Australia's NBL might be the gateway to NBA ownership

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Dec. 26, 2019. On April 2, NBA prospect LaMelo Ball told ESPN that he and his manager have purchased his Australian NBL team.

IN SEPTEMBER, THE team owners of the National Basketball League gathered on a three-story, 37-meter yacht named "Vegas" for their annual excursion off the coast of Australia. Vegas belongs to Larry Kestelman, the Melbourne entrepreneur widely regarded as the individual most responsible for resuscitating professional basketball in Australia and New Zealand.

Three years after purchasing the Melbourne Tigers in 2012, Kestelman bought a majority stake in the NBL and began pouring tens of millions of dollars into rebuilding a league that had fallen into disrepair. He is the NBL's uber-authority, which means that when a team owner wants to air a grievance, it gets fired in his direction.

As the owners downed their pre-dinner drinks while gliding atop the turquoise waters between Hamilton Island and Queensland, the conversation grew more spirited.

One owner wanted to know when the NBL would start seeing more substantial broadcast revenue. Another pushed back on Kestelman's insistence that the teams were in a phase where financial investment was vital.

A couple of drinks in, Kestelman had heard enough. A virile, imposing man of 53 with a shaved head, Kestelman put the attendees on notice:

"If you're selling, I'm buying," Kestelman told them.

Kestelman challenged any owner on the yacht who had buyer's remorse or an irreconcilable issue with his vision: I'll cash you out. And when the team appreciates, I'll gladly profit.

No one took Kestelman's offer that day -- it was largely rhetorical anyway. Instead, this new wave of owners made deep investments in infrastructure and marketing, steadily building the NBL's global audience. They're attracting some of the best basketball prospects in the world onto their courts, while also enticing NBA stars past and present to buy in.

In past years, retired NBA players who generated wealth might have joined an ownership bid for a domestic franchise. These days, that money doesn't go as far.

"You have to be a billionaire to own an NBA team," said Kevin Martin, who retired in 2016 after playing 12 seasons and earning $83 million in salary with five NBA teams. "And none of us are billionaires."

THE NBL IS enjoying a moment.

The league set an average attendance record last season of 6,348 and is up another 9% this season. Franchises that couldn't find buyers less than a decade ago now trade at a valuation of $9 million. More Aussies than ever play NCAA basketball, with many returning to compete in their home league.

"It's a must-see league with talent that isn't going away," said Tony Ronzone, a veteran international scout now with the Dallas Mavericks.

Fans all over the world have been watching LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton from afar as they ready themselves in the NBL for the 2020 NBA draft. Both top prospects are part of the NBL's Next Stars initiative to lure elite North American high school players away from a year in the NCAA in favor of a season in Oceania as first-year pros.

When Ball and Hampton faced off in late October, nearly 2 million viewers across the globe watched on Facebook. Last month, more than 17,500 fans packed Qudos Bank Arena to watch Ball's Illawarra Hawks play the Sydney Kings. But it isn't just Next Stars who are committing to the NBL.

In the past year, Martin has purchased the majority of the Brisbane Bullets with former NBA exec and agent Jason Levien. Retired players Zach Randolph, Al Harrington and Josh Childress, as well as current Cleveland Cavaliers guard and Melbourne native Dante Exum, joined an investment group led by entrepreneur Romie Chaudhari to head up the expansion SE Melbourne Phoenix. Early in 2018, former Phoenix Suns forward Shawn Marion joined a group led by Matt Walsh -- who played briefly for the Miami Heat -- to acquire the New Zealand Breakers. In Sydney, longtime Golden State Warriors veteran Andrew Bogut now starts at center for the Kings, and he will have an option to vest in the franchise upon his retirement.

Prior to Martin coming into Brisbane, Kevin Durant flirted with purchasing the team. He and his manager, Rich Kleiman, were in lengthy discussions to buy the Bullets.

Ultimately, Durant decided geographical distance would prevent him from being any more than an absentee owner in a league that wanted him to be very visible. The NBL privately acknowledges that it could have made the negotiations a bit easier for Durant, who, sources say, hasn't ruled out giving the NBL another look in the future.

VIRTUALLY EVERYONE WHO has an ownership stake in the NBL cites the product's NBA feel as one of its positive attributes. At a recent showdown between the Kings and Melbourne United in Sydney that drew 9,512 in attendance, the texture and mood of the venue was very NBA -- from the corporate hospitality to game operations (right down to the kiss cam).

For former players who are looking for a sweet spot that connects their entrepreneurial ambitions with their area of expertise, the NBL offers the ultimate perks: affordability and opportunity.

"The next 10 to 15 years, there are going to be a lot of players who retire with 50 to 100 million dollars," Walsh said. "You're not getting [an NBA] team for less than $1.5 billion. But being an assistant coach or scout for an NBA team, living that grind lifestyle, doesn't appeal to them."

