23 May 2022

Is Canberra capable of supporting an NBL team or has the window of opportunity passed?

| Tim Gavel
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The Canberra Cannons

The Canberra Cannons in 1990. Photo: File.

The Canberra Cannons in their prime were a sight to behold: capacity crowds, premierships and an entertainment experience that provided a template for other sports codes to follow.

At the peak of the Cannon’s popularity, it was standing room only at the Palace, now re-badged the AIS Arena. There was even a cannon that blasted mini basketballs and merchandise into the crowd.

The games were televised live on commercial television, and the players were as well known as Meninga, Daley, Stuart, Gregan, Larkham and Jackson in Canberra.

Phil Smyth, known as ‘the General’, Herb McEachin, Dave Nelson and Willie Simmons are some of the names that come readily to mind from that golden era.

It’s also worth noting it was an era with only the Raiders, the Capitals and the Canberra City Arrows as competition for the hearts and minds of the Canberra community during the 1980s.

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The demise of the Cannons in 2003 and the subsequent transfer of the licence to Newcastle, then Singapore, left many in Canberra’s basketball community with little appetite for another tilt at being the base for an NBL licence mark II.

There have been various proposals to reinvigorate Canberra’s NBL prospects over the years, with the Illawarra Hawks backed by support from the ACT Government playing sporadic yet well-supported games at the AIS Arena.

Now NBL owner and executive chairman Larry Kestelman has resurrected the possibility of Canberra again being home to an NBL licence within the next two years.

The desire to expand the league to 11 teams comes in the wake of the success of the Tasmanian Jack Jumpers this year in their debut season.

The Jack Jumpers play out of the refurbished Derwent Entertainment Centre, redeveloped at a cost of $68 million with capacity for 5000 fans.

The proposal for a Canberra licence has a number of caveats, including bringing the AIS Arena up to NBL standard and support from the ACT Government. Thanks to the federal election, it would appear as though there is optimism that the AIS Arena will be brought back to life.

AIS Arena

AIS Arena – is an upgrade on the cards after the change of government? Photo: Tim Gavel.

But there are differences between the Jack Jumpers’ model and the one proposed for Canberra. Most notably is the crowded sporting landscape in Canberra when compared to Tasmania.

The ACT Government is already assisting the Raiders, Brumbies, UC Capitals, Canberra United, GWS, and the list goes on with a push for an A-League and Big Bash team in the wings.

Another issue is whether government money should be spent on more national league teams when community sports facilities are in such a parlous state.

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A positive of the latest NBL proposal is that it comes when the league appears to be on an upward trajectory with a professional business approach linked to community passion for the sport.

A Canberra team would also provide a pathway for young local players aspiring to play at the next level without having to ply their trade elsewhere.

As to a potential name for an NBL team in Canberra, should it come to fruition? That’s a no-brainer that needs little explanation.

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NBL is a summer sport now. AIS Arena is promised a refurb.

Far right, The Queanbeyan Kid- Tony Boniello…
Those were the days.

What a night out!

Left, if you are looking at it!

Canberra can not afford not to have a team. I take my grandson to an Aussie Hoops clinic at 8am on winter Saturday mornings and with the 40 kids already there, there is still a waiting list for kids to get a run. It is followed by another clinic at 9 and there are similar clinics that are chocablock in other parts of Canberra. So many kids want to play that 11 and 12 year olds (13 divisions of Under 12’s boys and girls) have to play at all sorts of times to get a space…..which is also a function of the dearth of accessible indoor basketball courts in Canberra. The Canberra Gunners (Men) are currently leading the 2nd tier NBL1 East league and the Canberra Nationals( Women) are mid table after 8 games for both. All games are streamed but they still get a good crowd in spartan conditions. We are already the site of the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence that is a feeder club set up by the ABA and NBA to prepare our best for US College Basketball and eventually the NBA. Basketball is indoor and not subject to the crowd killing weather that besets the Raiders, Brumbies, GWS and Canberra United. A good comparison at adult level is the CBR BRAVE ice hockey team that compete successfully in the AIHL. Prior to covid it sold out the albeit small capacity Phillip Ice Rink for game after game and could have doubled or tripled the crowd if the space was there. If the owners of the new NBL team….community I would hope rather than private…..are sensible with their pricing and more courts for kids come on line there are no limits on how well basketball overall and an NBL team could go.

Hi, waggamick. I understand and admire your passion for promoting basketball in Canberra.
However, I can still remember the days of going out to the AIS Arena when the Canons franchise was on life support in the late 1990’s until their eventual move to Newcastle and subsequent demise in the early 2000’s. They had to put up curtains in several sections to avoid the embarassment on national TV of a virtually empty stadium. The AIS Arena in the middle of winter is not much more inviting than Bruce Stadium.
In the current economic climate, many families have only so much they can spend on entertainment and given the profile of the Brumbies and Raiders (who still fail to attract large stadia filling crowds) a Canberra-based NBL team would be starting at a disadvantage. They may generate ‘curiosity’ support for a couple of seasons, but I suspect eventually, the higher running costs, compared to the Gunners and Nationals, would eventually prove fatal.

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