This time last year Sal's NBL General Manager Justin Nelson was talking about hubs and player drafts in the hope of keeping New Zealand's premier basketball competition alive. The League's response during the global pandemic has been widely lauded. The show went on.
Now, following the success that the 2020 Showdown was, he is looking to take the League in a direction where healthy and sustainable teams, and competitive balance, are the foundations for a competition that is playing a big part in driving the rapid growth of basketball across New Zealand.
In this in-depth interview, Sky Sport commentator and League Media Manager Huw Beynon sat down with the Sal's NBL boss to talk about the past, present and future.
HB: 2020 was a strange year all round, but we got to see basketball, albeit in Auckland only. Will we see any effects of last year in this year’s edition of the league?
JN: I think most importantly we’ll get to see 10 teams and 93 games in 2021 and I’m not so sure that would have happened if we had closed-up shop last year. We should all continue to be very appreciative of the sacrifices the seven teams, about 90 players and all the officials made last year. Keeping the competition going at the most difficult time in the League’s 40-year history was the best thing we could have done. On the court, I think the biggest effect from 2020 is the fans want us to keep working towards a competitively balanced competition. The fans responded very favourably to such a close competition at the Showdown, and the teams have taken that fully on board. We surveyed more than 750 fans after the Showdown and more than 90 per cent told us they want a close and competitive competition, they don’t want a lop-sided league or stacked teams. That’s a massive result and we need to respond to that. It has led to a collective approach from the teams on things like salary systems, a shared strategic plan and building sustainability. A lot of good outcomes from what was a very different year.
HB: You made no secret of wanting to improve and further professionalise the league when you took over in 2019, what further changes will we see this year?
JN: A return to the home and away format in 2021 will help us work with the teams to keep raising the bar in the way we present ourselves, and that’s a really important step. The governance of the competition continues to improve rapidly and that brings a level of confidence from the fans, viewers and sponsors, all of which are vital to each team’s business. The bigger changes are behind the scenes where we are all working hard to build strong, more resilient, and sustainable businesses. People on the outside don’t always understand changes like that straight away, they don’t fully get the need for a salary system, for competitive balance and new initiatives, but hopefully they are seeing a bigger and better competition as a result. The fact is there won’t be any jobs for players if we don’t have healthy and sustainable teams, so that’s where our focus must be right now, especially while we continue to deal with the impact of Covid. Away from the Sal’s NBL, I think we are also really excited about the Schick 3X3 season and the new initiatives with players drafts, equal pay for all players and prize money. It’s going to be a big year.
HB: 10 teams is the most we’ve seen in the league for some time. Is it sustainable, and are there plans for further growth in the coming years?
JN: That’s a really good question. First and foremost our focus is on helping the 10 current teams to be healthy and sustainable, and being really good at what they do. Expansion isn’t a priority right now, we’re comfortable with 10 teams. We have experienced rapid growth in the League’s business over the last two years and we are pumping every cent we have back into the competition, which this year has also included the League financially support two new team General Managers and a Commercial Manager at another team. This level of financial investment back into teams hasn't happened before. Resources and skill sets are vital to improving the product. We should never take it for granted that it’s a tough market right now, but the teams are fully supportive of the strategic plan we have and that should hopefully set us up for the coming years. Sustainability and delivering a good product is our total focus right now.
HB: Fingers will be crossed all over the country that we don’t see another COVID-19 outbreak, but if there is one what will the League do to keep operational?
JN: I think the Sal’s NBL was a real leader last year in the way we adapted and changed in order to deal with Covid, and perhaps we haven’t recognised those efforts enough. It’s only recently I’ve sat and reflected on what was achieved last year, by the League, the teams and the players. What we delivered in 2020 was on a par globally with the way sport transformed itself amid the pandemic. Some scoffed when we were one of the first anywhere in the world to propose a hub, but I’m really proud of our people and what they delivered. In many instances, we broke new ground during something the sporting world had never seen or endured before. To be honest I don’t think we’ve taken time to really acknowledge what so many people did to keep the League going, it was an awesome effort. That said, we took away so many learnings from 2020 and we are confident that if we do face a spot fire this year due to Covid, we will act with a professional approach that is built around ensuring the health and safety of our players, officials and fans. Last year showed we are capable of great things in the most unprecedented of times, so if needed we will soldier on and deliver the goods, despite what changes might be needed along the way.
HB: Can you tell us a little about the 40in40 initiative the League is currently running and any insight on the work the panel did to arrive at the final list of 40 players?
JN: It's not every day a sports competition turns 40 years old, so we wanted to do something a bit different and what better way to create a bit of added stress than trying to rate players across four decades! While we would have loved to have had some of the big stars on the selection panel, that would have been incredibly unfair on them given they are in the top 40, but I'm really happy we were able to bring a panel together with a deep knowledge of the competition. Not too many people can sit around a table and openly talk about games and seasons way back in the 1980s, but that's what this panel did. It was fascinating to sit and listen to them. I was the proverbial fly on the wall and really enjoyed listening to them, and watching the process. The panel always knew the final list would be hard to decide and hotly debated, as it should be because you are dealing with so many quality players across different eras. The panel went in knowing there was no right or wrong decisions, every player was worthy of a spot, and there's an incredibly good 40-plus players who didn't make the final cut. As the announcements have rolled out, I've loved hearing players talk about being humbled and honoured just to make the list. That sort of reaction says a heck of a lot about that guy, and I really admire that.
