Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
I’m Daniel Routledge and for as long as I can remember I’ve been watching British basketball. I’m not quite as old as the league, but its close enough we could be siblings. We pretty much grew up together, I’ve seen the highs and the lows, the false dawns and the unnoticed successes.
Much has been made in recent days about the future of the game in this country, so much so it’s got me thinking about the past.
Whatever your views about the road from here, allow me ten minutes of your time to re-live how we got here.
In the beginning
The first national league of basketball was formed in 1972, in those early days it was a largely amateur pursuit, played out in small sports halls. It was before I was born, but I’ve seen minutes of AGMs where players were reprimanded for not personally selling enough tickets!
By the end of the decade, the structure became a bit more professional and as the 1980s began, the popularity started to boom. This was, of course, a very different time and it’s worth recalling that. Economically the country was starting to riseafter the dark days of the 1970s, people had more disposable income, but very few options with which to dispose of it.
It was acceptable in the 80s
Football was a scary, smelly and occasionally unsafe place to go, certainly not a place that women and children regularly went to in any great numbers. Rugby Union was amateur so played a lot of meaningless games, television had three channels (before 1983 there wasn’t even regular live football coverage!), cinemas were, in the main, dark and dingy, as were the pubs, certainly not the bar/cafes and gastros that proliferate today.
Computers, smartphones and the internet were still being invented by the geeks who would become richer than God in the coming decades. Basically there wasn’t much to do, particular for families.
Basketball filled some of this void, but was generally hindered by the available facilities. Those who’ve been around basketball for more than 15 years may find it hard to believe, but Granby Halls in Leicester was arguably the best venue in the country in the 1980s. For the more recent converts, no it wasn’t always an NCP car park.
Channel 4 launched, picking up basketball coverage, things were booming and rich people were starting to take notice. John Deacon, owner of Portsmouth FC, joined the league as did Manchester United. They helped form the BBL which allowed Scottish teams like David Murray’s Livingston and Glasgow Rangers join in the action after a few years of cross-border skirmishes in the Anglo-Scottish Cup. The only way was up.
The first crash
Except it wasn’t. Despite their resources, none of these football-based entities could make it work financially, with facilities the major drawback. Channel 4 moved on to other things (and who didn’t enjoy Kabaddi on a Sunday afternoon?) sponsors waned and the money guys at thefootball clubs decided enough is enough and quit.
With 15% interest rates, high unemployment and house repossessions prevalent, disposable income was hit hard as the 1990s rolled around and so, of course, was basketball. It was not just the football clubs who left, of the 15 teams that started 1987 in the newly formed BBL, only seven were still in the league two years later, six if you discount Manchester who by that stage had been ditched by Man U.
Rise of arena-ball
As the country recovered from recession, so too did basketball. It was seen by some as the next big thing. The Premier League was still in its infancy so the press found time to cover other sports and a new wave of rich guys entered the league with the aim of revolutionising the game (and presumably making a few quid in the process).
But this was an altogether different bunch of rich guys. These weren’t sports people, per se, these were entertainment people. These were people who’d made their fortunes putting on large events, these were arena guys - Barrie Marshall, Ed Simons, Harvey Goldsmith, Chris Wright.
There was also Harry Wrublewski, who with his brother had turned Sydney Kings into a power in Australia, the Cook Group, a medical devices company (but one with more money than sense), later Sir John Hall’s doomed dabble into a Newcastle United Sport Club and John Nike, the wealthy Berkshire businessman who’d stayed with Bracknell/Thames Valley through that 1990 crash.
These men took basketball to new heights and new places - MEN Arena, Wembley Arena, Docklands Arena, Sheffield Arena, Newcastle Arena, National Indoor Arena – basketball had arrived, or so it seemed.
Off the court, sponsors abound – whether you liked breadsticks and faux cheese or not – and the BBL was live on Sky Sports every Saturday evening. The arenas were full, Manchester were reportedly one of the best supported basketball teams in Europe one season. Players (mostly foreign) were earning a good living - in those days the questions around salaries were about who was getting money in bags or paid to their wives to avoid the salary cap.
Looks are deceiving
It was, however, all built on sand. Manchester were so well supported because they gave away tickets or sold them for a quid, rotating through the Greater Manchester suburbs for a different 5,000 people each week. If you paid full price for a ticket in the BBL during this time, you either supported a small club like Chester, Leicester or Hemel (who couldn’t afford to and didn’t have a need to give them away) or you were a complete mug.
I recall one Manchester fan at the time bemoaning the £25 child’s ticket for a top seat at the play-off final as being ‘more than he’d paid for his season ticket’.
Arena-ball was a myth. Those halcyon days of the 1990s, were in fact a mirage. They were simply millionaires, losing millions, in the hope it would all turn around, only it didn’t. And then they did what smart businessmen always do. Cut their losses and ran.
Manchester finally fulfilled the Cook Groups millions by being the best team in 2000. Their reward, so went the story in the bar at the Wembley Hilton afterwards, was the boss man walking into the locker room after the play-off final giving them a hefty win bonus and telling them the group was pulling out and the team probably won’t be around next year.
One by one, the rich guys left. A few clubs struggled on without them, Sheffield and Newcastle are still here, Leopards eventually regrouped in EBL thanks to a few hardy fans who wouldn’t give up on their team, but the rest went down.Newcastle is probably the best example of the failures of arena-ball. Millions wasted under the Newcastle United banner for no success, in the naughties they would re-write the model for success off the court, followed by trophy after trophy on it.
