Larry Kestelman: NBL will definitely 'come back stronger'

Perth Wildcats receive belated NBL trophy (0:48)

Perth Wildcats received their championship trophy and rings after winning their record-breaking 10th title. (0:48)

Over the past five years, the NBL has made a stunning resurgence.

Since 2016, under the leadership of Larry Kestelman, the league's attendance has increased by 54 percent, television viewership is up 48 percent and social media interaction and engagement, perhaps the most important modern day metric, has jumped a whopping 400 percent.

What had been widely viewed as a dying league, as recently as five years ago, was now beginning to thrive. But then came COVID-19.

The global pandemic has seen state and federal governments impose all types of restrictions in an effort to tackle the spread of coronavirus. The NBL was first impacted in March when the 2019-20 season was forced to be cut short during the finals. Then came the mass furloughs which have further crippled the league.

"It's been the toughest six to eight weeks the world has had for a very long time and not knowing how bad it's going to be has been the hardest thing," Kestelman tells ESPN. "I wish I could pretend this year never happened, because the league had been having such great momentum and such great success."

The most recent hit the NBL has taken is the loss of a number of star players, including Bryce Cotton, Casper Ware, Nick Kay and Xavier Cooks, who have all opted out of their contracts, as a result of the league's salary cuts.

The decision to reduce player wages was a difficult one to make, but it had to be done in order to preserve the future of the league.

"We had to get together as a business, both the NBL and clubs themselves, and decide to stand all of the players down," Kestelman explains. "Some higher paid players had to take a 50 percent cut, some took a 27 percent cut.

"We've obviously had some [players opt out] but certainly not that many. It's disappointing but probably expected and I understand their decision. I'm proud of the fact we were able to come up with a way to lessen the pain."

Compounding the NBL's misery during the coronavirus pandemic has been the revamp of the NBA's G-League, something which many see as a direct threat to the NBL's wildly successful Next Stars initiative.

The Next Stars program, which has received international acclaim, offers talented youngsters an alternate pathway to the NBA. Players can now forego the traditional college route and be paid to play against seasoned professionals, something which attracted the likes of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton.

The G-League is attempting to position itself similarly, albeit on a larger scale, where players can opt out of college and be paid to play for a non-NBA affiliated team.

But despite all of the uncertainty in the world and around his league, Kestelman is convinced the NBL will not stagnate or fall behind the pack. Instead, he believes the COVID-19 situation could end up being a positive for Australian basketball.

"We've been a little bit lucky with our timing. The fact we're in our off-season and we've got a bit of time to plan and think, I feel very privileged," he tells ESPN. "Everyone understands this year has come a little out of left-field, but we'll get through it and we'll get back on our growth trajectory.

"In some ways this reset may have some benefits. The league's had such massive growth and now everyone has an opportunity to take a breath and have a look at every aspect of the business. If anything, I think the business will come back stronger."

The 2020-21 NBL season is slated to begin in October, though Kestelman admits there's scope to push things back if need be, and while he expects it to look "pretty similar" to previous years, one significant aspect is still up in the air: attendance.

"Right now there's Plan A, Plan B and Plan C," he says. "Plan A is to try and get everyone back in the venue and have everything as normal, that's what we're trying to achieve. Plan B is a combination of how many fans can we get in and how can we do it in a safe way? Plan C is absolutely no fans. That is the worst case scenario and it's something we're trying at all costs to avoid. We still need to work closely with the government."

It's unclear when we'll know exactly how the NBL season will play out, but one thing is clear - Kestelman has a direction and is prepared for whatever is thrown at him.