Tag Archives: BBL

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.

Participation

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.

Improvements

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.”

The future

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.

England’s most capped baller hopeful for the future

Ronnie Baker is one of the most impressive sportsmen that you’ve probably never heard of.

During a staggering 30-year basketball career, Baker represented his country 156 times, captained England to a Commonwealth bronze medal in 2006 and played 540 top-flight games, winning eight major trophies for Crystal Palace, Manchester Giants and London Towers, amongst others.

Even more impressively, Baker achieved his success in the sport of giants despite being a modest 5ft 7″. Making up for his lack of size was a brilliant character, leadership from the point guard position as well as bags of talent.

But today, three years after he stepped onto the hardwood for the final time as a player, Baker is head coach at the DENG Camp, an annual residential camp which was the brainchild of Great Britain’s only current NBA player, Luol Deng.

It annually invites 50 of Britain’s most promising young players to London, where they are given NBA-level training and analysis, as well as the chance to compete against one another.

The good old days

Obviously every year I see the best in the UK with the DENG Camp, and some of the talent there is really outstanding,” Baker told me. “The problem is with trying to keep them here, a lot of them will get to a certain standard and then they’ll be off to the States or to Europe.

“It’s about trying to find a structure where, some can go abroad, but the game is also good enough for them to want to stay here, too.”

‘I try to make them realise that they must want to come in every single day and give 110% if they want to really improve’

Baker’s concern is valid. The BBL has been trending downwards for over 20 years now, stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of a regression in quality, poor attendances and a lack of funds.

A 1995 game Ronnie featured in, between the-then London Leopards and Manchester Giants, drew in a crowd of over 14,000 fans, a stark contrast from the few hundred that the league averages today. “That was the peak of the BBL,” Ronnie says, “and it’s what we need to aim to get back to.

“One of the major problems now is, you get these Americans that couldn’t make it over there, that are playing for cheaper than what it would take to get a good British player. And that’s why I think a lot of kids get discouraged, they think ‘why should I stay, I’ll never get the chance so I’ll have to go somewhere else’,

“I think there would be more fan interest nowadays if there was a better crop of British players, but most of the better ones end up going overseas really young.”

Baker in his playing days

Hard work

In his role at the DENG Camp, Baker works with the best of the best of British basketball at the youth level, and although generally impressed with their talent, there is one particular aspect that the 47-year-old tries to re-enforce to the youngsters that hope to emulate him.

“I try to make them realise that they must want to come in every single day and give 110% if they want to really improve.

“The guys that make it give more than they need to, and a lot of this generation seem to think that they don’t need to put in that work, they’ve got these gadgets and distractions that we didn’t have when we were growing up. We just stuck to basketball and that’s what helped us.

“A lot of these kids nowadays are on Twitter, Facebook and that stuff talking about what they’re doing, but they’re not actually doing it.”

Of course though, there are plenty of young men Baker does believe have big futures in the game, including one that Elephant Sport spoke to late last year.

“Most of the kids at the last camp should at least be aiming to play in a top league in Europe or Australia. Eisley Swaine is one that I think will be an outstanding player, he’s got a great head on his shoulders for his age. I think he will do really well.”

“RJ Eytle-Rock is another, he’s got a good head on him and he was number one at the camp in 2016, so his talent speaks for itself, he’s gonna do good. There’s about 15-20 of those kids that I think are gonna do well, to be fair.”

Looking forward

But although Baker’s main duty is to do the best he can by the talented youngsters he works with every year (he admits he would always encourage a young Brit to play overseas “if the opportunity is right for them”), he longs to see the BBL return to its glory days of the 1990s, and believes that goal is achievable.

“I thought we were gonna do really well after 2012 Olympics, I thought this is gonna be a big movement and get a lot of interest coming, and basketball is gonna go back up again, so I was really disappointed when nothing really changed.

 ‘If you’ve got a young kid and you really do see something in him, you’ve got to play him regardless of age or experience’

“I do think the standard will improve and in time more people will be watching the game, because there used to be a lot more interest when I was playing and I’m sure that comes down to the standard being better.”

And how to get that standard up?

“It’s about bringing the kids through right, stopping importing these college washout Americans to the BBL and focus on getting better imports over; people who are really gonna bring the game up and make their team-mates better as well, and keeping the improvements being made to the coaching.”

“I do think sometimes, they need to take more of a chance on these kids. If you’ve got a young kid and you really do see something in him, you’ve got to play him regardless of age or experience. You’ve got to be willing to say ‘Okay, I might get fired for this, but I really believe in this kid’.”

But despite the recent further setbacks to the funding of the sport at an international level, Baker believes that there are good foundations in place when it comes to coaching, and an encouraging level of talent.

“There are a lot of good people in the right places right now, and the governing bodies just need to keep fighting. It’s gonna be hard to get back to how it was, but I think we can do it.”

