The NBA needs to step up its game to rival the NFL in London – but they are making the right steps

The eighth instalment of the NBA regular season game in London has more than ever brought fanfare to these shores, with superstars all over the court. So maybe this is a sign that the league might need to step up its game in future years to bring the best sides to the O2 Arena.

This year’s NBA London encounter saw the Boston Celtics face the Philadelphia 76ers in perhaps the most eagerly anticipated clash since this all began in 2011 with a pair of games between the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets, two teams that at the time were out of the playoff running.

As the years have gone on, the teams, while well known, have lacked in playoff credential, but steadily we have seen at least one of the sides in contention for the post-season, or had teams with noted superstars.

But as the NBA has made London an annual tradition. You feel that they have been experimenting with different ideas. First: games on back-to-back nights, which had a slight effect on the teams with jetlag, getting back home, not to mention that both the Raptors and the Nets played out a mammoth triple overtime game on their second of their back-to-backs.

Second: Sending a team that was not from New York to London. Which lifted the slightly stale product and gave it a second lease of life as the Raptors and the Orlando Magic took to the O2 Arena floor in 2016, a game which had the added bonus of going to overtime.

And the third is to bring two teams that are not just playoff contenders but have genuine All-Star calibre stars on both teams. Yes, in previous years we have been graced with players like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Carmelo Anthony, but this year’s game between the Eastern Conference leaders Boston and the Sixers has arguably the highest selection of All-Star talent with Kyrie Irving, rookie Jaylen Brown, Aussie Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid on show in London.

Kyrie Irving (with ball) and Al Horford were just two of the numerous amount of big names in London on Thursday night. Photo: Daily Express

“It’s great that the fans in London get to see two teams that are both fighting for a spot in the post-season,” said Philadelphia 76ers guard Jerryd Bayliss.

“The fanfare here has been incredible and they are really passionate about the game here in London just like they are back home. I’ve even seen NFL shirts here so the people here are embracing our sports here in the UK.”

That other U.S. league that Bayliss mentioned and that also heads over to the UK shores every season: the National Football League has developed a following that has made an exclusive American sport more accessible both with the game and its numerous fan activities, which, as a result, has made it one of the most eagerly anticipated dates in the sporting calendar in Britain.

The NFL, which has been coming to the British capital, four years earlier than the NBA, has experimented with the singular game at Wembley and has since staged four games with supporters and curious onlookers travelling far and wide to be part of the fanfare.

The NFL fanzone on Regent Street in London is constantly bustling with fans and curious onlookers. Photo: NFL

Could having multiple games in London at different stages of the season be the answer? Having a second game in a different part of Europe, perhaps?

“We’re considering bringing additional games to Europe,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.

“I will say that we’re so different than the NFL in a sport that plays once a week, it’s just the logistical challenges for us is so much greater. Just for bringing these two teams (Boston-Philadelphia) for this one game, both teams stopped playing in the States roughly five days before today.

“Both teams will have roughly three days off when they get back and the issue for those teams is, and this is why we are so appreciative of them coming, is there is a certain amount of days on the schedule and when you build some buffer around this game in the middle of the season, it requires compressing the schedule in other parts of the season.”

Silver also highlighted that the more teams that could possibly come to London for more than one game could lead to a more difficult scheduling structure for the entire season, which might dim that particular idea. Although the idea of starting the trend of spreading the regular season around Europe is intriguing to Silver.

So, along with the Celtics, the 17-time NBA champions and top dogs in the East… could the answer for the NBA to rival the NFL be to bring higher-calibre teams to London? Maybe LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers or Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors?

The NFL’s draw to London isn’t the game itself. Although a spectacle, it comes from the fact that they have more time to prepare a party atmosphere in the city’s most iconic streets and landmarks, plus with its mass marketing and PR powerhouses on hand to let the London population of approximately eight million know that they are here. Fans from anywhere and everywhere will flock.

The folks at the NFL are also very smart and know when to kill a moment for the NBA. Hours before the Celtics and Sixers were to step on to the floor, the NFL announced its three 2018 London games that drew great social media interest as well as national coverage on Sky Sports, Britain’s leading sports broadcaster, and for an hour, had more trending tweets than the NBA London game. The NBA is exclusively shown on BT Sport, which is a growing sports channel in the country.

The NBA, of course, can’t throw a party or spend a week promoting their product in London. There is no time for them to do so. Commissioner Silver said it himself, but however to rival the NFL and make the NBA more of a popular and awaited feature each year is to bring the league’s big guns to the O2 Arena.

The Celtics, who beat the Sixers 114-103 to extend their winning streak to seven games provided that mass fanfare, the likes of which have not been seen here since 2011’s first regular season games. Maybe having a genuine powerhouse team is what is needed to keep the London audience interested like they are to the NFL. They made the right move this year to bring the Celtics and Sixers here, no question.