The NBA Score: Where next for basketball in Britain after London showpiece?

James Benge
London matchup | Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons face off at the O2: Getty Images

The NBA had its moment in the sun with last week’s London game, a frenetic clash that handed fans the chance to see star names including Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons performing at their peak.

However, where the league goes next in its attempts to build a foothold in the UK is far less clear. Seven days on from the Boston Celtics’ outstanding win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the O2, a match that zigged and zagged far more than the 114-103 scoreline might suggest, it is clear the appetite is there for more basketball on this side of the Atlantic, both from the NBA and its fast-growing European fanbase.

Followers are unlikely to go without games in the years to come – there is a waiting list of NBA teams willing to take a hit to their schedule and play in London and little appetite from the league to change what it views as the “European All Star game”.

Sixers owner Josh Harris says of his team’s willingness to make the cross-continental journey: “Now with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons we have always had international players, the Sixers have had a huge international brand and following.

“Increasingly the NBA is an international game, whether China, here or other parts of Europe. For us we were very excited to come. We were looking to come to London because we think it’s a really important city and fanbase, we want to broaden our exposure here and elsewhere.”

Whilst interest from teams remains robust, and the 20,000 tickets for last Thursday’s game sold out in under an hour, there is little chance that the Global Games series revived in 2011 is going to be mothballed.

But the grim reality is demand will always outstrip supply in a league where teams are scheduled to play an average of three-and-a-half games a week, crisscrossing the United States in what already ranks among the most gruelling fixture lists in professional sports.

As such, the NFL’s expected London franchise will certainly not be replicated by the NBA so long as it remains in its current form. Expansion will come eventually, but should the league look outside America’s borders it will be Mexico City or another Canadian franchise.

Of course, that reality has long been clear to all but the most blindly optimistic European fans, who will doubtless not have been encouraged by Silver’s comments last week that even further games on the continent “doesn’t accomplish much”.

There would seem to be logic in bringing several teams over for a run of head-to-head games over several nights at the O2, perhaps even following the NFL’s model and bringing the league’s equivalent of the Jacksonville Jaguars over on an annual basis. It is not, however, a model the NBA plan to follow.

Silver told Standard Sport: “Our strategy is very different and because of the number of games we play logistically we’re not in a position to do what the NFL is doing, as much as we would love to have an NBA franchise in London or somewhere in Europe.

“It’s logistically much more difficult for us than it would be for the NFL so our strategy continues to be a media one where, whether through social media or traditional media, we want to bring our programming directly to the fans in Europe and figure out ways to directly engage young people with the game.”

Engaging young people is clearly something the NBA is enjoying success with, their willingness to allow highlights to be shared on social media contrasting markedly with the Premier League and allowing fans around the world to engage with the sport even if they aren’t watching a live broadcast.

The NBA’s audience in the UK is growing swiftly, no surprise when the sport has 337,000 month participants in this country, according to Sport England, a figure not far off cricket or rugby union.

That is where the NBA is throwing in its lot, with further investments in a junior programme that will expand from four leagues to 16 in the next three years, involving nearly 500 schools in the bid to produce basketball’s next British star. That is where Silver identifies the next burst of growth in the sport in this country.

“Our number one objective is to develop great players and we know that the fans will follow those players both because when fellow countryman make it to the NBA that will cause the greatest spike in fandom and we also know the greatest connection is between being a fan and playing the game.

“The single most likely indicator of being a fan when you grow up is playing the game, that’s why so much of our efforts are around grass-roots basketball.”

Luol Deng and OG Anunoby are currently flying the flag for Britain in the NBA, though it should be noted that they left the country early in their sporting education and without major funding – Basketball England receives £4.7million from Sport England and British Basketball a further £1m – it is hard to imagine a cavalcade of successors waiting in the wings.

For now it seems the status quo will have to be enough for fans of basketball in this country – though while that means seeing some of the sport’s best players in action, even if it is only once a year, it could certainly be much worse.