When a global brand like the NBA shines its light on London, the city glistens. All of its culture, diversity and development gets put on a platform, the whole country bathes in the warmth of that glow. But the exposure also highlights its negatives, for example, how the sport in Britain is being badly mishandled by its governing bodies, or how the crowds don’t have the same optimistic groupthink that the NBA’s traditional audience enjoys. So when the show comes to town, it’s important to understand what NBA London says to basketball fans around the world, especially in Europe where more than 50 countries with basketball-mad fans are wondering ‘why there and not here?’
It was a prominent subject at NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s press conference prior to the London game, when eight of the 12 questions he was asked referenced the annual European regular season game being played elsewhere. He said: “It is possible. It is something we are looking very closely at, and that is playing a regular-season game in Paris for next season.”
Silver later went on to say that “it’s still a very labor-intensive undertaking to bring regular-season games over to Europe. Right now, we’re still thinking that the format would probably be to have one game next year”.
US-based media and fans that have made the trip to NBA London in recent years will have come away thinking the country doesn’t care about basketball. The O2 is only as loud as the quietest NBA arenas in the States. One reason for this is that, for many British NBA fans, this game is the only taste of live NBA action they will experience. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what player or team each fan supports, NBA fans just want to be at the game. But if their favourite player or team isn’t there, they will probably not be cheering too loudly, especially if the teams that are in London aren’t very good.
This is nothing unusual. In 2018, there were several international rugby games played Stateside. While they were just exhibition games, if Wales versus South Africa took place in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, it would have been a sellout and the atmosphere will have been electric. However, the games were played in the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington, and the ambience was not dissimilar to the O2 on Thursday 17 January in London, for the first terrible three-quarters at least.
But if Britain wants the game to keep returning to their shores, it’s not a one-way deal. British NBA legend John Amaechi, who played for the Orlando Magic and the Cleveland Cavaliers, sounded apprehensive about the long-term prospects of the NBA staying in London. He said: “I never mistake that this is a privilege. In London, for nine years, we’ve had the best teams in the world and the best players in the world come to influence our game. The only sadness is that we haven’t taken advantage of it in the same way that other countries have. Other countries have seen the NBA as an opportunity in terms of aspirational but also have said, right what foundations have we laid in our country to grow the game. We haven’t quite done that yet.”
That’s not to say some of the country’s biggest NBA fans weren’t at the game. There were loud areas in the arena, some of the supporting the ‘at-home’ Wizards, but many of them vocally getting behind the Knicks, shouting “DE-FENCE” rather than “DEF-ENSE” and everything. The problem was that these were largely in the upper-deck of the O2.
They were probably up in the nosebleeds because tickets any closer were extortionate – not initially, but certainly on re-selling websites within minutes of the official selling period opened. Therefore, the game acts as a social climber’s fantasy. The national and international media is there and it becomes a bit of a circus, so if you’re a celebrity with a project to push (shout out Michael McIntyre), or someone looking to grow your personal brand, having Sky Sports, the BBC and national newspapers interview you during timeouts and before the game is extremely useful.
Outside of these people, some of the remaining seats in the lower bowl were fans of the Wizards and the Knicks, but they were matched by people with Orlando Magic jerseys, LA Lakers t-shirts, Boston Celtics jackets and Chicago Bulls paraphernalia. They were basketball fans: some of them die-hard, others casual, like any NBA game, except there is no real home team, so the natural bounce of a traditional home crowd wasn’t there to keep the place going during lulls in action (of which there were plenty in 2019).
Last year’s game between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers – conference rivals both packed with genuine stars vying for a top seed in the playoffs – had a different atmosphere. The crowd knew who the good and bad guys were, and what the win would mean to each. The teams were also strong brands with good heritage and multiple championships, so the most casual fans understood the stakes.
The NBA put on the type of show required to sell a product to new fans in 2018, but this year it was different. Fan-based media in the US recognized this, and when Blk Tray on The Daily Ding podcast reviewed the game, he said: “A Wall-less Wizards and a Kristaps-less Knicks? Not the best teams to send over there. I get it that we’re trying to connect basketball outside of our borders, but if we’re going to put on a show, let’s send our best where actually we get some viewers over here. All of 14 people were watching that game. I was all the way out on that.”
Even talent on the league’s main broadcast partner, TNT, echoed these thoughts. Panellist on Inside The NBA and former superstar Charles Barkley said: “I really think it’s unfair when NBA and NFL teams send crappy teams to foreign countries. If you’re going to make the game global, we should send LeBron, Giannis and guys like that. When the NFL sends the Jacksonville Jaguars, that’s not right. You should send Tom Brady, you should send stars. You want the game to go? You’re going to charge people all this money? You should send stars. There’s no stars on the Wizards or the Knicks.”
Basketball in the UK attracts various competing markets, which is the difficulty of attracting the perfect crowd to NBA London. As someone who works in Publisher Relations for FIBA Media, Nick Whitfield travels the world covering international games, and he commentates on England’s NBL team Reading Rockets. His view is such: “If you go to any of the top BBL (British Basketball League) games, it’s a very family crowd – parents and kids etc. The NBA game in London is a lot of corporates, and casuals who come for the experience, plus super NBA nerds. If you go to the Hoopfix Classic it’s an entirely different audience again. Any one of these on their own is not an accurate barometer of the appetite for basketball more generally in the UK.”
Perhaps this is why the UK has been the primary market for the NBA during the last nine years – it is huge, diverse. And the expansion has been largely successful: the UK buys NBA League Pass more than any other European country – though that could partly be due to its weak coverage on television until Sky Sports took over this season. So even if the game remains in London, maybe it will always have a slight awkwardness to proceedings thanks to the variety in personalities that attend.
But the UK is still a big market, and in recent years the league has made an effort to expand its WNBA reach. This season saw one of the top two or three players in the league, Elena Delle Donne of the Washington Mystics, join teammate Natasha Cloud, as well as fellow Mystic and current Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver. While Toliver was busy with the NBA team, the other two were present at the Jr NBA clinics and events throughout the week.
Cloud said: “I would love to see WNBA games over here. There is a market for it. And young girls need to be able to see that there is a league out there that they have a chance to play in. Women can hold positions of power, especially in a league like the WNBA. And hopefully we can get to the point where we can come over to London and reach our fanbase out here.”
Delle Donne didn’t think the idea was too far fetched either. The former MVP said: “I think it would be great thing for people to do because we already have such a great fanbase overseas so I think it would be a great thing to have WNBA game over here and for the fans to be able to see us competing against one another. And not just that, it would be great to see the media airing our games on TV over here.”
So maybe that’s where we’re headed. Sky Sports plans to broadcast the W this year, and the company has done wonders for NFL in recent years, so hopefully the NBA will take the next step.
NBA London has always been a privilege, and while we all hope it returns to the UK capital next season, the sport has grown in popularity compared to 10 years ago. The league has achieved growth, and maybe the next step is venturing further into Europe to conquer another country, but don’t expect its presence to disappear from Britain, as Amaechi concluded: “I have heard good things about the plans for the games but I can’t share that just yet. There’s only going to be more opportunities. There is no doubt that you will see more games around Europe, more games going to India, China, Eastern Europe.”
Featured photo – via Naomi Baker / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration