The past year has arguably been the most difficult for women’s basketball in Australia.
The WNBL lost its TV broadcasting deal with the ABC after the 2014-15 season – a relationship that lasted over 20 years – as a result of budget cuts and the Opals failed to medal at the Olympics for the first time since Barcelona ‘92 after being dumped out by Serbia in the quarter finals.
Meanwhile, rival women’s competitions have burst on to the scene only adding to the challenges the WNBL face. The AFL Women’s has just completed its inaugural draft and the Women’s Big Bash League will return for its second instalment in December live and free on Channel Ten.
As a result, the WNBL ran the risk of being forgotten. Something had to change.
A review of the WNBL by the Australian Sports Commission was designed to look at the league’s performance. One recommendation was to have a full time, dedicated manager to run the league and focus solely on the WNBL rather than a duel-role with Basketball Australia.
Enter Sally Phillips.
The former AIS, Melbourne, Dandenong and Adelaide star was appointed Head of the WNBL in August and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the league to the role.
Phillips now has the job of working with all clubs to build the profile of the competition and get back on TV. Something she is highly confident of given the standard of the league.
“Our product is world class. The WNBL is the second best league in the world (behind the WNBA),” claimed Phillips.
Now all she has to do is convince sponsors.
Phillips added, “Right at the top of my list for things to get done is getting out and speaking to potential corporate partners and letting them know how awesome the WNBL is.”
The support of corporate partners will be vital in getting the WNBL back on TV given the costs associated with production. Something Basketball Australia CEO Anthony Moore stated was the major obstacle for a broadcasting deal.
“We had a fantastic relationship with the ABC and governments of both political persuasions felt necessary to support women’s sport. The Federal Government recently changed which brought about budget cuts so it was an easy solution to cut live sport,” said Moore.
“The commercial networks took a different view. All of them said they’d love to show the WNBL but didn’t want to invest in it.”
Consequently, the financial obligation fell on Basketball Australia to fund production, which would total upwards of $1.5 million per annum for one live game per week and the finals series – an amount that Basketball Australia simply cannot afford.
Phillips remains defiant though. There is even hope of being on TV this season.
“We have broadcasters ready to go. The issue is getting out to corporate Australia to get sponsorship which myself and our commercial team are working on.”
“I’d really hope to be on TV next season but we’re looking at even broadcasting the finals. We’re speaking to quite a few potential partners to become full naming rights sponsor [of the competition],” said Phillips.
What will give Phillips and Moore encouragement is the support the competition continues to receive from fans. 2015-16 was the second straight season where average attendance figures rose, growing by 30% on the 2014-15 season which itself saw attendance rise by 19%.
Phillips acknowledges this is something that needs to continue in order to sustain a financially sound competition and ensure longevity; so much so that she spent pre-season visiting each club and purchasing a membership highlight her faith in the league.
“I thought I need to put my money where my mouth is and buy my own membership to each club. There aren’t many sports where you can turn up to the game and at the end go on the court to chat with the athletes, take photos and get autographs.”
Moore stated this was one of the league’s major advantages over its competition. “The accessibility to the athletes post-game is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The connection that is available for the fan with the athletes is one of our huge points of difference.”
That money won’t be going to waste, either, with a host of Opals returning from stints overseas and international stars joining the league to showcase their talent on the court this season.
Leilani Mitchell and Marianna Tolo return to Australia having signed for Sydney Uni Flames and Canberra Capitals respectively, while 2015 WNBA first round draft pick Samantha Logic is running out for the Adelaide Lightning.
This only adds to the competitiveness and appeal of a league that continues to nurture the future and current stars of women’s basketball in Australia, according to Phillips.
“The WNBL is the breeding ground for the nation’s best basketballers. Our Opals have medalled, other than Rio, at every Olympics since ’96 and the WNBL has played a massive part in the development of all those players.”
As for the league’s rivals, Phillips is embracing the emergence of women’s sport in the country rather than seeing it as a threat.
“I’m thrilled that women’s sport is getting such a good run now in the media and people are more aware of the amazing female athletes that we have in the country.”
Despite her enthusiasm for the success of these competitions, Phillips acknowledged that their existence in the market only added to the challenges that lay ahead for her and the league.
“I’m hoping we can make some noise in the coming weeks to remind everyone not to forget about the WNBL.”