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The Olympics – British Basketball’s False Hope

A brief email exchange this week with this site’s editor-at-large raised the subject of the Olympics and how they might help the BBL. My response – one that I’ve been considering for some time – was that I thought it was a “red herring” for the league.

A brief email exchange this week with this site’s editor-at-large raised the subject of the Olympics and how they might help the BBL. My response – one that I’ve been considering for some time – was that I thought it was a “red herring” for the league (perhaps not the most appropriate idiom, but I’ll explain later) and, reaching for my Book of American Basketball Terminology, that there would be little, if any, “upside” for the league post Olympics.

The fact that this was the last email in the exchange didn’t worry me – he’s a busy guy – but I thought it necessary to explain myself nonetheless. I don’t want to be doom and gloom, but I do think that too many people are putting too much hope in the Olympic dream.

There’s a myth that basketball is unpopular in this country, which simply isn’t true. It’s not the most popular sport by any means and gets very little mainstream press coverage, no doubt because of the strength of the professional league. But participation levels are high across all age groups and attendances for major events are considerable. The sell-out crowds at the O2 Arena for the touring NBA games prove this, with Wikipedia telling me that games regularly sell out three months in advance and that even Team GB drew a crowd of 7244 for a Eurobasket 2009 qualification game. The New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors – two of the NBA’s least popular teams – sold out two games last year.

Granted the touring NBA shows provide a spectacle as much as a sporting event, but this shows that the fans and people with an interest in the sport are there, just that the vast majority of them don’t go to BBL games. I would doubt that there were 20,000 different people showing up to BBL games during the course of a whole season, never mind in a weekend.

There are probably a number of reasons for this, including geography. Not having a BBL team in London is probably a factor, but there have been London teams before that have gone bust without managing to tap into the potential of London’s large number of basketball fans.

But I think that the main reason for this is people’s perception of the BBL; that it’s unprofessional, that the standard is poor and, generally, that it’s not very good – something that I’m sure Olympic bandwagon fans will be all to aware of. Those of us who are fans of the BBL and go to games know that the standard isn’t the best in the world, but it is the highest standard of basketball in the country and is steadily improving.

We also know that it’s full of hard-working, honest professionals trying to make a career out of their passion and work their way up the ladder to bigger leagues. The league is competitive, exciting and unpredictable – all things that any sports fan craves. The excitement of some games already this season rivals any triple overtime NBA thriller – all the more so when the local team you support through thick and thin is involved.

It would, of course, be silly for the BBL not to try and capitalize on the Olympics and the potential new interest in the sport, but what can you realistically expect to happen? What impact did staging last year’s Trophy Final before the aforementioned Nets-Raptors game have? How do you reach these fans without the media being onside, something that is unlikely to happen once the Olympic flame leaves these shores.

While the Olympics will have the casual fans dusting off their Lakers caps – and probably create quite a few more of them depending on the success of Team GB – how many of them will you see at the Northgate Arena or the John Sandford Centre next season? Does admiring the World Class athleticism of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade mean that you’ll feel the same passion for the British game? Does seeing the best in the World at something automatically mean you’ll just as interested in a barely professional facsimile of it?

For the BBL to flourish there has to be a number of things happen, starting with realistic expectations of what it can eventually sustain. Cheap publicity stunts like trying to get Ron Artest to play here during the NBA lockout devalue the league. Spending money chasing after casual fans who’ve gotten into the sport watching Team USA at the Olympics will prove costly in both the short and long term.

The growth and continued existence of the league will come from areas that it’s already working to develop. It will come from the community work that teams do with coaching and visiting schools, and from word of mouth recommendations from people who’ve enjoyed their first experience. It will come from the support and sponsorship from local businesses. It will come from getting smarter and more engaged online, something that I know the league is looking at and sites like this help drive. It will come from loyal fans staying loyal and following their team through ups and downs.

Yes, it’s a slow process, there will be ups and downs and the league will probably never be one of Europe’s elite. Your team’s roster will see wholesale changes every year as players become too expensive or move up the ladder. But I’d much rather have a professional team on my doorstep that I can go and support for years to come than a league looking for a quick fix and putting all of its chips on the square marked “Olympics”.

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