NBL Chief Executive Jeremy Loeliger firmly believes Illawarra has a long-term future in the league, expressing full confidence in the club’s new ownership model as free agency opens this week.
The future of the Hawks has been the subject of speculation since former owner James Spenceley sold his majority share in the club last season.
It sparked fears the club faced an uncertain future, particularly as the league openly considers expansion for the 2019-20 season.
However, having carefully scrutinised the ownership change, Loeliger gave the league’s full endorsement to new owner Simon Stratford and newly-appointed general manager Mat Campbell on Wednesday.
“Simon has our backing, as does Mat, and we’re very confident they’ll take that team to the next level,” Loeliger told The Mercury.
“Simon and the team had to approach us for consent for the change of control when James left the ownership group. The change triggered an opportunity to sit down with them and really consider things in detail.
“We don’t just give consent willynilly, we do the analysis of the business and make sure the club is going to be viable after the proposed change.
“We made a concerted decision they were the right people for the job. If we thought they weren’t, they wouldn’t be participating in the 18-19 season.
“We’re moving together on the assumption that the Illawarra Hawks are going to be around for the long-term.”
The NBL has made so secret of it’s lofty goals for expansion, with executive director Larry Kestleman saying a second Melbourne team was “almost a given” for the 2019-20 season.
AFL powerhouse Hawthorn are one of several big players reportedly interested in pursuing an NBL license, prompting fears the Hawks could be a casualty of expansion plans.
Loeliger said plans to expand remain on the agenda, but insisted Illawarra sits firmly in the league’s vision for an expanded competition.
“The intention is certainly to grow to 10 teams, whether or not that happens at the same time as we introduce a ninth remains to be seen,” Loeliger said.
“We had conversations about a ninth team for the coming season and, because we were preparing for the contingency, we actually had a schedule prepared that contemplated nine teams.
“There may well be transition period where we have nine teams for a year or two, we may end up having 10 teams for the 19-20 season.”
Loeliger also said the NBL is committed to working with the Hawks to meet the unique challenges it faces as a regional team.
“We’ve sat down with Simon and worked through his strategy for the team and for the region,” he said.
“We’ve worked through the business plan with them, we’re helping them with some new strategies for growing revenue streams in the region and also for controlling costs, but in the right way and in the right areas.
“We have every confidence that he’ll be able to take Illawarra from where it is now to a point where we’re no longer making comparisons between regional and metropolitan [teams].
“Those are the kind of things we’re expecting to see from Illawarra in the coming seasons and we have every faith that Simon and his team will be able to deliver that.”