In two short hours, the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz will tip-off at London’s 02 Arena in front of a sell-out crowd. It’s the third successive year that an NBA pre-season game has taken place in London and, for the third year in a row, all the tickets were snapped up months before the game.
Although the league has only taken tentative steps in the UK, interest in the NBA here is definitely rising. With the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, we have a competitive national team, a couple of recognisable faces playing significant minutes for NBA teams and some TV commitment from Channel 5 and possibly ESPN.
Basketball is starting to gain traction in the UK in exactly the same way the English Premier League (EPL) is enjoying increasing popularity in the States. Why? Because people want to see the best. The British Basketball League (BBL) can’t boast players of the same calibre as the NBA just as Major League Soccer can’t compare to the quality of play in the EPL, La Liga or Serie A. Forget patriotism, fans want the spectacle, the stars and the big crowds that come with the top sports products.
Thanks to satellite TV and the Internet, US soccer fans and British NBA fans now have easy access to sports that were previously all but inaccessible. Two seasons ago, I survived on one NBA game a week and got my basketball fix by going to a few BBL games. Last season, I subscribed to NBA League Pass Broadband and was watching 20-25 games a week.
The same thing is happening with soccer in the US now. Major League Soccer, boosted by the David Beckham hype machine, draws decent crowds but, beyond the die-hards, has no impact on American sporting culture. It’s visibly an inferior product. However, once ESPN began showing the UEFA Champions League and the EPL in the States, people sat up and took notice.
With the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Steven Gerrard appearing on American screens, the interest started to grow. NBA writer Mark Stein revealed himself to be a long-time Manchester City fan who makes an annual trip to Britain to watch games. The Champions League was discussed semi-regularly on PTI. Even Bill “I don’t do British” Simmons, opined on his methods of selecting a Premier League team to root for. As a lifelong West Ham fan, it absolutely killed me he, just like Steve Nash, picked our arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
What else do Americans get from watching English soccer? I think the crowds play an enormous part. I’ve been to NBA and MLB games in the States and there’s definitely a vibe of enforced participation. it’s easy to tune out snatches of music, organ riffs and instructions to clap your hands and become a silent spectator. Imagine if this is your traditional experience of live sport and then you see, say, a Liverpool vs Manchester United game with unprompted full-on chanting and singing for the entire 90 minutes. Surely you’d be hooked, or at least want to experience that for yourself in person.
So, how will basketball capture the imagination of British sports fans? The American emphasis on each game being an “event” will definitely help. The draft adds to the impression that any team is capable of winning a championship. There’s a lot of jaded football fans in Britain tired of a league that only two or three teams can win. What’s the point in paying throught the nose for a season ticket when the best your team can realistically do is finish 11th? I’ve followed the New York Knicks for 20 years. The last seven seasons have been awful. But free agency in the NBA gives fans hope. The Premier League can’t say the same.
And with that said, I’m off to the 02 to watch some high quality hoops.