On October 4 1980, during the Australian Women’s Club Championship in Sydney, a meeting of delegates from six of the leading clubs in Australian women’s basketball was held. The clubs were North Adelaide, West Adelaide and Glenelg from SA and CYMS, Telstars and St. Kilda from Victoria.
The meeting resolved to form a 2 round competition between these teams to be held in July and August in 1981. The basis for the idea was that many of the top sides in both States wanted a varied competition from their standard State League as well as a suitable preparation for the Australian Club Championship, which was held on an annual basis for the top 24 teams in the country. There was also much excitement with the formation of the men’s National League in 1979 and the women felt that one of best ways to develop the game was to provide more opportunities for the best players and clubs to play against each other more regularly.
A major consideration was finance and with this in mind the competition was formed with the six teams with a full home and away series between all teams with three games on one weekend to save costs. The NSW based clubs of Bankstown and Sutherland were not happy to be left out due to costs and offered to pay their own way to Melbourne and Adelaide where they would play each team once for double points.
In 1981 the Australian Institute of Sport was also opened and the men’s head coach Dr. Adrian Hurley (who was to lead the Australian Boomers in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics) contacted the clubs and asked whether the AIS could also participate in the competition to commence later that year.
The competition commenced on June 19 1981 with the first game to be played in Adelaide between the AIS and West Adelaide.
The competition was called the Women’s Interstate Basketball Conference with each team paying the sum of $25 to be a part of the WIBC – giving a central fund of $200 to conduct the competition.
The inaugural winner was St. Kilda Saints defeating North Adelaide 77 – 58. St. Kilda also went on to the win the Victorian State Championship and the Australian Club Championship in Melbourne defeating Bankstown Bruins in the final. St. Kilda had three Australian representatives in Tracy Morris, Karen Ogden and Patricia Cockrem. Ogden became the national league’s first dual Most Valuable Player award winner when she took the coveted individual trophy in 1982 (the first season it was presented) and again in 1983.
In 1982 the competition expanded into another State with the entry of a combined Brisbane team. The new revised program saw Victorian teams traveling to NSW and AIS, and NSW teams traveling to South Australia and South Australian teams traveling to Victoria. It was not a full home and away competition but the beginnings of what was to come in the future.
The competition also changed its name to the more appropriate Women’s Basketball League.
St. Kilda repeated in 1982 with a grand final win over Bankstown. It is interested to note that St. Kilda also won the first two titles in the men’s NBL, which showed the strength of the St. Kilda at that time.
In 1983 Nunawading Spectres led by the brilliant Robyn Maher easily defeated St. Kilda and went on to win 9 WNBL titles during the next 12 years.
Amazingly during the 1983 Australian Club Championships a workshop was held to discuss women’s basketball and from this meeting came the decision to bring together a second tier of clubs to form the Women’s Conference. There were now 20 women’s teams playing in a home and away competition, which immediately improved the standard of women’s basketball in Australia.
It was also an important time for Australian Basketball with the 1984 Olympics to be held in Los Angeles and the only way that Australia could qualify was to compete in the Pre Olympic Tournament in Cuba in March 1984. Only six teams would qualify for the Olympics and the Aussies were buoyed with five consecutive victories including the prized scalps of big guns Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But losses to South Korea, Canada and Cuba by two points relegated Australia to seventh place. Overall it had been a tremendous and memorable, if ultimately vain effort to win one of the six prized spots in Los Angeles. But when politics later played their inexorable part and the dust settled on a Soviet Union inspired Eastern Bloc boycott of the LA games, suddenly Australia – the next highest qualifier – was through.
Australia went on to compete in Los Angeles and whilst only winning one game (the final game against Yugoslavia) to finish in 5th position, the Aussies was just starting to make their mark on the international women’s basketball scene.
Back in Australia in 1985 the two competitions continued to work together to improve women’s basketball and recognised the need to promote the competition and the individual clubs and athletes. Hobart was winners of the second conference and was keen to enter the main competition however this was not to be until 1986.
With the NBL finally riding the crest of a sudden wave of popularity, media interest in the women’s league also was on the increase. Most clubs were recognising the need to promote themselves and the image of the league. Double header matches with the men’s NBL and with South East Basketball League games – a secondary men’s interstate competition – pushed the women’s game before a wider spectator audience unfamiliar with the qualify of women’s basketball.
When Perth admitted a team for the 1986 Women’s Basketball Conference, the two women’s leagues could rightfully boast that between them they had a truly national competition. The Australian Basketball Federation approved the WBL’s application to be renamed the National Women’s Basketball League and a new era was underway.
