22 May 2024

Lucrative New Zealand basketball league on stars' radar

5:46 am on 22 May 2024
Northern player Madison Wolf during the Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa game Mainland Pouākai v Northern Kahu. Trafalgar Centre, Nelson, New Zealand. Saturday 9 July 2022.

Northern player American Madison Wolf during Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa game. Photo: Chris Symes

New Zealand has become an attractive option for top women's basketballers from around the world as other leagues face financial challenges.

The revamped Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa offers players better pay than many international leagues, and on court competition that is getting increasingly stronger.

Last season the league had nine players with links to America's WNBA, along with the Australian Opals captain and many Tall Ferns.

This season the competition will tip off later - on 4 October - which is a good fit for WNBA players but clashes with Australia's WNBL meaning some players will have to choose which league they play in.

Players who opt for Aotearoa will earn double what they did in the 2023 Tauihi season and will be part of one of five teams contesting a 10-round regular season that will wrap up with a final on 22 December.

With the competition over before Christmas, players can also seek contracts in Europe.

Uncertainty in the WNBL could play in New Zealand's favour this season.

The oldest club in the WNBL, the Melbourne Boomers, handed back their license this month after 40 years in the competition. A Geelong-based consortium will take it over for the 2024/25 season.

Some of Australia's top players and current Tall Fern Penina Davidson have played for the Melbourne Boomers.

With a roster of players potentially out of a job, Davidson says they've been considering their options.

Penina Davidson of New Zealand drives to the basket guarded by Keely Froling of Australia during the FIBA Women's Asia Cup Bronze Medal basketball match between Australia and New Zealand at Quaycentre in Sydney, Sunday, July 2, 2023.

Penina Davidson of New Zealand drives to the basket guarded by Keely Froling of Australia. Photo: AAP / www.photosport.nz

Free agency hasn't begun in the WNBL yet and Davidson says it keeps it getting pushed back all while other leagues are showing interest in Davidson and her team mates.

"Do you just quickly go to another league before roster spots fill up, there is definitely a few question marks," Davidson says of weighing staying with the WNBL or moving on.

Davidson played for the Boomers for five years and made her home in Melbourne after she crossed the ditch with the hopes of improving her game and ultimately the strength of the Tall Ferns with an Olympic berth in mind.

"I knew if I was training behind some of the best, girls who weren't just competing to make the Olympics but were competing to medal at the Olympics, I thought that would be a great opportunity for me to develop."

The Tall Ferns have not made the 2024 Paris Olympic Games (the Opals have) but Davidson wants her next step at club level to put her in a place to be prepared to help New Zealand make it in four years time.

"I know it sounds like a long time away but it all sets up nicely if you can figure out what you're doing now leading up to that it all matters."

The length of the Tauihi season is appealing to Davidson. "It's so fast-paced I always joke that by the time you get annoyed with anything it's over."

Leagues of a similar duration to Tauihi - like in Taiwan - allow players to stitch together something that suits their lifestyle and ambitions.

"All of our opportunities have grown so much since that Covid year especially and I think it's a real positive that there are more rosters being filled and more spots are available ... I can't remember the last time all of us had this many options making a pick of which country you want to play in is such an amazing problem to have."

Davidson has noticed the development of women's basketball where some people might not expect.

"Especially the not so powerhouse teams like ourselves versus Australia or China if we want to be more competitive we have to play more basketball year-round so why not pop up with our own league and do that when you can't necessarily get Tall Fern camps it's just too hard to organise so why not do it through a league."

Former Opal turned Tall Fern and 2017 WNBA draft pick Tahlia Tupaea made an instant impact when she joined the inaugural season of Tauihi.

Playing for the Northern Kahu Tupaea was named as MVP in 2022 and she was back in season two. She plans to be back again this year.

Northland player Tahlia Tupaea during the Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa competition.

Tahlia Tupaea during the Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa competition. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Tupaea was the second youngest debutant in the history of the WNBL when she played for the Sydney University Flames in 2012 at 15 years and 133 days. Five years later the guard was part of Flames' championship winning team.

Since her teenage years she has played across Australia's domestic competitions WNBL and NBL1 as she wanted to impress the Opals coaches. She last played in the WNBL just before Covid.

Whanau drew Tupaea home in the first season of Tauihi and she encourages others, even those who don't have links to New Zealand, to consider doing the same especially with the money on offer.

"It's hard for females in sport wanting to have a family you go play Europe or WNBL for six months you need to hold off [having children] where [Tauihi] is only a two to three month season and you can make a bit of money for yourself or your family.

"I've spoken to one girl who I am playing with at the moment tried to drift her to coming over ... but I definitely encourage girls to come over to New Zealand even off the court it would be a good place just to visit around and be a tourist."

Tahlia Tupaea  during the FIBA Women's Asia Cup Semi Final basketball match between Japan and New Zealand in Sydney in 2023.

Tahlia Tupaea has made her Tall Ferns debut after starring in the first season of Tauihi. Photo: FIBA Women;s Asia Cup 2023

More money equals more opportunities

Former Melbourne Boomers general manager and one of the driving forces behind Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa, Justin Nelson, can see the different trajectories the competitions on opposite sides of the Tasman are taking.

Nelson worked with the Melbourne Boomers for five years before arriving in New Zealand in 2019. He was key to bringing together the ownership group that has just moved on from the Boomers.

"It's really really sad to see what they are going through right now.

"The Boomers are a victim of the environment that they're competing in the WNBL is a really tough environment right now for teams and owners.

"It's a competition that is run by the national sporting association so that makes it really hard because [Basketball Australia's] job is to focus on high performance and grassroots participation and as an elite competition that's in the business of entertainment it's really hard for that to fit in and the funding from the national body just isn't there and that then gets passed over to owners and they have to foot the bill."

NBL General manger Justin Nelson

Justin Nelson. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Nelson says Tauihi, which started in 2022, operates differently.

"We've probably had the luxury of building Tauihi from scratch from the ground up and when you do that you do it with a mindset of sustainability and in today's world you do it with a mindset of change and innovation and you gear it towards being an entertainment product.

As more money came in Tauihi was able to increase the number of paid contracts available in this third season of the competition - particularly for international players - while keeping the same number of roster spots available for New Zealanders.

"Lets not forget that when you bring in elite talent it helps raise the bar and the development of homegrown players ... that international talent certainly helps young local players progress very quickly and learn the tricks of the trade on how to be a professional athlete on a global scale and then hopefully those players can take that within their own career and go on and blossom in leagues right around the world."

Tokomanawa Queens' American guard Jamie Nared during the 2022 Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa Grand Final

Tokomanawa Queens' American guard Jamie Nared during the 2022 Tauihi Basketball Aotearoa Grand Final Photo: Chris Symes

Tauihi is a step up on the previous domestic women's competition offered in New Zealand. For years elite New Zealand players looked offshore to develop their game, particularly in Australia, Nelson says they don't have to do that now.

"To be perfectly blunt the previous competitions that were in place for the top end talent in New Zealand weren't good enough. Largely it was purely amateur.

Discussions are underway with a number of international teams as Tauihi plans to welcome teams from beyond New Zealand in 2025.

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