Why Has Basketball Never Really Taken Off in the UK?

"Basketball" (CC BY 2.0) by chillihead

It’s one of the great questions of sport. Basketball is huge in many countries around the world but there are even more where it’s barely even made an impact. So, considering that it’s a country that loves all kinds of sport, and where soccer (or football) and cricket have massive followings, it’s remarkable that basketball has been left out in the relative cold in the UK. After all, it’s somewhere not generally known for its great weather and a place where all kinds of events have to be called off because of rain, snow and even strong wind. So, one would imagine that a fast-moving game played indoors would be a natural fit.

But the fact is that even its highest league in the country, the BBL, is far behind the top leagues in other European countries and there are currently no British-born players in the NBA following the retirement of Luol Deng last year.

A number of reasons have been put forward for why the game has failed to take off in quite the same way that other US exports have. For example, online casinos, which have taken their inspiration from Las Vegas-style gaming, are hugely successful in the UK, with Space Casino being a prime example. Its combination of glitz and glamor, as well as a sizeable collection of games, show there’s a real appetite for US-style entertainment. Of course, there are plenty of other examples of the UK not just accepting US culture but positively embracing it, with both McDonald’s and trick-or-treating being cases in point.

It’s been suggested that one of the prime reasons for basketball not capturing the imagination of the Brits is that they are simply not exposed to enough live action. This is understandable because, due to the time difference, most top-level NBA games are played out in the early hours of the morning and, while fans of US sport may stay up to watch an event like the Super Bowl, they won’t for a basketball match. They have to already be fans to do that, after all.

It may be a chicken-and-egg situation, but this lack of exposure to the sport for fans and potential players also means that there is a lack of funding to develop it in any meaningful way. After a poor performance in the 2012 Olympics, the following four years saw only £10 million being provided by Sport England for basketball. What’s more, in 2017 basketball only received £1 million compared with £16.9 million for women’s netball – an investment that paid off quickly with the team’s gold medal success at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and which has led to many new players for the sport. So the problem becomes easy to see. If basketball became more successful it would attract more funding – but it needs a major injection of cash if it’s to develop in any meaningful way.

Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t great, either. Previously, the NBA Global Games had been held very successfully in London’s O2 Arena with the 20,000 tickets selling out quickly. But in March last year, it was announced that the event would be moving to Paris in 2020.

So, although there is clear evidence that the UK is always open to US imports, it seems unlikely that there’s going to be any change in the situation anytime soon. But, as any true fan will tell you, anything is possible, and hoop dreams do sometimes come true.