Tag Archives: London Lions

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.

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.

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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…