Australia is famous for being one of the sportiest nations on the planet. Despite a talent pool of just 25 million people, the nation consistently punches above its weight. Indeed, Australians are so good at some sports, they can come across as cocky. What other nation would have the audacity to field two national teams in an international tournament because they have so much talent? That’s what Australia did at the 1994 Cricket World Series Cup, and inevitably, it was an Australia vs Australia A final.
Almost 20 years on, Australia’s cricketers are still among the best in the world, but they are not dominating the game the way they were in the 1990s. Some say that is because fewer truly talented athletes are taking up cricket at grass roots level. A look at the results from the latest official AusPlay survey by the Australian Sports Commission would certainly suggest there is some merit in that.
Basketball jumps into the top six
Cricket and Aussie rules football remain the most popular spectator sports. But Australians have always been doers ahead of being watchers. When it comes to participation, the times are changing.
Soccer is completing its world domination, and infiltrating the few nations where it is not already number one. These include the USA, Canada and, of course, Australia. While the Aussie national team is still playing at a level below the likes of England, Brazil and France, it could be only a matter of time before that changes. Participation at grass roots level is like nothing else, with 1.15 million Australians playing regularly.
That is more than double the 506,000 who play cricket. But the real surprise is that the game in which the nation excels professionally is only seventh on the popularity list. Other sports that are ahead of cricket are Aussie Rules football, golf, tennis, netball and, in sixth place, basketball.
Why the rise in basketball’s popularity?
Part of the reason for basketball’s popularity as a casual sport to play is convenience. All you need is a ball and a hoop, and you are good to go, with any number of participant from two upwards. Getting two teams together to play a game of cricket is far more complicated, and even with improvised rules, you can’t have a meaningful game unless you have at least seven or eight players.
However, that has always been the case, and 10 or 20 years ago, far more youngsters were playing cricket. The difference is that today, there is far more Australian interest in the professional basketball game. TV coverage and online streaming mean Australians can keep up with the latest developments in the NBA. Also, Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) viewer numbers have steadily increased year on year over the past decade, as the sport has shifted from the periphery to the mainstream.
Virtual basketball – from the console to the casino
Australian basketball has also enjoyed a significant profile boost in the virtual world. You can now play as an Australian team in NBA 2K24, a sure sign that Aussie basketball has made it to the big time!
However, there is another basketball-themed game that is even more popular Down Under as it connects basketball with another Aussie passion – placing a wager. The game is Basketball Star and it’s the latest in a series of sport-themed slot games from Microgaming. It’s one of the best online pokies in Australia right now and while it is evidently aimed at Australia’s growing band of basketball enthusiasts, the game will appeal to anyone who enjoys pokies, with rewarding bonuses and a payout rate that is better than average.
Pro basketball on the rise
So much for the youngsters throwing hoops in backyards and, perhaps, the oldsters tossing jackpots on their smartphones. What about the professional game Down Under? We mentioned earlier that is has gone from strength to strength over the past decade, and that phenomenon is down to savvy management.
The NBL was inaugurated in 1979, making it the third oldest continuous national sporting competition in Australia, behind only the cricket and Aussie Rules leagues. Both of those have been around since the 19th century. It went through a golden period when the nation went basketball-crazy in the late 80s and early 90s, but it never felt like it was going to be sustainable.
Sure enough, the bubble burst. Interest dwindled, teams disappeared, relaunched, merged with one another, then disappeared again. This had the effect of a vicious circle, as fans found it hard to stay engaged with any one team, and sponsors took their financial backing elsewhere.
In 2015, billionaire businessman Larry Kestelman bought a majority share in the NBL and it signalled a new era of stability and renewed interest that has continued to this day. Kestelman remains the President of the NBL and famously told the Aussie Hoopla podcast that no NBL club will ever fold while he is at the helm. So far, he has been as good as his word.
Australian basketball on the international scene
Now that basketball is on a solid footing at domestic level, Australia is building a talent pool that can make it a force to be reckoned with on the international circuit. The Boomers featured in two World Cups and two World Championships in the 1970s. The teams were somewhat thrown together, and the results were unmemorable.
They made the semi-finals five times during a series of eventful Olympic Games between 1988 and 2020 but have never proceeded further. This includes their bronze medal in 2020, the Boomers’ first and only Olympic medal to date.
Performances in the World Cup have had a similar pattern. The Boomers made the quarter-finals twice in the 1990s but seemed destined to go no further. Then last year, Australia squeezed past the Czech Republic to make their first World Cup Semi Final. It took Spain two periods of overtime to prevent them from making the final in one of the most dramatic international games ever.