By Tim Groves
Football, athletics, swimming and cycling are all part of the national consciousness, but the identity of the fifth most popular participation sport in the country among 16-to-25-year-olds will be a big surprise to many.
Almost 120,000 youngsters in their late teens and early twenties played basketball at least once per week in 2015, according to Sport England’s Active People Survey. That’s more than tennis, rugby union, cricket, netball and other more traditional British sports.
It’s the second most popular team sport in the key 14-to-16-year-old age group as well, with playing numbers soaring by as much as 25 per cent in the space of just a year in various sectors of society - over half of the regular weekly participants are from black or multi-ethnic backgrounds.
Struggling for support
It sounds like a success story, but British basketball is arguably at a low ebb, struggling for support from the relevant authorities in order that it can build on those positive participation figures and ensure the sport has a bright future on these shores.
At the elite level, UK Sport withdrew all £7 million of its funding for basketball a couple of years ago because of a poor performance at London 2012 and a perception that medals were not a possibility in 2016 or 2020.
Sport England, the body responsible for the funding of grass roots sport, did step in with £1.2 million worth of help to plug that gap at the elite level, but even the £9 million it assigned to grass roots basketball between 2013 and 2017 can only go so far.
Stewart Kellett described the sport as having “huge” potential when he arrived from British Cycling to take up the position of CEO at Basketball England last October, but without the right support it’s surely destined to remain unfulfilled potential.
NBA playing its part
The NBA is playing its part and helping grow the sport in the UK significantly. The league staged its sixth regular season game at the O2 Arena in London last January. Over 100,000 people have been in attendance at these matches since the first between the Toronto Raptors and the New Jersey Nets in 2011.
It also helps to run four youth leagues in three cities and there are plans to expand the Junior NBA League further across the country, having started in 2014/15 by allocating 30 London schools their own NBA franchise and giving them free branded kit to play in.
Add all that to the growing impact of having up to seven games per week broadcast live on BT Sport and you can see why the NBA’s commissioner, Adam Silver, thinks it’s a realistic goal for basketball to become the number two sport in the UK.
The next step is for the British Basketball League or an equivalent competition to get a bigger slice of the media action in this country. It never recovered from an ill-fated deal with ITV Digital, signed in 2001, after previously having something of a presence on Channel 4 in the 1980s and Sky in the 1990s.
The BBL did return to Sky after a nine-year absence in 2010, but it’s still struggling for attention and rumours persist BT Sport are ready to sign a five-year deal to broadcast the league from 2017 and move it to the summer so that it doesn’t clash with football or rugby union.
That would be a big step and sponsors would surely react to such a statement. Kappa has just signed a three-year deal to become the official apparel sponsor of Britain’s men and women’s professional basketball leagues and the national teams from the 2016-17 season and more exposure would persuade others to follow suit.
Make or break moment
The participation figures at youth level show that good work is being done by Basketball England and others, but it feels like the sport in the UK has reached its ‘make or break’ moment.
A lot of sports experience a drop-off in participation levels once people get over the age of 25, but the dropout rate in basketball is stark. Just 33,500 people aged 26 and over played the sport at least once per week last year, which is around a quarter of the number of 16-to-25-year-olds.
It’ll take time and bucket loads of hard work if basketball is to fulfill its potential on this side of the Atlantic, but the interest is there. Many will point to the fact that it hasn’t managed to make the breakthrough into the mainstream in the past 124 years since it was brought over from Canada by John Proctor, president of the Birkenhead YMCA.
Others will suggest that if it hasn’t been able to capitalise on having a player of the stature of Luol Deng representing Britain in the NBA for the past decade (see panel), why is progress likely to start now?
Joined-up thinking required
In truth, it’s too early to say whether basketball will grow to new heights or simply slink back into the background and much relies on progressive thinking among the relevant authorities, as well as the joined-up thinking necessary to boost the sport’s elite level and connect it to an increasingly thriving grass roots game.
The stats don’t lie, though. The sport is growing in the UK, it has traction among young people and momentum, a positive public image and the potential to take off. The question is can the sport’s stakeholders come together to seize the opportunity or is it destined to remain a minority sport facing a perennial struggle to keep its head above water?
Luol Deng: “More could be done”
Basketball needs a strong elite level in Britain - both in terms of a competitive international side and a viable domestic competition - to give young players something to aspire to.
They have Luol Deng, who began his career at Brixton Basketball Club, before making it big in the NBA. However, he left London for the States at the age of 14 and is adamant that any other Brit wanting to have a career at the very top end of the sport would have to follow a similar path.
“I just feel more could be done,” he told the British press last year. “A lot of kids love basketball, but as they get older there’s nowhere to turn. They stop playing.
“I always say that if there’s a kid that’s really good, get him out of [the UK] and bring him to the US. That’s not me trying to take him away from his family, but to give him a better chance of reaching his dream.
“If I’d have stayed in the UK for longer then came and went to a smaller school, my path would have been much different.”