By J.P. Pelosi
In the sports world, brand is everything. Okay sure, supreme athletes and clever coaches are integral to on-field success, bouncey cheerleaders and fans add colour to the sidelines, while those hardworking kids on the concourse serve the hors d'oeuvres. Other things matter too.
But brand, well, brand really underpins it all, permitting the very existence of a club, its stars and trophies. Without it, what would you have but a bunch of behemoths hellbent on a little violent bodily contact?
Take rugby league's South Sydney Rabbitohs, for example, a club that hasn't won a title in more than 40 years and was mostly a punching bag for opponents in the seventies and eighties, which is now the toast of Sydney. And why are they so celebrated? Not because they've won anything. No way. It's because their fanbase is swelling at a rate that'd turn even the egotistical Justin Bieber to the bottle (if he hasn't already set along that path).
According to the National Rugby League, the Rabbitohs now have the highest club membership in the history of the game at 27,543 members. This is stunning to me, a footy fan that grew up in the Greed Is Good era, in which only three teams mattered and acquired all the riches: the Eels, Bulldogs and Sea Eagles. They were the only teams that won. The Rabbits not only failed to grab my attention back then, they actually didn't matter. The brand was at an all time low, you might say.
It's amazing what a little cash and star power will do, especially when that star has the physical size and metaphysical presence of Russell Crowe. Yes, Maximus' powerful thumb has more influence than the coaching staff, it seems. But more importantly, his name, and the brand he has helped to rebuild, have shown there's tremendous appetite in the marketplace for an 'old favourite'. And Souths, with their storied history, honour roll of legends and classic logo, are more enticing than Tim Tams these days.
The point I want to make here is that rugby league, or at least its best brands, have tapped into its heritage and traditional brands in a way that few Australian sporting competitions have. The National Basketball League needs to think about this approach. It has popular brands - and had a few too - but doesn't work its stories quite as well. The imagery has been watered down over time, and in some cases, lost completely.
Now some people will say there isn't much to work with and the brand cache of the Sydney Kings or Melbourne Tigers can only go so far. Maybe, at least when compared to the football codes. But basketball doesn't need to compete with football. In Australia, it's a niche sport and that can work in its favour. There are people out there that appreciate the NBL's history, myself among them.
Lately I've been thinking about the Perth Wildcats and how they've become the premier club of Aussie basketball. In truth, they've always been the benchmark for the sport here. And still, the 'Cats are hardly a household name beyond the west coast. This is a great shame because all Aussies, scarved up at the footy or sipping chardonnay courtide at the tennis, love a good sports story. The Wildcats are just that - right now. Their rollicking style of basketball, which is punctuated by one of the best talents our shores have seen, James Ennis, is must-see entertainment. You'd think this would be enough. Apparently not, not among the endless stream of footy and nonsensical number of football codes.
So maybe the growth of basketball, as commonly is the case for smaller brands in any sporting arena, will depend on the 'small market underdog' model. The NBL needs more of these and thankfully seems to have recognised this with expansion scouting trips to Hobart and Canberra recently. This is really pleasing because as funny as it sounds, the Wollongong Hawks, the regional but big hearted Hawks, are a benchmark in their own right. They play hard and fast, and can fill their modest arena. They fill a niche and local fans enjoy a special connection to them. It's a simple recipe but is appealing, just as the Rabbits are in South Sydney - by way of Homebush.
Consider sneaker brands like Converse, Vans and Tiger for a moment, all of which have long been popular, but only because they've found crowds who want a point of difference - something for them. Amid shoe titans like Nike and Adidas, these other sneaker brands consume a significant amount of attention and more importantly sell. But as the slick sales guy from every cheesy eighties flick about 'making it big' said, it's sizzle that sells steak.