• Ian Stacker

Time to rethink the COE

There has been significant debate over the years of the value of the AIS basketball program, now known as the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence at the AIS. The basketball program was once funded with about $2 million per year directly from the Australian Sports Commission with BA having little say on how the funding was spent other than it be directed towards the growth phase of player development.

In 2013 the Sports Commission renamed its funding model to the Winning Edge philosophy which in essence gave Basketball Australia decision making power on how much of its funding it would devote to the COE and how much it would devote to Boomers, Opals and other National programs.

The measuring stick for success by the Australian Sports Commission of funding and the criteria for ongoing funding has been team success at Senior International events, the Olympic Games or World Championships, therefore ongoing funding has been determined by senior team success. In theory the COE’s success or failure has been measured by the success of the Senior National teams, certainly one could argue the Opals have been very successful while the Boomers have not.

The AIS program had been operating without any funding increases for many years and it was becoming clearly apparent that to deliver an appropriate program it was going to take more money than was currently being allocated.

Among the debates held over the years was whether the basketball program was actually responsible for all the stars who had come through or whether the program was merely a stop on their way along a clearly defined pathway.

My own experience as a coach has seen me working at the State Level as Director of Coaching, as an NBL Head Coach, a National Coach and also as Head Coach of the AIS Men’s Basketball program, currently I am effectively out of the system as a High School coach so I believe I can look at the system through both experienced and unbiased eyes. My conclusion? There is a better way to develop our best young players, a system that is not only better for the players but also better for basketball in Australia.

In the 30 years of the AIS basketball program there have been roughly two players per year on scholarship, out of the 12-14 there, who have gone on to play for the Boomers at the Olympic Games or Senior World Championships (not sure about the Opals but I wouldn’t be surprised if the figures were similar), so there is about $2 million dollars per year being devoted to producing two senior players. Is this a good spend? I think not. I noticed the AIS laid claim to Ben Simmons recently. I was Head Coach when Ben attended the AIS, he was a star before he arrived, he was clearly going to be something special, he stayed a month or two then headed to the USA, our impact on him was less than minimal, he was great when he arrived, like most who have gone through the door. Dante Exum arrived on my watch as a 15-year-old and was there for the full three years I was Head Coach. He was special when he arrived. We helped him with his shooting, but I’m sure if he had stayed at home, in a player development program delivered in his home State, he still could have been just as good as he was when he walked out the door of the AIS into the number 5 pick of the NBA draft.

The program has also clearly helped develop some very good basketball coaches such as Carrie Graf & Gordie McLeod, but should the program be about developing coaches or is it better having already experienced coaches working with the best young players?

So what happens to the other 10-12 players per year who have had scholarships who don’t go on to play for the Boomers or Opals? In recent years most males head off to the US college system and maybe return to play in the NBL, some just head back to their States to play in the local leagues and there are many who just no longer play basketball. Therefore, most of the players who attend the COE do not end up playing for the senior National team.

There is an argument that to develop those one or two stars you need a critical mass of players on scholarship so those couple of players can have the opportunity to develop team concepts as well as their individual skills, this is a fair argument but again, is it a good spend and the best way to do it?

My own experience as Head Coach at the AIS identified some of the problems with the Canberra based program;

  • It’s based in Canberra!

  • There is no weekly elite level competition for the players to get game play – essential to their ongoing development.

  • Players who are offered scholarships are generally 15 or 16 years old, very young to leave home and a tough age to change schools and leave their network of friends.

  • Canberra is expensive to fly in and out of making any type of player movement challenging.

  • Experienced coaches do not want to live in Canberra, unless the financial reward is too good to pass up on.

  • Most of the yearly budget is spent on residence and coaches and administration salaries.

So taking some of these points into consideration how could we develop our best young players better and get better value for our money?

The European model for elite player development is similar in most European Countries and it goes like this. An elite 15-year-old is identified by a pro club, the pro club contracts the player and takes ownership of that player’s development, integrating them with their senior program asap. If the player is good enough to be drafted into the NBA or to a high level Euro League Club (Exum, Simmons, etc.) then there is a contract buy out option that would see the NBA team buy out the contract to take ownership of the player – NBA teams have a limit of about $500,000 to buy out such contracts. The Euro club loses a talented young player but their pain is eased by the half a million-dollar or so contract buy out.

