THE opening of the 2021-22 season of the National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia this Nov. 18 faces delays as the league puts priority on the fan experience in this third season impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger shared to ESPN's Ball and the Real World the difficulties and the factors the league is weighing before releasing its full schedule for the upcoming season, incidentally Filipino teen Kai Sotto's first Down Under.
"Officially [the scheduled opening is] still Nov. 18 but there is certainly some murmur on the streets because of that fact that a lot of other codes are pushing back and we're continuing to monitor the numbers on a day-by-day basis," he said.
"Given that we've always said our priority is our fans and allowing them to attend as many games in their home city as possible, it would be derelict of us not to continue to monitor and consider current circumstances of whether or not to push that date back a little further."
Anticipation is building for the 22nd season of the NBL, which will see Sotto suit up for the Adeliade 36ers as the first Filipino to play in the Aussie league.
Aside from him, also making their NBL debuts are Chinese centers Zhou Qi for the South East Melbourne Phoenix and Liu Chuanxing for the Brisbane Bullets, both like Sotto signed under the Special Restricted Player contracts.
However, there is a lot of uncertainty on when that will be as the NBL deals with the state-by-state travel restrictions in Australia which would directly impact the home-and-away schedule of the league teams.
Vaccination issues hound league
Another area of concern is the vaccination rates in Australia.
Although the league is clear that it won't enforce mandatory vaccinations for its teams, Illawarra Hawks' Travis Trice and New Zealand Breakers' Tai Webster came to "mutual agreements" to cut ties with their teams for their decision not to get vaccinated.
"We're not a policy maker and this is a public policy issue, that's probably the first point. It's not our intent to mandate vaccinations because the rules are the rules. If we were to try and preempt that now, in all likelihood the rule would change between now and when the season began," Loeliger said.
"What we're trying to do is make sure that everyone has as much information as possible and is educated as much as possible. Both about the consequences of taking or not taking the vaccination from a health perspective but also the implications potentially on their career or their season once the powers that be beyond our control step in and say, 'You can't cross into our state unless you've been vaccinated, or you can't come into our venue, or you can't come onto our aircraft'."
For Loeliger, this is very much an issue between the club and the player - one that the NBL chooses to back off from.
"Clubs and players have to make those decisions between themselves. You've seen a couple of mutual releases and I think they were exactly that, they were mutual releases because coaches and clubs want certainty and players want to hoop so it doesn't really suit anyone's cause if players are going to be sitting at home unable to travel to various destinations and coaches are going to be without their star players. It's an unfortunate circumstance but such is the nature of the pandemic," he said.
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