HB: Which players from last year’s Showdown are you most excited to see push on in 2021?
JN: I thought last year’s Showdown ended up being a fantastic platform for so many players, including the dozen or so who picked up gigs in the ANBL. But I also enjoyed seeing younger players take the opportunity to show us all that they too can play at this level. Though I probably don’t show it too much on the exterior, I’m a fan just like everyone else, but I tend to keep that covered up for obvious reasons. But be assured, I do get a kick out of seeing players do what they do, in both of our Leagues, the men and women. For the coming season I’m looking forward to seeing the continued rise of players like Sam Timmins, Kenneth Tuffin, Taane Samuel, Dane Brooks, Carlin Davison and Alex McNaught. There are players I haven’t seen before but have heard so much about, such as Matt Freeman and Brayden Inger. I really enjoy watching Tom Ingham and Derone Raukawa at the Showdown, just two flat-out competitors, and like everyone else I can’t wait to see Jack Salt back playing. If I was to pick just one player from the Showdown though, I love what Jayden Bezzant did last season and I hope he takes the next step and becomes a star of the competition, he’s a lot of fun to watch.
HB: All 93 games are on SKY Sport this season and if I do say so myself, we have a cracking commentary line-up… how important was it to get the league fully televised?
JN: From the moment I landed in New Zealand it was always a focus to get every game on television, it’s an absolute must when you are trying to build a sport’s credibility. This year, across the Sal’s NBL competitions and the Schick 3X3 season we will broadcast 234 games with a high-quality and consistent commentary team. To be honest I would have been really happy if we achieved something like that in year five of my tenure, so to have it happening in 2021 is massive for basketball in New Zealand. I think sometimes people might take it for granted that being on television is an easy thing for a sport to do, but nothing could be further from the truth. Broadcasting every game across our competitions is a huge body of work and involves so many people, along with the brilliant partnership we have with Sky Sport. I value our relationships with all of these people incredibly highly. To have New Zealand basketball on television right across the year is so good for the game, and especially for the girls and boys who are watching the stars that they one day want to become. We want to show everything, even the 3X3 player drafts later in the year. We want the fans to see basketball as the most accessible television product. And we aim to be approachable, always available and not afraid to talk about the ups and downs. To me that’s what makes a sport interesting and engaging – take the good with the bad, be transparent and be available. Make the fans the most important people, and I think we do that very well.
HB: Fair to say we have been fortunate to be allowed imports into the country and the league, which ones do you see taking the league by storm this year?
JN: Yeah, a massive effort by everyone involved to bring in some amazing athletes, and I hope we can do the same for the women’s competition later in the year. The skill and learnings these athletes bring with them to New Zealand is immeasurable. As for who I think could deliver big things? I saw Donte Ingram play at the Final 4 in San Antonio back in 2018, it was an incredible experience sitting in the stands with eighty thousand people, so I can’t wait to chat with him about that. I think both he and Hunter Hale could be really good for the Giants. The Huskies have just signed Chris Johnson, what a great get. I really like what Kerwin Roach could deliver, he comes out of the Longhorns and that is such a great collegiate program. Devondrick Walker, DeShon Taylor, EJ Singler and DeAndre Daniels come in with some real pedigree, but I’m probably like everyone else when it comes to Josh Selby – if he is fit and healthy and wants to impress, he has the class to take the competition by storm.
HB: Who wins it all? And no fence sitting.
JN: Can I say that basketball will be the winner? Overall, I do believe the League is getting better at most things, so whichever way the season plays out I hope people view the competition as constantly evolving and developing a winning formula. As for out on the court, the Hawks have recruited really well and should be right there, but it is a high-risk-high-reward approach given they won’t have their full roster until the second half of the season. I actually like the starting unit at the Jets and if they can co-exist they will win a lot of games. The Saints and Rams will be strong as they always are, and I think the Giants will surprise a lot of people. The Sharks have landed a world class coach and have built an incredible fortress at the Shark Tank, the Bulls are a bit of an unknown and I like that because it will lead to some big upsets, while the Huskies, Nuggets and Airs are working hard to build strong futures around young rising stars, which I really like as well. Have I mentioned every team? With all of that said, if the Hawks can get their full team on the court and make it to the Final 4, they are going to be hard to stop, however if their plan doesn’t come to fruition then for me it’s a wide-open race. I guess that’s classic fence sitting, isn’t it?
HB: And finally, from a League viewpoint, what would be the best three outcomes season 2021 could deliver?
1. Healthy and sustainable teams with overall growth for each of them in revenue, fan engagement and brand positioning.
2. A competitively balanced season where every single fan either goes to a game or watches a game on Sky Sport and genuinely believes their team has a chance of winning that game.
3. More Kiwi players being seen across the country and internationally, which will hopefully lead to bigger playing opportunities for them as they progress their career.
(Photo Credit: Stuff)