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Slam dunk: Ben Simmons and the rise of the NBA in Australia

You can’t ignore the statistics. Or the comparisons. Last year, Australian basketballer Ben Simmons was the number one draft pick in the NBA. This year he has taken the competition by storm.

He is the first rookie since Shaquille O’Neal in the 1992-3 seasons to score 175 points and win 100 rebounds in his first 10 games. Statistically his first 10 games are better than LeBron James’. James is four times the NBA’s most valuable player. Simmons averages 18 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists a game (even if some experts say he can’t shoot).

And the 21-year-old is taking it all in his 2.08 metre stride. ‘I don’t feel any pressure,’ Simmons has said of comparisons to Magic Johnson and James. ‘At the end of the day, it’s what I think that matters. I don’t think what other people say; it doesn’t really matter to me. I have my goals and I know what they are. I’ve had my goals since I was a young kid.’

Simmons’ blazing start to his professional hoops career is also a reflection of the growth of the NBA in Australia following decades of the sport being marketed as a global game. There are more Australian online subscribers to the NBA League pass, for example, than any country outside of the US.

With his exploits receiving wide coverage in Australia and in an unashamedly star-driven sport, Ben Simmons is a key step in legitimising the NBA here, argues Deakin University sports marketing expert Henry Wear.

'As Ben Simmons becomes more successful, he’ll become a key point of attachment … and that’s going to keep Aussie kids playing basketball.'

Henry Wear, Lecturer in Sports Marketing,
Deakin University

What makes the NBA so interesting, he says, is that it is built on a global platform of stars. They are known by their first names – LeBron, Steph, Kyrie. And now Simmons is being compared with LeBron, Magic (Johnson) and Kobe (Bryant).

Sports marketers talk about the idea of points of attachment, Wear explains, where consumers and fans are drawn to a particular characteristic. So in basketball, in the NBA and Australia’s National Basketball League, that star player can be the key point of attachment.

‘As Ben Simmons becomes more successful, he’ll become a key point of attachment … and that’s going to keep Aussie kids playing basketball.’

Culture or court: what drives Australia’s interest in the NBA?

As The Sydney Morning Herald reported, this season sports broadcaster ESPN doubled the number of matches broadcast in Australia – with 450 minutes consumed, a 64% increase.

‘Australia punches well above its weight in the league, with eight players this season trailing only Canada, France and Brazil,’ NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the SMH. ‘I enjoy watching all the Australian players. Australia is incredibly important to the NBA because we know how passionate Australians are when it comes to basketball.’

Wear says the popularity of the NBA here, and the all-time high number of Australian players playing in the US league [think Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Thon Maker, Aron Baynes, Dante Exum] is the product of the NBA 1990s internationalisation push. The NBA sees overtaking soccer or football as the global sport as its next big challenge.

‘It’s a growing popularity of the sport in the country, participation rates are continuing to increase – but it’s a global popularity and you are starting to see more pathways for Australians to find their spots.’

And Wear sees the interest as generational. The NBA’s global push for popularity is mirrored in the 30-somethings down to 12-years-olds playing and following the game. That global strategy, starting with China and Europe, has been incredibly deliberate, he says.

‘There are more fans from the Philippines following the Golden State Warriors on Twitter and Facebook than there are in the US.’

Will global translate to local?

Australia’s interest in the NBA is also starting to shape interest in the local NBL. In the NBA pre-season, teams from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne travelled to the US to play NBA teams, winning respect for their quality of play.

After his blistering NBA debut, Wear considers Ben Simmons to be a test case for the future of the NBA in Australia. ‘He’s going to be interesting, what kind of interest that draws, whether they become NBA fans, or if they are just going to be Ben Simmons fans and if the NBA can really capitalise on the interest from Australia and convert a generation.”

Interested in sport marketing? Consider studying sport management at Deakin.

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Henry Wear
Henry Wear

Lecturer Sports Management, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University.

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