During the past three decades, the average NBA player salary has multiplied more than seven times. Marion racked up salary earnings of $134 million over his 16-year career. Ten years ago, less than $100 million in cash might buy an individual controlling interest in an NBA franchise. Today, if a retired player of Marion's wealth wants in on a deal, he is likely to be one of more than a dozen minority owners with a nominal percentage of the team -- a glorified season-ticket holder with virtually no say in the operation.

Martin and Levien bought controlling stake of the Bullets based on a valuation of $9 million to $10 million, a boon for a league that could barely give away a franchise seven years ago. Martin plans to spend a full month in Australia in early 2020, and he anticipates spending a third of his time in Brisbane each year, immersing himself in his education of the Australian market.

"It was a whirlwind, but it felt right," Martin said. "I saw the way they ran the league -- the production quality, paying players on time, and the fan base is into it. The players, coaches, facilities, trainers, marketing -- it really felt like a small-scale NBA."

The autonomy of being an owner-operator was a key part of the sales pitch for Martin. This is a feature that Martin, Marion and Kestelman emphasize: The NBL is a nice starter home for any NBA player.

The Bullets will hire an executive to head up the organization's business operations, but Martin expects to lead the front office and oversee decision-making on the basketball side. He said he is singularly focused on his new NBL venture and eager to absorb the economics of a professional sports team. He can imagine a future as a CEO of an NBA team once he has the requisite knowledge of the business.

"I look at it as a matchbox car," Kestelman said. "You want to play with a big car, first you play with the little car. It's not dissimilar. We're nothing like an NBA club by resources, but in some ways that's good because you get to actually get your hands dirty and get involved with everything that needs to be done around a club."

The NBL would happily welcome more Kevin Martins.

The league has watched franchise valuations grow from below $1 million to $5 million, and Kestelman believes an NBL franchise will never again trade for less than $10 million. His preferred ownership model: a partnership between sophisticated businesspeople who are equally passionate about the business of team ownership and willing to spend, and former NBA players who have a sincere interest in serving as active owners and proselytizers for the NBL.

In the case of Martin, the NBL got both.

"Australia is a gem," he said. "And the NBL is intriguing for someone in their mid-30s to own and run a team in professional sports."

ZACH RANDOLPH HADN'T been on a professional basketball court since he was waived by the Mavericks in February. But there he was, soaking wet in street clothes, on the floor at Melbourne Arena an hour after watching his new holding -- the Phoenix -- get nipped by a point by Melbourne United.

Randolph wasn't playing, but he was shagging balls for Phoenix guard Ben Madgen.

"Extra work! Extra work!" Randolph yelled at Madgen as he fed him passes and dissected the game he just witnessed as a spectator.

"I saw him out there working and getting shots up, it brought me back," Randolph said. "But it got hot, and I'm chasing down rebounds in street clothes. I sweat easily, so the next thing you know, I take off my hoodie and my T-shirt."

As the layers peeled off the two-time NBA All-Star, Madgen tried to put a 1 for 10 night behind him. He moved through his shooting routine, with Randolph playing the role of cameo assistant coach.

"He was gassing me up a little bit," Madgen said. "After 20 minutes, I'm thinking, 'Zach Randolph is rebounding for me.' It was surreal. There aren't many franchises where an owner will get on the court and rebound for a player."

Randolph owns a small percentage of the Phoenix, and like the other NBA players who have bought into the NBL, he has entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement by investing with a friend in a franchise. The players buy proximity to the nerve center of a professional sports team, and the franchise gets an association with a brand-name NBA player.

"It gives you confidence that you are on the right track and that there are others who share your vision who have done it before," said Craig Hutchison, chairman of Melbourne United.

Marion flew down in October for the start of the NBL season to watch the Breakers' first three games. Like Randolph, he made the rounds at the arenas, to the delight of Australia's rabid basketball fans, and did a slew of media hits on behalf of the Breakers and the NBL.

"There was a coolness aspect of having 'The Matrix' as part of our ownership group," Walsh said. "You can always find someone to write a check [to join an ownership group], but how many are walking around with NBA championship rings?"

Since retiring from the NBA in 2015 -- four years after winning a title with Dallas -- Marion had been itching to move into an ownership role in pro sports. He considered joining a group to bid on an MLB team, and another for an MLS franchise, but both deals fell through.

Basketball is still Marion's true love, the sport he intuitively knows and the one in which he can imagine playing the most central role post-retirement. When the chance to join Walsh presented itself, Marion jumped.

"I didn't know anything about the NBL," Marion said. "But it was a winning situation. Now that I've been, I would say that the way we have it set up over there, it's the closest thing to NBA ball. That's the thing I was in awe of."