Basketball in the UK faces an uncertain future
A sparsely-attended game between two mid-table teams of modest ability, and a scoreboard that isn’t working. Welcome to the British Basketball League on a Tuesday night in East London.
A lack of finance, talent and interest threatens the future of professional hoops in the UK, despite the efforts of those with the sport’s best interests at heart.
To sample what the BBL has to offer, I visited London’s only professional team, the Lions, as they hosted Bristol Flyers at the Copper Box Arena in Stratford.
It was 8th in the 12-team BBL versus 7th, with prime play-off spots still very much up for grabs, but only a few hundred seats in the top-class 7,500-capacity former 2012 Olympics venue were taken.
The Lions took a comfortable victory, defeating Bristol 84-55, but it was hard to keep track of the game due to the faulty scoreboard.
Instead, we had to rely on the courtside announcer to keep us up to speed which, in a fast-paced sport such as basketball, was very frustrating. Plus it meant not being able to keep tabs on individual players’ stats on the night.
Although the game was ultimately very one-sided, there was a decent level of talent on display, and some satisfying examples of great skill.
But anyone who’s acquainted with the BBL knows it’s not a league that bears comparison with the strongest in Europe, never mind the glitz, glamour and supreme athleticism of the NBA.
In some ways, it really shouldn’t be like this.
Over one million youngsters aged between 11-15 play basketball in the UK, thanks to the sport being part of the physical education curriculum in schools.
Around 160,000 adults also play hoops on a weekly basis, making it the 4th largest sport played in England.
Over the last decade, access to courts has increased, enabling more young people to play, and British Basketball has a 10-year strategy to grow the sport.
However, funding for British teams at international level has been in short supply since the 2012 Olympics. UK Sport and Sport England, which control spending on elite athletes, do not view basketball as a sport where Team GB can realistically hope to win medals.
Combine this with the comparatively poor standard of the BBL, and it’s no wonder that the best young British talents have to look abroad to further their careers.
One man who has seen it all in British hoops in a career spanning four decades, is London Lions owner and head coach Vince Macaulay.
Although realistic about basketball’s place in the pecking order of British sport, the former BBL chairman remains doggedly optimistic about the prospects for the game he loves.
“The sport has a lot of good people involved in it who, I’m sure, would continue to run it even with limited funds. The BBL, which has not been the strongest in the past, continues to grow with games shown nationally and on free-to-air television.
“There are also some young British stars at the moment, and I think we will see some of them make it at the top level.
“I think the funding has led to a real struggle to get the very best to play for GB. The game in this country also needs to improve as the best players continue to move abroad whether that’s to American colleges or Europe.
“I don’t think there will be a day when the UK can compete at the highest level, simply because UK Sport don’t see basketball as a medal-winning sport.
“It’s one of the biggest sports in the world, but regardless of coaching and raw talent, without money, the fact is you can’t compete.
“Basketball in the UK is just not in a good place. The BBL may be getting more exposure than ever, but it is still some way off from competing with the best in Europe.
“We see new arenas and some better talent competing here, but there is a huge gulf between the UK and the very best leagues.
“London 2012 aside, as far as I’m aware, GB has never been able to field their best side in tournaments, so regardless of anything else, winning without your best team unless you’re the USA is impossible.”
It’s clear that British basketball requires attention financially and needs to offer more opportunities for young British players who are ambitious and have a dream to achieve success in the game.
London Lions are the only professional basketball team in the capital, and have a great venue to call their home.
And yet, the team’s profile on the city’s sporting scene remains very low, and they struggle to attract fans to the Copper Box, grab media attention and generate enough sponsorship.
Sometimes, when other events have first call on the Copper Box, they even have to play nearly 12 miles away in a sports hall in Brixton.
In truth, Tuesday night Lions games are less well attended than those on Fridays and Sundays, when attendances of over 1,000 allow the venue to at least begin to live up to its nickname of ‘The Box That Rocks’.
Cheerleaders, giveaways, and chances for fans to win prizes by demonstrating their shooting prowess also help to create an atmosphere, as does the partisan courtside announcer, who does his best to get supporters cheering for the Lions.
With BBL title and trophy finals filling major venues such as the O2 Arena, it’s certainly not all doom and gloom for British hoops.
Rising participation figures are also good news, but the issue of funding for GB’s national and age group teams needs to be resolved after several years of piecemeal and stop-gap solutions.
As Vince Macaulay says, it’s unlikely that British basketball teams will ever challenge at the very highest levels, but UK hoops definitely has the potential to grow and become more high profile than its current state suggests.