I think some of it reflects what you guys are doing in your [retail] businesses and the interest in the game. Whether it’s NBA or NBL, in some ways, it almost doesn’t matter. If you love basketball, it’s the same thing.

CU360: How have you managed to bridge the gap between the NBA and the NBL, and build those relationships?

LK: I remember having the first conversation with the NBA. I think it was on a boat with a drink. That’s usually a good place to start talking. It’s a truth serum. After a couple of drinks and a bit of relaxing, I’m not an enemy and they were truthful. And I don’t think anyone can shy away from it: basketball in Australia probably let a few people down. A few broken promises, over promise, under deliver. And the NBA is a very professional business with their own agendas, and they just stepped away a little bit and said, “We’re just gonna do our own thing.” Now, “We think Australia’s great, grassroots is strong, they’re buying our vision.”

CU360: Do you think we’ll see an NBA regular-season game in Australia soon?

LK: I honestly don’t think it will happen in the very near future, if I’m being totally honest. The NBA’s priority is to grow markets [that aren’t as big as ours].

CU360: LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton are skipping their freshman year of college to play professionally in the NBL’s Next Stars program. What does that mean for basketball here?

LK: The exciting part is the ability to come and dream up a concept, and everyone here who’s in business does that every day. You think about what ideas, what could be next. Sometimes it takes a couple of years, so this idea was dreamt up about two, two-and-a-half years ago of how do we attract this talent? To have those guys here two years later. I’m not talking about basketball skills, but to have someone like LaMelo Ball, who’s a global brand, [nearly] five million followers on Instagram, what that does for our league globally.

We received, and not to over-exaggerate, that is the actual number that we’ve been given by the external people that track our media. We received $1.4 billion worth of global media around one announcement of LaMelo Ball. So you talk about putting our league on the map. Through those type of initiatives, that’s absolutely doing it. And the NBA, I think for the first couple minutes, they weren’t sure if it’s a good or a bad thing. They weren’t sure how we did this or how did this come about, how did this all happen.

I think after I had a conversation with them today, they’re now, I think, looking at it more as a positive than a negative. It grows the game globally and we were sort of holding our breath to see if we’d pissed them off. We weren’t sure how they would look at it. So we didn’t surprise them; we told them preemptively. But I’m not sure if they quite thought we were going to get it off the ground.

CU360: What sort of feedback have you been getting from the NBA and people in America?

LK: The feedback is fantastic. I think everyone now recognizes that this is the second-best league in the world as a product compared to the NBA. You can argue that maybe some team in EuroLeague is better, and one day maybe we’ll find out who’s better or who’s worse. But I look at this as an overall product, and as a product of basketball, I don’t think anyone would argue that there’s any better product apart from the NBA, so they’re thrilled.

It’s great when your business is doing well and people know about this. When the business is doing well, you’re actually able to step back and look at this as a global game, and that’s what the NBA does. They want to see the game grow. They realize if we grow it here and we do well, it helps them, it grows the game. So they’re very appreciative and they said, “We have a very strong relationship and we’re now exploring other things. What else can we do together?” The No. 1 thing, the word trust, to me, is very very important. And I’m a “wog,” so you grow up with a bit of that. And contracts are great, but trust is probably even more important, and we’ve got a good amount of trust with them.

CU360: With the young guys, R.J. and LaMelo, coming down here, are you hearing any rumblings from the NCAA or anyone like that? It’s great for us, but is it becoming an issue?

LK: I definitely don’t expect a Christmas card from them. No, we haven’t heard from them, but we know they’re obviously not too thrilled about us cutting their lunch a bit. But we have a great proposition for them here. It’s actually not about us. Let’s call it how it is: they didn’t come here because they love Larry or the NBL. They came here because it’s good for them. We’ve managed to come up with a package that works for them quite financially, both how we’re going to look after them, what are we gonna do for them to make the draft and for them to become the best basketballers they can be. So it’s very very calculated, it’s very methodical both on the dollars, the process, the media.

LaMelo would be big in the U.S., not here, but because of the fact that he came here, it’s even bigger for him. And I think he’s going to get the right sort of minutes, he’s going to get the right exposure. We all obviously hope that he’s going to be able to live up to the standard here and gets a little surprise. When they come here, it’s not the Drew League and it’s not a cupcake league. So he’ll definitely find it challenging, but that’s actually part of the benefit interest for him. He’s going to get better very, very quickly. No one here is going to give an inch; it’s the other way around. I promise you, every team and every professional player will have his number on their wall. We’re going to show that kid what’s what, and that’ll actually set him up, I think, for success. In one year, I think he’ll grow up three years. So there’s a good reason why they come here and we’ve set it up specifically how we think they will be a success. And if they are, then that paves the way for future talent.

CU360: You’ve stuck to your word and delivered on what you said you were going to do, and basketball is at a level we’ve never seen in Australia before. Where do you see it going from here?