In France the Institute of Sport works in collaboration with the pro league teams to develop the best young players. If the player’s get good enough to leave France, either to the NBA or another Euro league Country, then again there is a contract buy out that is split between the Institute and the Pro team who helped in the player’s development.

Could such a system work here?

Here’s how it might look;

A future Boomer is identified as a 14-15-year-old. The State Association contracts the player (at this point it would be a contract with the family) to receive High Performance support which includes day to day coaching and all the support services currently being provided at the AIS. The player does not need to leave home or school; services are provided with minimal interruption to the player’s life. They continue to play in their local State league.

Players from the bigger cities already have access to elite competition through their State leagues. Elite level players from remote areas may be relocated to Cities where elite competition and services can be provided. They could live with host families.

Basketball Australia are partners in the contract with the State Association and BA provide camps and International tour opportunities for the player through involvement with National Junior teams. International tour opportunities are a critical element of this program, BA need players who can win International tournaments (Olympic Games and World Championships) The current funding model has most of the COE funding going towards residence and coaches, this money could be better spent on tours and camps.

Once the players are capable and this will vary from player to player, they are then placed with their local NBL club. The NBL club now also become partners in the contract assuming the ongoing development responsibilities of the player, in partnership with BA and the State Associations. The best coaches, young and old, are working in the NBL, that is where our best young players can get the best development opportunity.

If the talent ID and development has been good along the way and players are good enough to leave Australia to play professionally, then there is a contract buy out fee the club receiving the player would be expected to pay. Those involved in the players’ development pathway would share in the fee based on a pre agreed formula.

This is not a new idea; it’s basically how soccer operates around the world. It’s also how the Spanish Federation develop their elite junior players; it seems to have worked pretty well for them.

I believe there are currently eight Australians in the NBA, under this system some $4 million would have been returned to those who have shared in the player’s development, the State Association, Basketball Australia and the NBL club. I haven’t even counted the players playing professionally in Europe. The return under the current program? A bill of about $2 million per year at the COE.

The most critical stage of an elite player’s pathway? The players who have gone on to be Boomers or Opals have usually been the stand out players at National under 16 or under 18 Championships, it’s usually pretty clear by this point if they are special. Therefore, in my view the local clubs and State Associations should be given more credit for producing our best young players, the state league and coaches working with the players on a weekly basis. It’s not the COE and its certainly not the US College system, the stars have clearly been out long before they reach those places. NBA clubs identify talent at the Under 17 and Under 19 World Championships and Olympic Games. Australians who have gone on to play in the NBA were identified at these events, not in the US college system.

By devoting more of the BA funding towards keeping the best players in their State programs and integrating them more quickly with the NBL programs, where they can go against mature age players on a day to day basis, I believe this would create even more World class players. There is no critical mass of players needed to make it work, remember about 2 players per year go on to make the Boomers or Opals, therefore Nationally there may only be 6-8 players on this type of pathway at a given time, of course this system provides scope for more players too.

My experience and samples here clearly relate more to male players than female players but I see no reason why the concept of player development by the States, BA and WNBL clubs cannot be similar. While there may not be significant transfer fees available in the women’s game the end product is better player development and better use of funding. Perhaps some of the money saved from the COE model could be allocated to WNBL clubs to assist them with appointing full time coaches.

In the case of the men the NBL teams could really initiate this type of program themselves, it is not too difficult to identify the best young players in the Country – some of them are actually playing this week at Kilsyth at the under 16 Nationals. The NBL coaching and support staff could certainly offer more experience than is on offer at the COE, the National Men’s and Women’s coaches are based in Canberra but do little of the day to day work with the players.

Basketball is one of the few remaining team sports based at the AIS, most have moved their base from Canberra and found different models for producing their elite players, I suggest it’s time for basketball to do the same. The AIS has been the glowing light for BA when self-promoting its programs however in reality our best players have been created long before they get to the AIS, the Clubs, Local Associations and States have provided an environment where the players have found a love of the game and been given the opportunity to develop to a high level and I firmly believe we could produce more elite level players by including our professional leagues earlier in their pathway.

The problem with this model of course is getting the State Associations, Basketball Australia and the National Basketball League clubs all on the same page, it would require vision, strong leadership and some compromise and cooperation…. I’m probably dreaming!

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