1986 was also the first year that the WNBL played its first full home and away competition and next year Perth sought a position in the number league. Perth’s inclusion was on the basis that they paid their own airfares in the first two years and earnt their position. The WNBL as part of their early strategy introduced full equalisation, which was, and still is the reason that the league has survived given Australian is such a large country.
On the International front the Australians again had to qualify for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and with the improvement in local competition, Basketball Australia sent a strong and exciting team to Malaysia for the Pre Olympic Tournament. Eight teams were to qualify (12 for the men) for Seoul with the Aussies gaining one of the valuable 8 positions.
In Seoul the Australians inflicted the first ever defeat of the USSR (Soviet Union) with a 60-48 victory to qualify for the semi finals against Yugoslavia. Remember the Australians had beaten the Yugoslavs in LA in the final game and despite a heart wrenching game, were defeated in the final four seconds of the game by 1 point. The Soviets went on to defeat the Australians in the bronze medal game. The Australians who were named the Opals had to wait until 1996 in Atlanta before they were able to capture that elusive Olympic medal – the women winning the first ever basketball medal in Olympic competition.
In 1989 with some excellent work from the AIS who had continued to compete in the WNBL, the junior women played in the 2nd junior world championship in Spain winning Australia’s first international basketball medal with a bronze medal. In that team was Shelley Sandie (nee Gorman) who had been a young 18 year old on the Seoul team.
Following the success of the Seoul Olympics, the WNBL were ready to enter a new era and appointed Lyn Palmer in the newly created full time general manager position. Lyn Palmer who had just retired after a distinguished playing career with St. Kilda, Nunawading and Coburg, was looking for a change whilst her husband Bill was general manager of the men’s NBL with Mr. & Mrs. Palmer now heading up the men and women’s leagues.
In 1989 the WNBL gained its first sponsorship in Pony one of Australia’s leading sporting apparel companies at the time for $258,000 and ABC agreed to cover the finals series. The women’s game in Australia was on the move. There were 13 teams in the WNBL for the 1989 season with the Bankstown Bruins changing their name to the Sydney Bruins to try and gain more market exposure in Australia’s largest city.
The next few years saw the league continue to grow with Australia being awarded the Women’s World Championships in 1994. The pressure was now on to ensure that women’s basketball gained a profile in the country and in 1993 the WNBL teams agreed to contribute some money to enable the game to be televised on a weekly basis by ABC. This was the break through that the sport needed and also co-incided with the Sydney Kings taking over the ownership of the Sydney Bruins and the formation of the Sydney Flames.
Coached by Carrie Graf the Flames became one of Australia’s most popular women’s sporting team. The Perth Breakers led the way with the bodysuit in the early 90’s whilst the Flames continued to modify the suit winning the title in 1993 and gaining back page coverage on the Sydney newspapers a feat never envisaged back in the early 80’s.
With the Women’s World Championships – OZ 94 on our doorstep, Australia’s most winningest coach Tom Maher stepped into the role of Australian coach and has led the Opals to be ranked in the top four teams in the world for the past 8 years.
Tom coached the team to a 4th position in the 1994 world championships, a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996, a bronze medal in Germany in 1998 and a silver medal in Sydney 2000.
In the WNBL Sydney, Melbourne Tigers, Adelaide Lightning and Canberra have dominated the finals in the latter 90’s. Adelaide coached by Jan Stirling has won four titles, Sydney has won three and Canberra have won two. The AIS won their first title in the first summer season of 1998/99 led by one of the best basketballers in the world, Lauren Jackson.
The AIS are the only team to have retained the same name since 1981 when they entered the inaugural competition. There have been teams from Sydney and Adelaide but each has changed their name during the course of the last 22 seasons.
ABC has continued to televise the league since the first finals in 1989 despite some difficulties in mid 2001 when the ABC contemplated changing their televising of sport. A successful lobby subsequently saw the WNBL and Netball retained on ABC. In 2006/07 the ABC undrtook to increase their coverage by showing Friady night games live on ABC digital televison as well as a replay in the regular Saturday afternoon slot.
Financial stability has always been a challenge for the WNBL since its inception. Money has always been difficult to source and all clubs have had to be diligent in expenditure throughout the years.
The WNBL was very stable with eight teams for a number of seasons with Tasmania and Northern Territory not represented. In 2006 Bendigo through the efforts of a strong community focus for women’s basketball, commenced discussions with Basketball Australia about entering a team for the 2007/2008 season. At the same time Basketball New Zealand had discussions with Basketball Australia about a team from New Zealand entering the next season.