The guys who’d made careers making money out of events couldn’t make money out of basketball for two simple reasons. Most importantly, and arguably out of their control, they didn’t own the venues in which they played so were held hostage to exorbitant fees on game night and crucially didn’t get any of the secondary spend.
And secondly, by their own doing, when they realised putting basketball into an Arena didn’t mean people would just instantly rock up and pay top price for it, they devalued their own product by giving away free tickets. After that people didn’t pay, because they knew they’d get a free one from somewhere.
Just as the tide was turning for arena-ball, things were changing in the TV landscape too. Football was well on its way to becoming the all-consuming behemoth we see today. Rumours of a new sports TV channel from cable provider NTL abound, Sky was concerned about keeping the cash cow of premier league football and basketball – whose contract was up – was basically ignored whilst they worked out how many 0s needed to be on the end of the football cheque. Scared of missing out, the BBL jumped and signed what is (and probably will be for many years to come) the single biggest TV/sponsorship deal in the history of the game in this country, worth £22 million.
Only problem was, NTL hit the rocks, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the USA, the channel never launched and the rights were sold on to the ill-fated ITV Sport Channel for a year. In fairness to the BBL, whilst sports like Rugby League got screwed over as the NTL-backed company desperately tried to ditch everything they had erroneously bought, the BBL got a significant amount of money out of them, essentially sustaining the league during the difficult days the first decade of the 21st century.
An appetite for basketball
It has been reported that there is a huge untapped seam of fans that basketball is missing out on. The logic being some steps back towards arena-ball would smoke these people out. Let’s take that as true for now and ignore the fact that the entertainment gurus of BBL 1990s thought that, tried it and failed.
Here’s the thing: I have an interest in cricket, I have never bought a ticket. Sure I took the family for free when the local paper was giving away some collect a voucher thing, but spend money? Aside from some ice creams, nope. I have an interest in Rugby Union too. I’ve been five times in my adult life and two of those were using someone else’s season ticket.
Athletics, tennis, to be honest I have an interest in most sports. The only one that persuades me to part with my cash is football. And really that’s only since my son has been old enough and keen enough to get me out of the armchair.Interest and spending cash are two entirely separate things.
But, the argument goes, the NBA sells out in a couple of hours, look at all those fans of basketball. That is more about star power and brand. The coverage on the BBC website, for example, was more about footballers having a night out, than anything of the game.
Plus ‘selling out’ is arbitrary isn’t it? If you comp 4,000-5,000 tickets, did you really sell out? As I understand it, if you only count tickets someone actually paid money for, the biggest basketball event at the O2 in 2015 will be the BBL Play-off Final. A key challenge for the game in this country will be turning those one-off event fans into regulars. The NBA doesn’t have to do that, they just have to worry about selling shirts and caps and, you may have noticed, they’re pretty good at that.
And what about the Euroleague Final Four? They took over Trafalgar Square for a weekend, threw hundreds of thousands at it. Column inches? None. TV coverage? Delayed. Radio commentary, ‘sorry Fergie’s just retired, so you’re bounced’. Oh and they had to dump a load of tickets the day before in the hope the O2 wouldn’t be half empty. Little wonder it never made it to year two of the two year deal in London.
As with most things, building it up locally, both in terms of press and supporters, is the key, not dumping it on people from the top and assuming they’ll turn up.
And so to today
It’s arguable that teams in the top division of British basketball have never been more sustainable. Sure they’re not making money, but, vitally, they are not losing it and there aren’t a bunch of people throwing millions at vanity projects.
So what is holding back the sport from moving to the next level? Well it is the same thing that was holding it back in the 1980s. And the 1990s. And the 2000s. It is not arenas. It is not media coverage. It is not marketing. Although gains in the last two would help.
TV coverage would be great if someone wants to pay millions for the rights, but let’s face it, they don’t even want to pay production costs. Why not? Are there enough viewers to shift subscriptions? The TV companies don’t think so. Is there some other social or corporate reason to put it on? The TV companies don’t think so. And if you can get the NBA for free, why bother paying for a domestic league? It’s the TV equivalent of the Manchester fan grumbling at the play-off final costs.
So what’s missing? Venues. Or more specifically, that teamsdon’t own any. Like the rest of us from local league upwards, they pay to play and crucially they get none of the lucrative secondary spend, nor can they ‘sweat that asset’ in the week.
True value is in bricks and mortar
Rugby Union has multiple TV deals, sponsors and coverage that only football can beat. Yet half the league loses moneyhand over fist. The standout clubs, financially, are Leicester Tigers (£20m net worth) and Northampton Saints (£13m net worth), most of the rest are living in the 1990s arena-ball world. How are these two clubs so sound?
Well Tigers have a 24,000 seater stadium with 15,000 season tickets, so not only do they get all the secondary spend (that’s a lot of beer and hot dogs), but they use that stadium for conferences and events all day and all night, pretty muchevery day of the year. That is having an asset and milking itfor all it’s worth. Without the stadium, they’d have nothing.Northampton is pretty much the same, but with a smaller,slightly older stadium. If they had to rent a stadium on game days from someone else (as some of their rivals do) they’d be losing millions every year (as some of their rivals do). No venue = no real asset.
Of course, I’m pretty sure when Welford Road and Franklins Gardens were first built, they weren’t turning over tens of millions of pounds in the first few years, or even decades, but they got there eventually.
If you want to invest in basketball and make a real difference, the history of basketball and the now of other sports tells us, without a venue you’re likely just burning money, which will keep you warm for a bit, but is otherwise pretty futile.