WNBL: Sally Phillips on the return to TV and the league's bright future
"It seems like since the broadcast news, almost every day there's been a major announcement" Head of the WNBL Sally Phillips says. "It's been really exciting".
Phillips, a 193 game veteran of the league who also worked as Commercial Operations Manager at Dandenong Rangers before her present role, isn't exaggerating - this has been the most action-packed off-season in recent memory, with a multi-year broadcast partnership with Fox Sports giving the league new momentum. Already, international stars like Cayla George, Abby Bishop, Rachel Jarry and Liz Cambage have signed up for the revitalised competition.
The 2017/18 schedule will be shortened, a feature which Phillips says will help entice overseas-based talent to the league. "I think it's really going to allow our athletes to play in the WNBA as well and if they want to play Euroleague they can choose to do that as well without missing much of the season at all".
Phillips says she has been "absolutely blown away" by the standard of games since moving into the role last year. But she says communicating the strength of the league to the broader public can always be improved. "Basketball as a whole, we haven't done a great job of telling our story" she says. "We have an elite competition, but still in Australia not many people know about us".
Phillips agrees that promoting the game needs to go beyond scores and stats and says the league has recognised that human interest stories about the players resonate with fans. "People want to see the personalities of the girls, what they're like off court. They want to see who they're supporting".
"There are a lot of great stories out there, many of the girls are studying or doing great work in the community". Digging deeper into these kind of stories is something she says Fox Sports are "working tirelessly" on with the league.
One thing the conpetition is already doing well, however, is fan engagement at games. Phillips has seen the value of this first hand; she still fondly remembers meeting Geelong Cats legends illy Brownless and Mark Yeates as a youngster and collecting their autographs each week.
Phillips says the Melbourne Boomers led the way with this kind of fan engagement, which has now been embraced across the league. At any given game you might see kids getting a selfie with five time MVP Suzy Batkovic or swarming Sami Whitcomb for some shooting advice.
This engagement is particularly important with young fans, Phillips says. "The WNBL is such a family-friendly environment, and that's something I'm very proud of".
The league will continue to work on strengthening ties with junior players nationwide, aiming to leverage Australia's strong basketball participation rates. "That's the thing that stands us in great stead" Phillips says. "Depending on the time of year, we might have 1 million or even 2 million playing. We need to find a way to engage those people and convert them into fans of the NBL or WNBL. It's something we're mindful of and working hard on. It's important that clubs and players are out there working in the community".
Another huge plus for the league is the promise of improved competitive balance in the WNBL next year. Last year's stragglers, Adelaide and Melbourne, have both recruited aggressively and look set for huge improvement. "It's going to be a really even competition" Phillips enthuses. "It could be like the AFL where you don't know who's going to win every week".
Speaking of the AFL, the league is also working on the complex issue of facing a new competitor for its elite talent. With Opal Erin Phillips starring in the AFLW's first season, recruiters are increasingly eyeing elite basketballers for a code switch. Still others, like electric Melbourne youngster Monique Conti, have ambitions of playing both sports at the highest level. "It's a really hard one" Phillips acknowledges. "The last thing we want to do is to force girls into making a choice".
The AFL has always got a lot of mileage out of its glamorous Brownlow Awards night and Phillips says the league would love to emulate that event's broad appeal with its own awards night, though this has proven difficult without sponsorship. "We've done the best with what we have" she says. "But our athletes definitely deserve to be recognised in that way".
Another area the league is looking at behind the scenes is expansion. Phillips says they want to ensure any increase in the number of teams is done in a considered way. "It's definitely on the radar" she says. "We want any teams that enter to be absolutely financially sustainable. We've done studies on the best areas and best ways for teams to enter, so (any expansions teams) will have to be strongly aligned with the studies and the criteria we have".
For now, though, Phillips is understandably thrilled with the obvious progress the league is making around the new broadcast partnership. "There's a real air of positivity around the WNBL again".