A Slow and Painful Death – The NBA’s UK Plan
Its spring 2007 and the NFL, NHL and NBA all decide to try something new, play their sport in Europe. Four games would be played that year, all in front of sellout crowds, fans like me rejoiced; three of our favourite American sports were coming to town, giving us the chance to see live sports at their best. In recent years David Stern has taken this idea of dragging teams around the world one step further, but is it working?
The NHL’s future of playing games in Europe looks bleak because of the lockout, and no TV coverage in the UK for instance but for the other sports from across the pond, the future seems bright. The NFL is making big strides in the UK by bringing two games over to the UK next season and planning a possible franchise to be situated here in the next ten years. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft even said “You guys (UK fans) deserve a franchise here in the next ten years, because of your loyalty to the sport”. It is true that we have been loyal, filling 80,000 seats each year, even when the teams playing are not favourable. *cough* 1-6 Rams *cough* 0-7 Buccaneers.
Having two games here will be interesting for many reasons; will the games sell out? Will the UK take to the Jaguars who will be playing here once a year till 2016? Will the publicity continue to grow? Who knows? Roger Goodell seems to have a plan, and so far it’s working, but David Stern has taken the NBA a different route to the same goal.
Pro Football has been to the UK and Canada routinely, while David Stern has taken the World’s premier basketball league to many different countries like Spain, Italy, China, France and even Turkey as well as the UK. Aside from the UK getting Regular season bouts in 2010, they have all been pre-season match ups. This is by no means a bad thing, I mean, getting the chance to see the Timberwolves destroy the Lakers a few years back was worth every penny for the many Laker haters who went to the game.
The NBA and basketball in general has more of a presence in the UK because of the games here and the recent TV coverage by ESPN and Olympics, so much so that they set up a European NBA Store for instance, to stop mugs like me getting stung by hefty postage and import fees. I would be lying though if I said that all was well.
This “project” seems to have no direction. The first issue I have with it is that the publicity has been shoddy, the NFL International Series games make the newspapers and radio stations while the NBA, (here in London at least) is almost invisible to Joe public. While there are only 20,000 seats in London’s O2 Arena to fill (far fewer than Wembley’s 88,000 for the NFL), for a country that has just hosted the Olympics which featured a Basketball Tournament littered with NBA talent’ it just isn’t good enough. David Stern has always said he wanted to grow the game here; well he isn’t doing much about it.
Sure there will be a sellout for the Knicks vs Pistons regular season game in January, but it’s because the same 20,000 people keep going each year. It’s the same 20,000 who watch the British Basketball League (BBL), a minority league. It’s the same 20,000 people who are currently being alienated right now! A total of 35 countries this side of the Atlantic have full ESPN TV coverage, including newly signed up India and Bosnia. This list doesn’t include the UK though… Work that one out and tell me the answer, PLEASE!
ESPN has done a great job in recent years of giving us multiple games to watch every week and extensive playoff coverage, but once the contract ended, BOOM! We get the sound of crickets filling out ears instead of 30,000 Floridians chanting “Lets go Heat!” and Spike Lee shouting at officials from a court side seat at “the Garden”. It’s hard not to get angry while writing this, but there is no logic. We are weeks into the season and all I get is two minute highlight packages and dodgy illegal Internet feeds at 2:00am on a school night to get my hoops fix. Great job NBA UK and ESPN for growing the game. What’s worse is they even have the cheek to show “the NBA is back” promos during ad breaks, when it clearly isn’t.
To add to the list of failures is the attempt to bring small NBA events over here, like the “NBA House” and the “NBA 3X” events that came to London during August after the Olympics. They were a fun time, and I enjoyed attending them, but how did I find out about them? Through the NBA’s UK section of their website and the NBA UK official Facebook page which has such a small following. Even when travelling to these small pep rally type events the only advert I saw was at the entrance! Sure I got to see Robert Horry and the Boston Celtics Dancers, but I also bumped into some familiar faces, the 19,998 other people who go to the O2 Arena each year, *face palm*.
So while I commend Stern for trying to expand the NBA’s fandom here, I can’t praise him for any achievements aside from giving me live NBA games each year. As the chances of the NHL ever coming back to London fade away, and the TV schedule for ESPN UK fills up with even less popular sports like the AHL and Russian Premier League Soccer, I twiddle my thumbs and ask myself how much longer the honeymoon period of the NBA in the UK will last.
With no TV coverage, publicity, or long term strategy for giving British orange ball fans and potential fans more action, I can’t see much light at the end of the tunnel. The NBA will slowly lose any relevance it had in such fierce sports market and all the Olympic momentum will be lost. Simply because the few stragglers like me clutching tickets to see the Knicks crush the Pistons, while spamming the ESPN Facebook page trying to get answers, refuse to pay over £100 for NBA league pass to see a low-res Lebron James score 38 points on the Kings.