Robert Dillon: Sporting Declaration

BUILD it and they will come.

It worked for Kevin Costner, and let’s hope it works for Newcastle Basketball.

HALCYON DAYS: The Newcastle Falcons were the hottest ticket in town during the early years of the National Basketball League.

HALCYON DAYS: The Newcastle Falcons were the hottest ticket in town during the early years of the National Basketball League.

It is 10 years now, believe it or not, since our town last fielded a team in the National Basketball League. Too long, by far.

But after a decade in limbo, the sport of hoops is unlikely to get a better chance to re-emerge in Newcastle and re-establish itself at professional level.

The launchpad should be this week’s announcement that Newcastle has secured $5 million in government funding to build a new boutique stadium at Broadmeadow.

The capacity of 2000 raises the question of whether or not it will be big enough to accommodate an NBL team, especially if you consider that Perth Wildcats attracted a home crowd of 12,701 for last week’s season-opener against Cairns Taipans.

But they say beggars can’t be choosers, and a 2000-seat stadium should be just about perfect as the home base for an inaugural team in the more cost-effective Women’s National Basketball League.

A decent facility is the starting point.

The old Broadmeadow Basketball Stadium was the place to be, cheering for the Newcastle Falcons back in the 1970s and ’80s, but has not complied with Basketball Australia’s stipulations for many years.

The prohibitive costs of hiring Newcastle Entertainment Centre eventually caused both the Falcons and Hunter Pirates to go under.

Soon Newcastle Basketball will be able to put a roof over the heads of a crowd and charge for admission, catering and alcohol.

All it needs is a team, and there seems little doubt that, if they could start tomorrow, Newcastle would be able to assemble a line-up that would be instantly competitive in the WNBL.

It would be nice to think that Olympians Suzy Batkovic and Katie Ebzery would be on board, along with the best players from the champion Newcastle Hunters Waratah League team, as well as Australian under-17 representatives Cassidy McLean and Lara McSpadden.

But that is obviously wishful thinking and putting the cart before the horse.

The stadium won’t be built for at least another nine months.

Even when it is finished, Newcastle Basketball needs to convince the governing body it has a business plan that appears sustainable.

That will be a challenge in its own right. History suggests sporting franchises in this city face a perennial battle to make ends meet, and competition for sponsorships and corporate support is fierce.

Assuming Newcastle Basketball can present a viable proposal, the earliest it can hope to enter the WNBL would be in 2018-19, which is almost two years away.

That allows plenty of time for planning and preparation, but it is also a long time to wait, especially for 35-year-old Batkovic.

Looking into a crystal ball, let’s imagine Newcastle receive the thumbs-up for a WNBL franchise. Let’s assume it is successful.

At some point in the future, can the city sustain an NBL team, as it did with the Falcons (1979-99) and Hunter Pirates (2003-06)?

I can’t see why not.

There is surely no sport in Australia that has more scope for growth than basketball. All it needs is a makeover, similar to the one soccer underwent when the A-League kicked off 11 years ago.

Back in the mid-1990s, the NBL was apparently thriving.

More recently, it seemed in a constant state of decline. For whatever reason, people lost interest. There was a regular rotation of franchises being placed in liquidation.

But after the opening round of this season’s NBL, it looks ready to rebound. The week-one overall attendance of 44,760 was the largest in 20 years.

All the ingredients are in place for the sleeping giant of Australian sport to awaken.

It has outstanding junior participation levels, is equally popular with both genders, and Australia has two highly competitive national teams in both the Boomers and Opals, despite their disappointing finishes at the Rio Olympics.

Then there are the host of Aussie superstars competing in America’s National Basketball Association: Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova and, in the not-too-distant future, former Newcastle Hunters junior Ben Simmons.

Simmons, whose debut for Philadelphia has been delayed by a broken ankle, has the potential to take basketball’s profile in this country to a whole new level.

If he is as good as many are predicting, and does indeed develop into one of the NBA’s truly great players, he can become an Australian sporting icon – a role model for the next generation.

Since the A-League’s inception, soccer has grown exponentially, as evidenced by last week’s 60,000-plus crowd for the Sydney derby. Who could ever have predicted such progress a decade ago?

Basketball, which is also a truly global code, can do likewise.

In more ways than one, Newcastle can play a crucial role in what should be a prosperous future for a game that, not long ago, appeared to have reached its lowest ebb.

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