The curious case of basketball in the UK

basketballSteve Swanson, Director for Sport Leadership at the Institute for Sport Business, Loughborough University in London, discusses the popularity of basketball in the UK…

After spending much of my life playing, coaching, and promoting basketball in the US and UK, it was great to recently have the opportunity to be a part of several basketball-related activities close to home. Shortly after visiting the National Basketball Association EMEA headquarters in London, I was able to watch the latest NBA Global Game live at The O2 where the Toronto Raptors edged the Orlando Magic in overtime in front of a capacity crowd. This was a great representation of basketball for the UK audience, and was the culmination of a series of events which also included a successful coaching clinic in partnership with Basketball England. With tickets to the game selling out in record time (less than one hour), it would certainly appear that basketball is a sport on the rise in the UK. This most recent contest marked the 6th time a regular season game has taken place in London and signals the importance that this city plays in the NBA’s globalisation strategy. The NBA indeed has a rich history in international basketball competitions and continues to develop this presence throughout the world. With exhibition games taking place in Europe as early as 1984, there have also now been regular season contests in various other parts of the world such as Mexico, Japan, and China. Notably, the NBA hosted their first ever NBA game in Africa this past August in Johannesburg, with various players of African origin participating in the contest. This decision is another major step in promoting basketball internationally and the event has generally been viewed as largely successful for all parties involved. 

Similar to the British Premier League, the NBA is one of the most internationally recognised sports leagues around the world. While this may seem hard to believe from the UK perspective with such public dominance here in rugby, cricket, and primarily football – basketball is generally considered to be the second most popular sport throughout the rest of the world. It’s ironic to note that while London is a strategic location for the NBA to promote its brand and the sport of basketball throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia – there has seemingly just not been enough space for this game in the crowded landscape of British sport. With the UK environment also heavily populated with huge supporters of sports such as athletics, boxing, cycling, Formula 1, golf, and tennis – there is indeed a great deal of competition for winning over the hearts and minds of the British sports fan. The long tradition of other competitions like horse racing, snooker, and darts (yes darts!) provides even further evidence of the saturated sport marketplace in the UK.

As some US-based sports such as American Football appear to be gaining traction here over the last few years, the slow development of basketball again seems perplexing. With the close connection between two countries who share a deep history and a dominant global language, and the large influence of US television and popular culture within this market, it is even more surprising that basketball has not risen to greater heights in the UK. After talking to numerous individuals from the home countries who tell me that they loved playing basketball in schools growing up, this seems even more frustrating for those of us involved with the sport’s promotion over the last few decades. This inability to realise substantial increases in viewing and participation has left me to consider some other potential explanations beyond a congested market. For starters, basketball officials may want to look at incorporating an ‘it’s not just for tall people’ message in its communication strategy. One of the underlying reasons for lower public engagement levels in basketball may indeed be related to the notion that the average height of Brits is less than that of other European nations where it’s been much more popular (although there is actually very little difference on average). Another potential reason may be related to the, shall we say, less than ideal weather that the UK provides in relation to outdoor participation. While clearly not effecting the popularity or our top outdoor sports, the frequency of rainfall might in fact put off newcomers to basketball who only have access to outdoor spaces. The nature of basketball as an indoor sport, requiring accuracy from a ball released with high arc to fall softly through a small horizontal goal (and dribbled on a dry surface), makes it less adaptable to inclement weather conditions on playgrounds throughout Britain. In addition, access to indoor facilities is also an issue with other popular sports such as badminton (and indoor five-a-side football) competing for hall times in local leisure centres. Furthermore, in comparison to indoor facilities in the US which have benefitted from more spacious environs and the influence of one of the local major sports, British school facilities in particular have generally been of smaller size and not built with basketball as a legitimate consideration.

Another reason for the slower progress may be the strong presence of netball in the UK. While there are still divisions which exist between men’s and women’s basketball in the US and beyond, most non-commonwealth countries have steadily gained in female interest with the sport. This is not to say that netball and women’s basketball can’t both exist in the same marketplace, but it seems quite possible that the existence of a popular sport such as netball will make it more difficult for women’s basketball to recruit large numbers of participants who are wanting to shoot a ball through the net. In the search for sports with comparable interest levels between males and females, basketball has demonstrated the potential as a great equaliser in this area. This has largely been influenced by gender equity guidelines implemented within the US university system which provide for equal participation opportunities, high levels of exposure, and a feeder system for developing top talent for the premier league of women’s basketball (WNBA).

Perhaps the slow rise of basketball in the UK can simply be chalked up to geography – where a combination of contextual and cultural components lead to certain countries and regions of the world to be more closely connected with specific sports (e.g. rugby in New Zealand, university ‘American’ football in the southeast of the US, and basketball in Lithuania and Spain). British colonialism has also played a major role in the way that some sports have developed around the world (e.g. cricket in India), and basketball simply wasn’t a part of the sport internationalisation process which accompanied this period of history.

With a strong global presence in a multitude of areas, and the amazing per capita success Great Britain experienced in the recent Olympics, it is remarkable how the UK has not yet embraced a sport so important in the international landscape. During recent trips to India and China, it has been interesting to see the surging interest in basketball within these massive developing nations. As the future looks bright for basketball worldwide, the UK may wish to consider whether it will move with this trend or be left behind. With the emerging presence of the NBA in London and BT Sport’s recent multi-year broadcast deal with the league, perhaps the NBA can finally serve as the much needed catalyst for basketball to emerge as a major UK sport in the foreseeable future.

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