Is basketball a major sport in the United Kingdom yet?
With the NBA returning to London for a fifth time since 2011, WNOL Sport look at whether basketball is becoming as big a force in the UK as it is in America.
United States of Basketball
In the United States of America, basketball is still one of the three major sports along with baseball and American football. These three have been the domineering sports in North America for decades and have inspired many youngsters to take up each of them and aim for their dreams of playing for their favourites teams.
The American Basketball league, the NBA (National Basketball Association) appears to have reached a whole new high of commercial awareness with it being shown globally, now being broadcast in 215 countries (the vast majority of the world) in 43 languages.
The new breed of players has spurned the surge of commerce for the NBA, particularly a baller many consider to one of the greatest to ever grace the sport, LeBron James. According to Forbes he has earned around $450 million (in just eleven years), with over two-thirds of that from off-court endorsements with brands such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Cadbury.
Michael Jordan is the player many consider to be the birth of making the NBA commercial recognised worldwide, mainly through his Air Jordan shoe range. Launched in 1984, the brand has only continued to gain popularity and is now a $1 billion business for owners Nike.
Lesser attention for basketball at home
Despite the success of the NBA in America and the rest of the world, basketball in the United Kingdom is a relatively minor sport.
The BBL (the British Basketball League) was formed in 1987, just as basketball in America was becoming a profitable force. It features teams from England and Scotland (only one of the teams hail from this region, however) with a similar goal as the teams across the pond, to win the play-offs and become national champions.
That title currently belongs to the Worcester Wolves who won the 2013-14 season in the play-off final against the Newcastle Eagles. However, it is the Eagles who are the most successful BBL team since it launched. Originally founded in 1976 as the EPAB Washington (not the most catchy name), before going through another four incarnations before settling on their current brand.
The Eagles are five-time BBL play-off winners and currently lead the 2014-15 season with four wins and a single loss. Through the coaching of the impeccably named Fabulous Flournoy, the Geordies have dominated the league in the recent nine years, winning six British Basketball League championships.
Yet I’ll admit, despite their clear dominance in basketball from Scotland and England, I hadn’t even heard of the team when starting this article. In all honesty, the only team I’d heard of were the London Lions, only because they are based in the capital.
I am an avid American basketball fan. Whilst I don’t support a certain team, I do follow the NBA and try to watch as many matches as I can and always enjoy watching the rising stars (Anthony Hardaway, Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis especially) and the major stars competing for the MVP prize (Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul).
My liking for the NBA contrasts that with the BBL. As I said before, I only know of one of the league’s thirteen teams (I also find it slightly strange there are an odd number of them) and none of the players or coaches.
Indeed, the most significant baller to play in the BBL was Dennis Rodman in 2006.
Despite being 46, having not played in the NBA since 2000 and being about ten years (maybe more) past his peak, he is still the most famous person to play in the British Basketball League, by a long margin.
His three-game appearance at the Brighton Bears, who ironically folded in the same year, drew huge crowds (by huge, I still mean less than five thousand) into Burgess Hill.
Yet there still hasn’t been a huge yearning for more of the BBL. While the biggest stadium in America is the Chicago Bulls’ 23,129 capacity United Centre, in the UK it is the London Lions’ Copper Box (a riveting name), which holds 7,000 on a match day and there have been no huge cries for more room to be available.
It may be due to the commercial factors stated earlier. With the NBA being as big as it is, it is the dominating league for basketball in Britain and around the rest of the world. It is also the same with the Barclays Premier League. The Premiership is the most commercially successful in the world earning $2.2 billion in revenue each year and is seen by potentially 4.7 billion people, far more than the German Bundesliga or the Spanish La Liga.
With the NBA people know they will be watching consistently high-quality players for 82 games. With the UK basketball simply doesn’t have the same appeal. There are no big names to attract large crowds and a wider range of Britain to these basketball games.
The lack of commercial presence is also hindering basketball in Britain considerably. The sport was shown consistently shown on Channel 4 in the 1980s and on Sky Sports between 1995 and 2001. After a break of nine years Sky started to show the BBL again, but was moved onto Eurosport last year after a new deal failed to be agreed.
The British Basketball League’s coverage on Eurosport only consists of one-hour highlight shows every week, with no live games shown. This will hit clubs considerably as they won’t receive as near as much viewership on that channel and will thus also hit them financially.
There is a small light at the end of the tunnel for basketball in the UK. In 2012 the BBU (British Basketball Union) was founded with aims of raising awareness for the sport here. Kevin Routledge, the director of the foundation, called the BBU “a very important step forward” and he hopes it “can provide a service to those interested in the sport.”
It remains to be seen whether the BBU will make basketball bigger in the UK. There needs to be substantial changes made in the near future for it to become a successful sport.