In October 2006 the decision was made to welcome two new teams into the WNBL for the 2007/2008 season in Bendigo Spirit and Christchurch Sirens. Bendigo have brought excellent community support into the league whilst Christchurch have a number of the New Zealand Tall Ferns on their roster. One of the strategic objectives of the WNBL was to see a second team out of Queensland from the south and after some very effective feasibility work, Logan Basketball Association were successful in being admitted into the 2008/2009 season with the Logan Thunder.
Over the years the league has comprised teams who have been Association based and also State based e.g. Canberra and Adelaide. Sydney Flames were a part of the very successful Sydney Kings franchise but in 2002 when the Kings were sold the Flames became a separate identity. For one season they were owned privately and then the following season became a part of the Sydney Uni Sports organization. This has been an excellent relationship for the team, the sport and also has brought excellent benefits into the sport through the educational opportunities through Sydney University.
Adelaide Lightning traditionally a part of the State Association were also privately brought in 2006 when the State Government took over the two league teams that had been managed and controlled by Basketball SA.
Over the years the success of the Opals has been vitally linked to the success of the WNBL. The WNBL has seen the development of famous Opals such as Robyn Maher, Michele Timms, Karen Dalton, Rachel Sporn, Shelley Sandie, Julie Nykiel, Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor.
All have represented Australia with distinction and been key performers season after season for their clubs.
Following the success of the Opals on the international scene, a number of players have been recruited for the European Leagues with Michele Timms and Sandy Brondello having played for German club Wuppertal for many years. Sandy is now an assistant coach with San Antonio in the WNBA whilst Michele Timms is now an assistant coach with the Dragons in the NBL, again a first for Michele Timms. Other opals who have played in Europe with distinction have been Kristi Harrower, Trish Fallon, Penny Taylor, Belinda Snell, Lauren Jackson, Suzy Batkovic, Alicia Poto, Rachael Sporn, Jenny Whittle, Alison Tranquilli, Jenni Screen, Laura Summerton, Hollie Grima and Emma Randall.
Following the Atlanta Olympics, the NBA introduced the WNBA, with Michele Timms being the first international player drafted to the WNBA. Since that time many Australian players have gone on to the play in the WNBA with Lauren Jackson being named as the WNBA’s No. 1 Draft pick in 2001 – an amazing feat for an Australian. Lauren Jackson was MVP in season 2007 and Penny Taylor and Belinda Snell led the Phoenix Mercury to their first ever championship.
In season 2004/2005 the WNBL turned 25th and to celebrate the league announced the 25th WNBL anniversity team.
In order of votes:
1. Lauren Jackson – AIS, Canberra
2. Robyn Maher – Melbourne, Melbourne East, Tasmania, perth, Sydney
3. Michele Timms – Bulleen, Melbourne East, Perth, Sydney
4. Rachael Sporn – West Adelaide, North Adelaide, Adelaide
5. Shelley Sandie – Melbourne East, AIS, Dandenong, Sydney, Canberra
6. Penny Taylor AIS, Dandenong
7. Julie Nykiel – Noarlunga
8. Jenny Cheesman – Noarlunga, AIs, Canberra
9. Karin Maar – CYMS, Coburg, Bulleen
10. Trish Fallon – AIS, Melbourne, Sydney
Coach: Tom Maher – Melbourne, Nunawading, Tasmania, Perth, Sydney, Canberra
Referee: Sharon Arnold, Kilsyth
Some of the 1sts achieved in the WNBL are:
· 1st president – Peter Baskett
· 1st General Manager – Joan Lloyd
· 1st MVP – Karen Ogden
· 1st WNBL champions – St. Kilda Saints
· 1st coach of the Year – Tom Maher Nunawading Spectres 1987
· 1st televised season – ABC 1993
· 1st book – High Flyers – Women’s Basketball in Australia by Boti Nagy
· 1st international team – Christchurch Sirens – 2007/2008 season
· 1st WNBL player to play in the WNBA – Michele Timms – 1997
· 1st WNBL player to play in Europe – Michele Timms – 1987
· 1st AIS team to win a title 1998/99 led by Lauren Jackson. Included Olympians Suzy Batkovic, Penny Taylor and Belinda Snell
· 1st regional Queensland team to enter the league in 2001/2002 – Townsville
At the launch of the 2019/20 Chemist Warehouse WNBL season the league celebrated the start of its 40th season in existence.