Why basketball in Britain deserves financial support

Written By: Alex Sobel
Published: March 22, 2018 Last modified: March 22, 2018

The future of basketball in Britain is at an important juncture. I pay particular tribute to the women’s team, who beat both Portugal and Israel on the road, to jointly top their EuroBasket qualifying group with Greece, one of the pre-eminent basketball nations, which finished fourth at the last such event, in 2017.

Top players include Stef Collins (No 6, pictured), GB women’s captain, Eilidh Simpson and Bev Kettlety, the team manager. Those women’s futures are at stake, as are the futures of their male counterparts, of all the boys and girls playing in the national age groups, and of all the boys and girls in the clubs out there who dream of one day putting on a Team GB jersey— all those who think that they have a future in basketball and that our great country will sustain their dream of one day playing for their national team. The more immediate future concerns those dreams of finishing the qualifiers and competing at the 2019 EuroBasket championships, where they have a brilliant chance of taking GB to its highest-ever placing in the competition.

Let us not be remembered for throwing an air ball; let us do what is right for basketball and slam dunk the ball right into the hoop for our GB players. At the moment, the ball is in the hands of UK Sport, and I am concerned that it is double dribbling with its decision not to fund GB basketball. We need the opportunity to score the winning three-pointer that sees those women through to EuroBasket in Serbia and Latvia in 2019 and all the other GB teams continuing to compete in their competitions, thereby maintaining the dreams of young people to play at the highest level.

People in disadvantaged communities in Sheffield, Leeds, London and other urban centres, aspire to play for such teams and, one day, for our national team. My constituent Tricia McKinney’s son represented England and played for Sheffield Sharks, and her daughter and four grandchildren are involved with clubs in Leeds. She said: “I see first-hand the physical and social benefits ‘of being involved’. All the facts and figures show that basketball provides opportunities for adults and children from diverse ethnic backgrounds and both genders to participate in sport. It is a particularly important sport for those in deprived communities.”

Another constituent, Baile Beyai, wrote: “I’m currently studying Politics at Leeds University and Basketball was a big, big reason that I had the self-esteem to even attempt to study at university, especially growing up as a problem child “in a ‘disadvantaged’ area of London. I doubt even you know how much impact it has on kids, especially ethnic minorities in low-income families. We face a much…bigger dropout than other sports and more funding would definitely improve the chances of young children playing the sport. Growing up I was jumping trains to go to England Basketball trials and sessions by myself, and remember at age 16 I was forced to skip the regional competition because I just didn’t have the £120 to pay for hotels. I doubt such constraints are put on children who’ve been selected to a high level of competition in other sports.”

Do we really want our inner-city kids driven to petty criminality in order to follow their dreams, or to abandon their dreams, as they cannot pay for hotels? UK Sport recently announced £226 million for Olympic eligible sports until 2021. That includes £14.5 million for equestrian sports, £25.5 million for sailing and more than £6 million for modern pentathlon—a sport that requires a horse, a sword and a gun. None of those sports is within reach of the young people we see playing basketball. We are funding elite sports for elites.

Temi Fagbenie, who top-scored for GB in the win against Israel, started playing in Haringey. That ultimately led her to a scholarship at Harvard University and a contract in the Women’s National Basketball Association, where she plays for Minnesota. She said: “I feel…they are literally trying to rip the GB shirts off my and my team-mates’ backs. Just look at the athletes on the basketball teams—a lot of us are from ethnic minorities and/or grew up in working-class households. The youth from these groups, and young people in general, aren’t inspired by obscure sports that are completely alien to them, they are inspired by athletes they can relate with.”

This is the sad reality of where we are. The next game for Temi and the other women players will be in November, but will they be able to play that game and qualify for EuroBasket, as we have heard they are on course to do?

In 2006, British Basketball was formed, as required by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in conjunction with the British Olympic Association, to guide our teams through to London 2012, where we qualified as hosts. Since then, basketball has continued to grow in popularity, with more and more players giving us our best ever base for the future, but funding has eroded and is almost entirely at risk, although our elite teams have continued to improve, especially the women, who finished a best ever ninth at the 2013 EuroBasket tournament. The two main funding bodies in this country are Sport England and UK Sport, but at present our GB teams do not receive funding from UK Sport because basketball does not meet the current performance policy. Sport England provides £4.7 million for the grassroots game in England and allocates £1.4 million for talent, with £150,000 of Sport England’s talent grant in 2018, plus a further indicative investment of up to £150,000 from that talent grant, to ensure that the men’s and women’s under-16, under-18 and under-20 age group teams can compete this summer, but there is nothing for the senior teams.

That is not enough to sustain our GB teams, and if no more funding comes forward, we will have to withdraw all our teams. The sum of £1 million a year is enough to sustain all of elite basketball in the UK. The funding that basketball received was equivalent to just £10,000 per player, while so-called—but not guaranteed—podium team sports received £40,000 per player in the old funding regime.

The game 3 on 3 is global, urban and an Olympic sport. It has a bright future, but we are not even considering its potential for our own programme. UK Sport revealed in its annual review that athletes in para taekwondo, para badminton, sport climbing, karate and BMX freestyle will receive national lottery support, as they enter the Olympic and Paralympic programme for the first time, but not 3 on 3.

On broadcasting, the British Basketball League is not currently able to secure domestic and international broadcast revenues, whereas other European leagues have monetised broadcasting both domestically and internationally. Attendance figures vary throughout Europe, but basketball is clearly a popular spectator sport. BBL’s average stadium capacity is only 2,362 compared with 4,424 in Germany and 6,447 in Spain. The value of France’s domestic broadcasting rights for basketball stands at £8.5 million. The domestic league in Spain is valued at £5.3 million and Germany’s at £0.9 million.

The Perform Media Group—one the world’s largest sports media companies, which holds the BBL media rights—estimates that the level of interest in basketball in the UK stands at 20% of the population. That is one in five people. Similarly, 22% of the population in Germany takes an interest in the game. The figures for France and Spain are 33% and 61% respectively. Much smaller nations, such as Israel, still manage to monetise their league rights to the tune of £1.8 million. The potential audience of 20% in the UK is sizeable. If we can grow the brand appeal of both the national team and the BBL, that will help create a sustainable commercial model for both.

The UK’s domestic fan base is young—we can see that from those present in the Public Gallery—which is extremely important to advertisers. The monetisation of German and Israeli basketball gives us a benchmark for where the UK could realistically be in the future with the right funding and investment. However, due to the rise of internet protocol television there is general commercial uncertainty over the future of TV licensing revenues. Currently, the only way to watch the BBL is online, apart from the finals games that are broadcast—but poorly promoted—on the BBC. However, 10 times as many people watch the BBL on the Unilad Facebook page than on the BBC. There are huge opportunities to grow the audience for basketball here, and get more young people playing through clubs and rising to the highest level. These audiences will also attract commercial opportunities, but this takes time—time that the game is currently not being given.

Our GB games are also not being broadcast, with limited live-streaming opportunities to watch GB games, so how can the British fan base watch our national team and how can our national team move on to monetise their potential? In the medium term, if we can get those broadcasting rights for those games, we can monetise it, but in the short term, that just is not possible.

I recommend that the review of elite funding looks at a wider set of criteria than immediate podium potential and a wider range of socioeconomic factors, including the barriers to elite sport faced by our black, Asian and minority ethnic and disadvantaged communities, linking it to the sports they play.

Alex Sobel is Labour/Co-operative MP for Leeds North West. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.