LK: The No. 1 thing I see right here, right now, is everyone putting in all the adjustment for more apparel. The growth of the sport still has to be from grassroots participation and then what product do we deliver? It’s not actually about us. It’s about what do the fans want to see? The barriers are not quite there. People can watch easily and get access to everything. So you’ve got amazing merch here. You can switch on the TV and watch NBA. You can’t hide.

So the growth for us has been that we have to keep improving our product. What that really means is the quality of the play. People understand now that what they go to see here at the NBL is worth seeing. That’s why the crowds, that’s why the TV, that’s why the people are watching. So we have to continue to work at our product, keep making it more interesting, keep making it more accessible. We just did a new TV deal. A part of it is actually releasing a lot of our digital rights. So we’ll be seeing half of the games on Viceland, the other half on ESPN. So part of it is the fact that we’re now partnering with people who are truly committed to the sport. And the other part of it is that we’re going to be doing a lot more digitally, and making sure that we deliver the product that people want to consume. I think the old days of just we’ll give it to you how we want to give it to you, that’s gone.

So what you’ll see from us this year, more so than in years past, you’ll see new partnerships with non-traditional media. You’ll see more delivery of product in all different formats, shorter formats. You’ll watch it how you want to watch it, when you want to watch it. We said this actually from literally Day 1, that we want to be the most accessible sport, and that’s what you’ll see from us this year and in years moving forward.

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Larry was born in Ukraine and emigrated to Australia with his family when he was 12. (Courtesy of the NBL)

CU360: How do you feel about players who are on the tail end of their careers, like Andrew Bogut, coming over and finishing off their careers playing their last two, three years in the NBL?

LK: When we took over, we changed all the rules. The good thing about owning a league: you make up the rules. So we literally sat down and said, “Okay, how are we going to do this?” And one of the biggest things we wanted was to bring back all the best Australians. So one of the rules that we have within our sort of mechanism of salary caps and same teams and all sorts of things is certain dispensation of Australians versus imports. So the whole thing is set up for the best Australians to always look at us as a real alternative. And we feel that, especially the NBA guys, and I’ve spoken to a lot of them, they now look at us as a professional league that can pay some money—certainly not comparable to the NBA, but enough money for them to feel respected and what they deserve. But they want to come back and play in front of their family, in front of their fans in Australia and finish their careers here. So we wish them and we want them to be in the NBA for as long as they can.

And Andrew Bogut is a perfect example. You get to the point where you’ve got decent money. Can your body stand up playing 100 games potentially, or do you come back and earn some decent money and start building a future for yourself in Australia with your family close? So I think you’ll see a procession of, if not everyone, I would suspect a big, big portion of all the Australian players will come back and play at least a couple of years at the end of their career in the NBL, as well as a lot of American guys as well. They want to play, and it’s amazing. A lot of them are just crazy. They’ll keep on playing until they drop. So for them, it’s not about the money; they want to play.

So I think you’ll see quite a lot of high-quality American players, Australian players. We’re easy, we’re Australia, we’re comfortable, money’s good, the weather is great. They’ll love it, so I think you’ll see more and more of that over the years.

CU360: Then you look at a younger guy like Dante Exum, who invested this week in the South East Melbourne Phoenix team. He’s far from finishing his NBA career, but he’s already taken a vested interest in the NBL, hasn’t he?

LK: Yeah, you’ll see more of that. We’re now definitely looked at as a global player. Everyone sees a financial opportunity here. To be able to invest or buy into a team is not a common thing. And because we’re still young and growing progressively, there’s a lot of interest from that, so we’re quite protective who we let in, who we sell the licenses to. We want to make sure that the right people that come and invest in our product. So we’ve got a great guy in Romie [Chaudhari] who’s the owner of the new team in South East Melbourne. We’re talking to others, so yeah, there’s a lot of interest. We’ve had a bunch of NBA guys buy into clubs. So we’re excited. Now, there’s a lot of interest out of the U.S.

CU360: With that, will there be further expansion in the NBL?

LK: I don’t know, but we can certainly look at some stage at another team in Melbourne. I think there’s potential for a third team and another team in Sydney at some stage. We’re talking about Tasmania. So I would think there is a limit. I don’t want to go to too many. I think it’s definitely quality over quantity, but I would think 12 is about the maximum that Australia can sustain. We want aspiration to try to bring teams in from overseas. Our friends at FIBA are still getting comfortable with that idea, but I’d love to see a team playing around Asia. How fun would it be if there was a team in Japan playing in our league or from a different part of Asia? That would be terrific. We’re in a similar time zone, the flight is [around] the same distance as it is from New Zealand to Perth. So, yeah, we’ve got big goals, big aspirations. I always feel like we’re now an official business, it’s run well, a great team, and I always feel like there’s a lot more to do.

 

Nick Metallinos is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.