DENG Camp is on Twitter @DengCamp

Can fresh impetus be added to UK hoop dreams?

It’s sometimes said in the world of American sports ‘If you don’t think you’re a winner, you don’t belong here,’ and it doesn’t just apply to coaches motivating their players in locker rooms.

For 40 years, basketball in the UK has failed to get its act together, due to a noxious cocktail of factors, but chiefly poor governance and a funding system that never gives it a chance.

So how optimistic should fans be now that a new firm, Premier League Basketball (PLB), have set up camp in London with the aim of launching a brand-new league to rival the British Basketball League (BBL).

Parsons oversaw the Clippers’ billion dollar sale

Richard Parsons, former interim chairman of NBA franchise the LA Clippers, will invest £1.6m to launch the start-up as an eight-team summer league in 2019 with outfits in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield and  Glasgow, as well as the capital.

A good place to start to underline the sport’s failings in recent years is the BBL.

The 12-team competition, established in 1986, has long since seen it’s heyday of the mid 90s when the ’95-96 season opener between London Leopards and Manchester Giants attracted a crowd of over 14,000.

Nowadays, most league games average no more than a few hundred.

Exodus

Amaechi is a consultant for PLB

“There is nothing the BBL does well, except survive,” says one of the UK’s most recognisable faces in the game, former NBA player John Amaechi.

“It’s the cockroach of sports – it’s almost dead because of a nuclear holocaust, but yet it still survives.”

The poorly-managed administration forces many of the best talents to move to higher-quality continental leagues of the likes of Spain and Greece, or for the best one or two players further afield to the USA to ply their trade and have any hope of developing into truly elite players.

This exodus compounds the low standard of competition here, and the vicious cycle continues. This is one of the main things that the PLB claims it will address.

Brits abroad

“It’s not that the quality of British basketball is not good, it’s just a lot of the great players are playing abroad,” says Wanshu Yu, senior associate of marketing at PLB. “Part of our focus is to bring the very talented British players back to this country.

“Other than bringing British players back, we just want to create a very diverse and high level game so we will have Europeans and Americans – basically we welcome all players of all countries to come join.”

However, the evidence that British players are not cutting the mustard is stark. When the Boston Celtics meet the Philadelphia 76ers later this month in London for the regular-season NBA game, out of five Europeans to make either teams’ roster, not one is British.

The reality is British basketball, up to now, has been a tough sell for the brightest prospects. Low wages and the absence of an effective players union does not bode well.

“You should get paid enough to live,” Amaechi asserts. “I’ve had two different BBL players living in my house before because at the end of the season they get kicked out of the team accommodation.”

Amaechi in NBA action for Orlando in 2001

Amaechi, who these days works with FTSE 100 companies to maximise efficiency and output, speaks with the passion and knowledge you’d expect of someone who’s scaled the heights of professional sport.

The 47 year old former Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz forward has taken on a consultancy role with PLB despite distancing himself from British basketball’s authorities in the past.

Referring to his correspondence with PLB UK chief executive Ron Scott, Amaechi appears hopeful the new competition can finally put things right. “I told him that I will support any entity that comes into this country and meets my criteria.”

Living wage

He went on to outline those conditions: “Paying the living wage to every player. It’s a career and not a job. Not an organisation that requires the funnelling of public money through their system to pay players (like BBL)”, he reasons.

“As long as they stay clear of that, I will support something that is an aspirational target for young people in this country.”

The funding figure mooted is a drop in the ocean to start a new sports league, but the PLB marketers remain positive. “That £1.6m completes our seed funding which means we’re in the middle of our formal financing, and that figure is just to allow us to maintain ourselves until such time we meet out funding goal,” says Yu.

Look at any pro sports competition in the world and its not hard to see that money is at the heart of its longevity. One-off kick-starter payments are important, but so is a steady stream of income, and needs media coverage.

Coverage

BT Sport shows up to seven NBA games a week

“We’re in conversation with different broadcasters,” Yu tells me. “We believe basketball in the UK deserves more coverage. We think the change in season [winter to summer] will definitely give basketball more exposure – not only will the venues be more available but we also have more choice regarding broadcasting.”

It’s been reported that BT Sport are interested in showing two games per week from the new league to fill a large void left by the off-season absence of football and rugby.

A deal with the broadcast giants could prove decisive in having the financial clout to attract star players.

If anybody is willing to negotiate on behalf of players welfare it’s the English former NBA player. “Ron [Scott] consulted me on the minimum wage in his league”, says the performance coach.

“We disagreed but then they went with what I thought it should be, which is higher than the living wage because I feel  players should be rewarded for being pro athletes.”

Player welfare

Player contracts are something PLB is giving a lot of thought. “One of the special things about us is we have a single-entity business model which means from the beginning the league will build and own all the teams,” explains their marketing chief.

