‘You can make it happen or watch it happen’: Australians, the NBA & NFL

Sydney Kings vs New Zealand Breakers, Australian National Basketball League. October 2019. Source: Genevieve Neilson

Pitched as “the best excuse to take Monday off,” in Australia, participating in the American tradition of the Super Bowl has become easier and more popular as television networks, gamling outlets and bars seek to capitalise on Australians’ growing fondness of American sports leagues. This year it is particularly relevant, with eyes on Australian Mitch Wishnowsky competing in the Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers. 

Similarly, linked to Australian-born successes in the National Basketball Association (NBA), Andrew Bogut’s return to the National Basketball League (NBL) and revival of free-to-air access (FTA), in 2018-2019 Australia’s own NBL has experienced record crowds attending its games. Compared to last year, average attendance is up 11%.

The trope that Australians are ‘good at all sports’ and have an ‘affection for sports’ continues to linger, albeit some have contested the ideas.

With NBA and NFL highlights increasingly featuring in Australian news sports segments, how and why are Australians connecting with the NBA and NFL? 

Broadcasting

The NFL and NBA can be found on paid television, FTA and online. Viewership on each of these outlets continues to rise in Australia.

In the U.S., NFL viewership is making a slight comeback after declining over several years, due in part to expansion of legalised gambling and more focus of playing on the field (as opposed to political statements). Having the Super Bowl broadcast on free-to-air means it is more accessible as a major event on the American calendar. For the NBA having mixed broadcasting using traditional cable packages and injuries to star players, viewership is down on traditional media outlets. 

Meanwhile, Australia has a growing market. ESPN has been broadcasting the NBA and NFL through its channel arrangements with Foxtel. Select games from the NFL season have been available free to air on Channel Seven (as well as additional content online). Seven reported a growth of 55% in its free-to-air TV audience for NFL and a 40% jump in ratings since it began coverage for the 2014-2015 season. SBS has televised and made available on catch-up two games per week this season along with NBL games due to a growing fan base.

Gambling

Basketball has been the most popular and fastest-growing sport for Australian wagering customers of Bet Easy and Tabcorp, official partners of the NBA. For Tabcorp, “its customers bet more on NBA games than they do on any other sports league, including the domestic football and rugby leagues, and turnover from NBA bets grew more than 50 per cent in the last five years.”

A month prior in September 2019, Tabcorp signed on to be the National Football League’s first wagering partner in Australia. When combined with the chance to win weekly prizes and access unique content, why wouldn’t Australians already keen to gamble watch the NFL?

Playing 

With so much interest in watching and gambling on American football and basketball, there is bound to be growth in those playing both sports. But, the playing field appears uneven with basketball taking the lead at the grassroots and professional level for many reasons, like its longer history, professional league in-country, need for less equipment (so can be played in remote and regional areas) and lack of similar sports (with netball being mostly for women). 

When you look at where basketball is being played in Australia, it is unsurprising to see that most Australians in the NBA originate from Victoria. As of late, the Victorian government has sought to make it “The Basketball Capital of Australia.” They upgraded Melbourne Arena to bring fans an “NBA-like atmosphere…taking the fan experience to a whole new level” with new audio-visual enhancements and seating improvements. They’ve also funded a new State Basketball Centre and player development programs. In New South Wales, in 2019 the city of Newcastle also made a “slam dunk” of $25 million for a new basketball stadium. 

American football, or gridiron, has had less luck driving participation and doesn’t come in the ranking of sports played. As an organised league it has only been around since the 1980s and competes with more traditional rugby union, league and Aussie rules. Around 2,500 are registered players with Gridiron Australia. ACT Gridiron, active since 1993, has experienced significant declines in players despite the fan base, leading to a question of sustainability. 

But, local government is embracing opportunities to showcase Australia as a home for all sports. Gosford’s Central Coast Stadium will host the Australian Gridiron Nationals 2020 Championships starting in May – with the aim to “show the country American Football the Australian Way.” The nine-day “Festival of Gridiron” hopes to draw more than 600 players for the biggest in the tournament’s history, with talent from across the country.

A key takeaway is that governments see the return on investment for encouraging healthier lifestyles, potential tourism dollars from tournaments and additional space for other activities.

The Path

Considering how current Australians have entered the American leagues, we can see common themes for those looking to join the NBA or NFL (it’s not just luck and sweat). 

For the NBA: 

  • Play for an American university and/or finish high school at a prep school in North America
  • Attend the Australian Institute of Sport (or in Maker’s case, Canada’s Athlete Institute)
  • Have a family history (i.e. father played professionally in NBA and/or NBL)

Table 1. Australian players active in NBA, 2019-2020

PlayerNBA TeamTime at AISNBA Entry
Patrick (Patty) MillsSan Antonio Spurs20042009
Matthew DellavedovaCleveland Cavaliers20082013
Ryan BroekhoffDallas Mavericks20082013
Aron BaynesPhoenix Suns 2004-20052013
Joe InglesUtah Jazz2005-20062014
Dante ExumCleveland Cavaliers20132014
Thon MakerDetroit Pistons2014 (CAS)2016
Ben SimmonsPhiladelphia 78ers20122016

The importance of playing for the Nike Hoop Summit cannot be understated, but was not necessarily a common theme for the majority of these players; some had also played in European leagues and/or the NBL prior to signing with an NBA team.  

To play in the NFL, positions – and body types – are more varied. Also entrance/eligibility rules are different, so players cannot enter straight from high school. 

For the NFL:

  • Play in the AFL or NRL first
  • To specifically be recruited as a kicker, sign up to Prokick Australia 
  • Play college football

Table 2. Australian players in the NFL, 2019

PlayerNFL TeamRouteNFL Entry
Tom HackettNY Jets practice squad/ free agentAFL; Prokick, then University of Utah2016
Michael DicksonSeattle SeahawksAFL; Prokick, then University of Texas2018
Jordan MailataPhiladelphia EaglesNRL; International Pathways Program2018
Mitch WishnowskySan Francisco 49ersAFL; Prokick, then University of Utah2019
Valentine HolmesNY Jets practice squadNRL; International Pathways Program2019

Both the NBA and NFL have international growth strategies which over the years have included playing pre-season and regular season games overseas, playing against international teams in the U.S. or abroad (as NBL/NBA did this year) and having programs to diversify their pool with non-North American players. The NFL’s International Player Pathway Program and the NBA’s Nike Hoop Summit have been launching pads for Australian players in the U.S. leagues.   

Having international players also helps to expand American football and basketball branding, so teams scouting for players hidden across the globe. For example, in 2017, the Australian Institute of Sport gained a Nike Global Camp; and, NFL and college recruiters regularly engage with Prokick Australia’s programs to source punters.  Furthermore, young Americans playing in the NBL to deal with the league’s ‘one-and-done’ year after high school are opening a new wave of possibilities for cross-over with both countries.

The implications of growing American sports and culture in Australia are many, and outside the scope of this article. At minimum, it has influenced fashion, company branding and allowed for a revival of more NBA and NFL jerseys seen on the street perhaps not seen since basketball’s popularity in the 1990s. 

America’s real “pastime,” baseball, is also aiming to make headway in Australia. It’s broadcast on ESPN and there are leagues for all ages. However, the road to Major League Baseball is tough, as the ABC has reported. Australia’s first player in the MLB was Joe Quinn in 1886, and it took more than 80 years before another made it. But how far can the popularity of American sports reach in Australia, and what is next?