The Final Whistle

22.05.2014

Unless you’ve been snoozing under a rock the size of Uluru over the last 48 hours, chance are you’ve heard a few reports revolving around the Melbourne Tigers becoming Melbourne United.

The basketball landscape in Melbourne has just changed, forever.

It took a few by surprise and left more than a few Tigers fans feeling like they had just lost a limb, an apt description when talking about our passion for a sports team in Melbourne. Many former players were left, in their own words, gutted.

So how and why did such a dramatic change in direction come about? From the outside looking in, this seemingly snap decision was like abandoning the Hume Freeway on a trip to Sydney and going via the alpine region instead. Just totally out of left field and the harder road has been chosen for what looked like a comfortable, known drive.

The cold, hard fact is that this is a business decision, full stop. Jump up and down if you like, but to terminate a brand that has been built up over more than half a century is purely about business.

It’s about money y’all. It’s about survival. It’s about sustainability.

Don’t bother reading between the lines and don’t look for a conspiracy theory. The owners and management of the now-defunct Tigers have been going flat-out for the last couple of years trying to make this thing work and they have arrived at a fork in the road – sink or swim.

Whilst we’re talking facts, let’s also put it out there right now that yes, there is a feeling amongst Melbourne’s junior basketball associations that the Melbourne Tigers are the enemy. Many, many people just can’t bring themselves to supporting a brand that they want to smash at junior level.

I don’t care for the jibes about poaching that others have led with when talking about the angst that is directed towards the Tigers juniors, that sort of stuff doesn’t have a place in this argument. The fact is that people find it hard to support a team by name and colours that they have to play against themselves. Pure and simple.

This change isn’t personal, it’s business, and that’s exactly where this situation takes a dramatic turn to the left. When dealing with sport, to the fans, it is personal and many of them feel like they’ve just been tipped off the team bus without any say in it.

I wasn’t a Melbourne Tigers supporter, never have been, and could count on one hand the number of times I went to see them play. On every occasion it was via a free ticket or a seat in a corporate box. Not once did I pay, never did I add a cent to the club’s coffers.

In part, I’m part of the problem, but in the eyes of the owners they are hoping that I’m part of the solution. Wow, that really does sum it up. Today’s problem is tomorrow’s solution. Get it right, sell it right, run it right, get through the battles and all of a sudden you have won the war. Basketball will be the big winner if this works.

I didn’t support the Tigers and I didn’t help them meet costs, as is the case with the greater majority of Melbourne’s massive basketball fraternity. Do you keep marketing yourself to a small portion of the market, or do you find a product that is likely to attract a bigger slice of the market?

No owner with a financial interest in a product, and in this case a very large financial interest, would make such a dramatic change unless it was necessary for the long-term financial viability and sustainability of the product. That’s business 101 – you don’t fix what isn’t broken, you don’t change something that can’t be better.

Melbourne’s only NBL team wasn’t as good as it could be and it did not engage with and show support to all people. Dare I say it, but in the eyes of the majority of basketball players and supporters, the Tigers served the minority.

However, the news of the changes, being as dramatic as they were, could have been handled better.

My biggest beef with the announcement wasn’t about the name or the logo, though quite a few others showed angst against them, rather it was the missed opportunity to go a bit harder and tell us all some home truths.

I know the owners were trying to sell a united front and a new product for all, but they missed the chance to send basketball a message, a warning shot across the bows if you like.

I assume plenty of research went into the decision. That and a rising expense sheet against insufficient income, but we didn’t get to hear about that research. We didn’t get to hear about the finances. It was a missed opportunity to paint the real picture.

And what are some of the messages that should have been delivered? I have two.

First and foremost, the Tigers brand did not engage with all basketball players, supporters and families. We know that. Let’s not forget that the current Tigers brand existed in a town without any competition; none. It’s not like the AFL with 11 teams fighting for crowds and supporters. It’s a one team town and it hardly satisfied the 250,000 participants playing the game in Melbourne.

Yes, competitors have come and gone and the Tigers have survived, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been viable. In recent years, my understanding is that the Tigers survived because of the money being pumped into them, not because of sell-out crowds and ballooning sponsorship.

In case you hadn’t noticed, playing in the NBL is a bloody expensive gig these days and maybe people needed to hear more about the fact that the current supporter base and the alienation of a potentially bigger supporter base cannot sustain the cost of running an NBL team.

We needed to be told that the Melbourne Tigers and its appeal to the minority was not financially viable long-term, but the Melbourne United and its potential appeal to the majority is viable, short-term and long-term.

