It's fair to say that of the "Big Four" North American sports, basketball is the least popular in Britain compared to American football, baseball and ice hockey.
This could be due to the fact that some of the best sports films over the past few decades have focused on sports other than basketball — and this was a factor for my generation in Britain when it came to being introduced to sports across the pond ("Major League" made me a fan of Harry Doyle and baseball when I saw Charlie Sheen "acting" the role of juvenile delinquent Rick Vaughn).
Or perhaps it's because the Harlem Globetrotters made the game look too easy and too predictable. I distinctly remember when a friend and I tried to get excited about an NBA game on television when I was at university. After about 10 minutes, we looked at each other and said, "It's just a load of tall people playing netball." At that point, we hadn't heard of 5'3" hoops star Muggsy Bogues.
Now, since I've been living in Canada (ahem — the birthplace of James Naismith, basketball's founder), I have found a much more sophisticated appreciation of Basketball and how enjoyable a live game can be, which has as much to do with the in-house entertainment as with alley-oops and slam dunks. Yes, it still helps to be tall.
I was interested in how the recent London Summer Games might have showcased basketball back in Blighty, where the Olympics are perhaps giving it a second chance among a new generation of young fans. After all, seeing some of the international superstars such as LeBron James, Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki on home shores could drive some interest back into the local grassroots stuff — such as the BBL.
The British Basketball League (BBL), in operation since 1987, currently has 12 teams in circulation (after the Cheshire Jets were forced to fold due to financial constraints). Funding and sponsorship are always going to be problems for the sport in Britain due to its pecking-order place in the eyes of fans. Most of the 12 teams play in local arenas with spectator capacities of about 1,000 — a far cry from the "popular" days in the 1990s, when teams like the Manchester Giants attracted more than 14,000 fans to a home game against London. This was when sponsorship was popular and before the collapse of TV network ITV Digital — which cost the league some ₤21 million.
Unfortunately, some teams folded and were never seen again. Manchester now plays to a capacity of 900 at a local college location (a fair number of British college and university students play basketball). The Newcastle Eagles, the reigning BBL champions, have won the title a record five times. Yet no one I spoke to in Britain knew this. Sad.
In my opinion, if you are going to follow and get excited about a sport, you need a local hero to cheer for. And perhaps Britain now has just the fellow to help with this. Joel Freeland, who hails from Farnham in Surrey, recently signed a three-year deal with the Portland Trailblazers, and although he's down the depth chart right now, he can expect to see more minutes if teammates J.J. Hickson and Meyers Leonard falter. Ben Gordon (Charlotte Bobcats) and Luol Deng (Chicago Bulls) are veteran NBA Brits — and together should encourage fans at home to watch and play more basketball in the wake of the Summer Olympics.
Having celebrity fans would also help win some new supporters — "Jay Z brings the Nets to Brooklyn" surely helped Brooklyn's PR efforts. Perhaps Cheshire can persuade Daniel Craig to be the face of his hometown team? A bit of Bond swagger never goes unnoticed, does it?
By Matt Goff
Luol Deng (7), shown playing for Team Great Britain during the 2012 London Summer Games, is one of a handful of British NBA basketball players. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Some basketball fans hope the Olympics, which brought big stars like LeBron James to London, will help boost the sport's image in Britain. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)