Since my first blog post, a few of you have asked about the popularity of basketball here in Britain and how much of a fan base the sport has in the UK. As you can imagine, in a country where soccer (or football as you’d call it here) is king, rugby and cricket are distant princes and anything else is largely off the radar, it is quite hard for other sports to grab much limelight. Basketball is considered a ‘minority sport’ over here, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a huge following. Go to any school playground, local leisure centre or city park and you’re more than likely to find a pair of steel frames with a backboard and hoop at the top of ‘em with kid’s shooting to a game of twenty one. Basketball has a HUGE number of active participants here and amongst the nation’s young it is played on an almost daily basis; be it played for fun during lunch breaks, after school’s out for the day or even during physical education classes as part of the national teaching curriculum.
There is also a professional basketball league in the UK – The British Basketball League. The BBL is home to twelve clubs, who each have a mixture of home grown talent on their roster, alongside foreign players - most of whom have college ball stateside. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the league was thriving with teams in London, Manchester, Sheffield & Newcastle all playing in large capacity arenas in front of thousands of fans each home game whilst fixtures were screened nationwide live on Sky Sports TV. Unfortunately, the league suffered a slight decline in the mid 2000’s and now days most team’s home courts resemble your typical American high school basketball gym rather than multi million pound arenas, but the fan support is still there. The league’s marquee games still easily fill arenas, and I’m sure that will be the case on Saturday lunchtime (well, for the lower bowl, at least) when the Guildford Heat & Mersey Tigers contest the BBL Trophy Final at The o2 Arena prior to New Jersey and Toronto playing their second game in the building.
Support in the country is also strong for Great Britain to have a team competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games, with a solid team working hard over the past couple of summers to qualify for the tournament. GB is lucky to be represented by a team which displays NBA calibre players, such as Chicago’s Luol Deng and former Raptor Pops Mensah-Bonsu. Although to date, Britain’s most successful home-grown player would have to be former Sheffield Sharks product John Amechi, famed in the basketball world for once turning down a $17m contract from the Los Angeles Lakers and also for becoming the first openly gay NBA player in league history. The current ‘cream-of-the-crop’ of British players mostly ply their trade in mainland Europe, whilst some (such as Justin Robinson, of Rider University) have pitted their wits against the young college stars of the NCAA.
Interest in the NBA here is huge, and has been for some time. It is hard to walk down your typical British high street and not come across at least a handful of Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Heat, Magic or Bulls jerseys. British fans tend to follow the more successful teams, largely because, thanks to sports brand commercials and video games, they are more familiar with the league’s marquee players – Kobe Bryant for the Lakers, Dwight Howard for the Magic, Dwayne Wade/LeBron James for the Heat…. you get the idea. Whilst not everyone in the UK would be able to name you many more NBA players than the ‘superstars’ mentioned above, all will know the name Michael Jordan, and most will be familiar with movies like Space Jam and the NBA Live video game series. Many Brits who visit the USA/Canada on vacation often take in a NBA game during the course of their holiday. I often stare at my facebook news feed in jealousy, as the latest returnee of a trip abroad posts pictures of themselves watching a game at Madison Square Garden or the Amway Centre.
British basketball fans are very knowledgeable of the sport, and I expect the crowd for this weekend’s games to; cheer at the right moments, applaud smart passes and jump of their seats at one of DeMar DeRozan’s highlight reel dunks. However, as is the trend at all high profile sporting events these days, the majority of ‘real fans’ will be seated in the upper deck of the arena where the seats are much more affordable to the average person. Hopefully there will still be a core of knowledgeable and enthusiastic basketball fans in the lower bowl who will get picked up by television cameras and microphones, and not all seats are taken up by sponsors or those who are attending the games ‘to be seen’. I myself will be seated in the upper deck for Friday’s game, where ticket prices range between £25 & £50 ($40-$79 Canadian) plus a ‘why do they have this’ booking fee of £5 ($8) per ticket. For Saturday’s game my friend and I have decided to push the boat out to get closer to the action and will be sitting around 13 rows back from the Raptors bench, paying £88 ($140)a piece for the privilege. Ticket prices for the rest of the lower bowl go as high as £110 ($175) whilst floor level seating will set you back either £212.50 ($338) or £365 ($580). The cost of cosying up to the high rollers in the courtside seats will put you £520 ($826) out of pocket – all prices including booking fees.
The four previous ‘NBA Europe Live’ pre-season games held in London had all sold out long before the teams got anywhere near a redeye headed for Europe, however for the Raptors & Nets double header this has not been the case. Perhaps this is due to the teams not holding a ‘superstar’ player that British fans are more aware of, or perhaps it’s down to both teams not owning the most flattering of records (both teams have won only 17 games on the season) coming into London. As of 9:30am today, tickets for all price ranges are still available on official ticketing websites for Friday’s game and commercials promoting ticket sales for the game have been ran hard on ESPN’s UK channel where live NBA is shown several times a week. Ticket prices have been high, even by British standards (going to see a Premier League soccer match can cost you as little as £20 at Wigan Athletic) and I hope there aren’t too many empty seats at the 18,689 o2 Arena come tip off at 8pm GMT on Friday & Saturday night. But no matter how many seats are left unfilled, the building will be loud, and there will be sizeable followings for both teams. With the games being designated as ‘home games’ for New Jersey - the Nets will have their dance team, mascot and video board graphics on-hand to encourage the British crowd to get behind the Russian owned team, and I’m sure that will all add to the atmosphere of what promises to be a fantastic weekend of basketball.
But fear not, Raptor nation, there will be plenty of Brits, like me, standing up and giving their full support to Toronto both nights.
Today I’ll be heading over to West London to check out the NBA fan event at Westfield’s shopping centre where the NBA are putting on a bit of a road show including a 3on3 tournament for local players. I’ll put up a blog when I get back at let you know all about what’s going down, and will also do a piece telling you everything you could ever want or need to know about The o2 Arena where the games will take place. Don't forget you can follow me on twitter @TomHurley