In other words, by applying the single-entity model, all players will be contracted to the PLB centrally rather than to individual clubs, as is the case in Major League Soccer (MLS).

“This allows us to do a better quality control so you have a consistent level of basketball and entertainment experience,” Yu goes on. It also means that they can implement salary caps.

This piece of contractual law has caused controversy in the MLS before when a group of players filed a lawsuit arguing that the ‘single-entity’ policy was artificially suppressing wages because they were unable to negotiate potentially better deals with other sides in the league. The court ruled in favour of the MLS.

Grime

PLB’s mission statement is to provide “high-quality, competitive basketball events in major UK venues, broadcast live in prime time with fresh, fast-paced, interactive entertainment experiences.”

“Britain has a slightly different taste to the US so the organ music or American style rapping might not be so welcome,” Yu suggests.

“The hottest thing right here now is grime. So what we want to do is incorporate the British culture in our entertainment offering to create an experience that is homegrown, organic and set to British peoples taste.”

However, those are the trimmings – it remains to be seen whether British basketball can be steered towards the mainstream after decades of languishing as a  minority sport.

UK Sport statistics show that hoops is the second-most popular team sport among 14-16 year olds in this country. But can PLB turn that interest to a viable sporting league, particularly now that the NBA casts such a long shadow with its social media activities and overseas broadcast deals?

Where are all the BBL fans?

Rows of empty seats for a cup semi-final – a lasting image from my first live professional basketball game.

It’s a sport a lot of us play at school but one that doesn’t doesn’t really have much a foothold in the consciousness of the British sporting public.

If it does at all, it’s usually because of the glitz and glamour of the NBA where the stars are mostly American

Nevertheless, I was excited to be attending the BBL Cup semi-final first leg between London Lions and Leicester Riders at the Copper Box Arena in Stratford.

The 7,500-seat venue was built for the 2012 London Olympics and is fantastic facility. The Lions are the capital’s only pro outfit, while the Riders are the oldest side in British basketball, so it was a clash of big teams.

But when I arrived my first thought was: where is everyone else? I couldn’t believe the amount of empty seating.

Two big sides two games away from a final, but where was the atmosphere? The Lions like to say their home is ‘The Box That Rocks’, but there wasn’t much rocking going on.

Loud and proud

As tip-off approached, the tempo was raised a little, but not that much.

This was largely down to the Lions’ attempts to try and recreate the NBA’s razzamatazz, with cheerleaders, player intros and fan giveaways – at least they were making an effort.

The arrival of the players on court to warm up did get the crowd going a bit, and then came something I wasn’t expecting – the pre-match singing of the national anthem.

IMG_3002
The Copper Box Arena is a great venue

Whilst this may be a regular feature in the US, in this country we only tend to have it at internationals. But it was sung loud and proud, and was a nice touch.

The other noticeable difference was how the courtside announcer also kept up a running commentary on the game and tried to get the crowd going – with limited success.

After a fairly even start, with defences on top, the Riders’ pressure eventually paid off and they led at the end of the first quarter.

As the game progressed through the second and third periods, the visitors opened up a healthy lead, but the stubborn Lions refused to let them get out of sight and closed the gap as the match headed into its final 10-minute phase.

This was a tense battle and finally gave the home fans something to shout about, but in the end, the visitors’ quality shone through as they ran out 77–65 winners, taking a 12-point lead into the return leg at Leicester on December 5th.

As a first-time spectator, I enjoyed the match hugely. It was played at a frenetic pace throughout, and you could see the passion and commitment that the players put in.

Lions forward Kai Williams was their stand-out talent. As well as being top scorer, his combination of size and skill was hugely impressive.

But the stop-start nature of the contest was very frustrating – whenever I was about to get out of my seat with excitement, the game stopped.

Reasonably priced

As good as these guys are, however, I couldn’t help but feel are they playing in the BBL simply because they weren’t up to the standard of the NBA or the other leagues around Europe in countries where basketball is more popular.

“I left the venue with a lot of unanswered questions in my mind”

But I kept coming back to my first impression  – the lack of fans. True, it was a Thursday evening, and I’m told the Lions get better crowds when they play on Fridays and Sundays.

But surely in a city of 8.5 million people, the BBL should be able to pull in more than what looked, at best, like just a couple of thousand spectators.

Basketball is a great sport, and the Lions play in a great venue. Tickets are also very reasonably priced, starting at £7 for kids. I paid £22, as opposed to the £60-70 I usually pay to watch Tottenham Hotspur. So why was the arena so empty?

Are people just not interested in the British game? Is it not being marketed and promoted well enough? Is there no room in people’s busy lives for another sport?

Watching my first basketball match was a fantastic experience, and one I would certainly recommend to anyone else, but it’s safe to say I left the venue with a lot of unanswered questions in my mind…