And secondly, an opportunity was missed to say that research showed (and I gather it was conducted) that this is what the larger majority of basketball supporters were looking for in the national league. Nothing beats research and numbers to support a decision – “We have had extensive conversations and conducted research with many of the junior associations in Melbourne and they are supportive of a brand that represents all of them, not just one association.”

Tell us that people have buy-in. Research shows that people are on board with this decision.

If these two areas were better covered in the announcements I think even the most ardent Tigers supporter would tell you they didn’t like the change, but they understood it based on the research and the facts as presented.

No doubt the decision for change is a gamble. A massive gamble. In the hope of building a bigger membership base and executing a sustainable business plan, the owners may have just eroded what membership base was already there. I’ve seen brave moves in basketball in the past and this is right up there.

Gutsy. Ballsy. Brave.

However, if they pull this off the day will come when we all say thank you for finally delivering something that brought together what is, at the best of times, a very disjointed fraternity. A fraternity that always seems to be in fear of each other or, as I call it, under constant siege mentality.

If Melbourne United can bring everyone together, or at least the majority together, which is the message they are selling, then I take my hat off to them. Sometimes it takes great courage and a bit of craziness to make a long-lasting difference. Time will tell if we have a team of geniuses behind this move.

I spent eight years broadcasting the old National Soccer League and got inundated with messages of fear and anger when clubs like South Melbourne and the Melbourne Knights got left out of the new A-League for a start-up club known at Melbourne Victory.

The rest, as they say, is history.

To those who think change can’t work, let’s not forget that when Twenty20 was introduced the knockers said it would be the death of cricket! Granted this is a little different, but the point is that change can work if you can sell it to the masses and if the masses have enough interest to go along and take a look.

The investment needed to support the change won’t be cheap. The owners will need the right corporate, media, communications and operations management in place. Do it well and I have no doubt the obstacles can be overcome, but do it poorly in what is already a fragile competition and we know where this will end. Fresh ideas in basketball, for one reason or another have a history of exiting stage right.

Complete with new colours and a very soccer-looking logo (which will grow on people), Melbourne United has been borne out of the hope and belief by the club’s owners that detaching itself from the Tigers brand at junior level will help to bring more supporters to the club, and the NBL.

If this is the only way to make it work, good luck. It’s a bloody bold move in a sport that stinks of poor decisions, lack of direction and very little collaboration by and between stakeholders who should serve the game first and foremost, not themselves.

What has happened since the announcement – good, bad or otherwise – is the NBL has been front and centre across the media, however let’s not be fooled into thinking that this rise in publicity will continue as a result of the birth of Melbourne United. It won’t. As soon as the AFL teams are selected come Thursday afternoon this Melbourne United storm will blow off to the east.

And while a dedicated Tigers supporter base might also be blown out to sea, let’s hope thousands of new members come in from the ocean to support Melbourne United. If that happens, this new entity will be back in the media, under its own steam and on its own terms.

As a former South Melbourne (AFL) supporter, I know that feeling of being left behind. I was gutted at the time my team was booted. It feels like nobody is considering you when the decision’s being made. Your heart gets ripped out, you lose your love for the club and you have a dislike for the people forcing the change.

These days I’m a Sydney Swans man and I’m damn well thankful I still have a team to support. I’ve enjoyed premierships and many, many happy times. With old wounds now healed, I often ask if today’s success would have been possible if not for that gutsy, ballsy and brave decision back at the end of the 1981 season.

And that best sums up this situation. The owners of Melbourne’s NBL club, in my opinion, probably should have been a bit more transparent and open with the reasons why this change is being made, but the fact is they have a financial interest in this product and they are doing everything they can to protect it and grow it. That’s business and in 2014 sport is a business.

I’ll leave you with this;

Those at the grassroots level of basketball love the game. They love it immensely. But they have little or no respect for those at the top. Over time the NBL has suffered as a result.

Basketball is financed from the bottom up. Basketball at the top has to start giving and stop taking. Maybe the owners of Melbourne United have seen the light and want to start giving something back to everyone, and not just some. They want to represent all clubs and associations and stop being seen as being attached to just one.

Ask one hundred kids an NBA question and you’ll get one hundred hands in the air wanting to answer. Ask an NBL question and one hundred kids will yawn.

It’s time to get people talking about the NBL in this town and the only way to do that is to give them a product that represents all of them, not just some of them. Do something to stop those kids yawning and start getting them engaged with the NBL.

This sport has to start giving and stop taking. That’s the answer. Start giving! If Melbourne United can do that they’ll have the junior associations and players supporting them in droves! 


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