Like many others who stepped foot into the UK for the first time, one of the things I asked was where I could find good basketball - both from the perspective of a fan and as an avid player on Tuesday nights. Watching one of the NBA's most successful franchises the Chicago Bulls growing up, I was aware of players like British national Luol Deng whose legacy was, surely, a testament to the seeds sown by UK basketball in the early days of his career.
Unfortunately, the truth is that the sport has been struggling for survival. The British Basketball League ("BBL") is the major professional platform for basketball in the UK, where it has been reported that the average salary of a player is slightly upwards of £20,000. There have also been repeated calls by GB national players to increase the level of funding allocated by UK Sport, which had been cut dramatically following the team's performance in the London 2012 Olympics.
Despite this, there needs to be recognition that UK basketball funding goes beyond immediate (albeit necessary!) questions of profitability or medal success. Notably, basketball is the second most played team sport in the UK, with 70% of its participants belonging to BAME groups. As a predominantly urban sport with relatively low barriers to entry, its social impact of motivating youths and inculcating important values should therefore be graciously supported.
Nonetheless, the reality is that for UK basketball to thrive, it needs to be a viable commercial vehicle for a range of stakeholders including sponsors, investors, teams and players. Luckily, we have a believer in Miami-based private equity house 777 Partners who recently acquired prominent BBL club the London Lions and invested £7 million in exchange for a 45% stake in the BBL in December 2021.
As such, plans are underway for the next season that include the establishment of a new management structure, more support for local communities through the "BBL Inspires" programme and in particular, a focus on digital transformation to enhance its reach and mass appeal for the growing audience. This also includes initiatives to improve infrastructure for existing clubs to build them up in order to attract further investments.
While this should be lauded, governance and league policy should nevertheless approach with greater sensitivity the opportunities afforded to indigenous players vis-à-vis foreign (mainly American) counterparts, which has been the source of historical discontent. As we have seen from the NBA's expert handling of the pandemic's effect on player welfare and fan engagement, players should always come first.
To end, the involvement of 777 Partners is a stamp of commercial confidence for other financiers in the alternative assets investment space. Nonetheless, the overall strategy framework for the success of UK basketball is more holistic; for instance, ways of creating local appetite for basketball and exploring incentives-generating mechanisms through structures such as university tournaments or development leagues. These complex considerations deserve their own mention, but for now, it is an exciting time for UK basketball.