By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – British basketball is a “sleeping giant” with the potential to become the biggest market outside the NBA, according to the vice chairman of a seven million pound U.S. investment firm ( $9.22 million) in sports.
After decades of false dawns, underinvestment and untapped potential, Miami-based 777 Partners believes its partnership can finally raise the profile of a sport that, in terms of participation, is second only to soccer in the world. UK.
In December, 777 Partners took a 45% stake in the British Basketball League, setting itself the ambition to close the gap and eventually overtake the professional leagues of Spain and Australia.
“We generally think that the commerciality of basketball outside of the NBA hasn’t caught up to the international level. And so we think there’s a huge opportunity,” Lenz Balan, vice president of 777, told Reuters this week.
“It’s a huge market, a sleeping giant and we’re kind of comforted to see other groups doing it successfully, whether it’s the NBL in Australia or the Bundesliga.”
The British sporting landscape is dominated by football, rugby and cricket, leaving basketball for crumbs.
While there is a huge following for the NBA in the UK and cheap sport recognized as a catalyst for good among disadvantaged populations, the 10-franchise British Basketball League receives little exposure.
Balan believes it’s down to a lack of investment, not appetite, and that a new generation of fans and talent can be hooked by a thriving domestic league if marketed properly.
“I think there is definitely room for another sport. There is a latent demand, it has just been massively underfunded by the private and public sectors,” he said.
“On the ground it’s a compelling product and I think the core of what we’re going to do over the next two years is to grow the digital audience.
“Then it’s about hiring the best in class who match our ambitions for British basketball. I think it’s realistic that BBL can be as big as any league outside of the UK. NBA.
The British Basketball League was established in 1987 and flourished in the 1990s, but has since struggled to attract investment with abandoned clubs.
While matches are shown live by UK broadcaster Sky Sports, the league currently has no title sponsors and cities such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Nottingham are not involved.
Only champions Leicester Riders and Newcastle Eagles play in bespoke basketball stadiums.
Kevin Routledge, who was instrumental in forming the BBL and its director, says the 777 investment can be a ‘silver bullet’ for gambling in Britain, helping to improve facilities, courses for players and exploit a lucrative digital marketplace.
“We invest in the league as a sort of leverage to then drive investment into the clubs,” he told Reuters.
“It’s the first time we’ve done this. This is the first time we have done this with private equity. I think it will be successful because we are moving in the right direction, rather than just pouring money into clubs and crossing our fingers.
Routledge, a Canadian, says basketball has suffered like many indoor sports, but the Leicester Riders are the model, playing their games at the 3,000 capacity Morningside Arena.
“There’s not a great commercial tradition in the UK for indoor sport, we’ve never invested in facilities. What’s happened since then is Leicester, Newcastle, we’ve built our own arenas, against all odds,” he said.
Both Sheffield and Bristol have new venues in the works.
“Now we are developing a sustainable model where we control the site and can consider other events to support the site,” he added.
While Routledge says there is still some way to go before the BBL can compete with the burgeoning domestic leagues in Spain, Japan and Australia, Balan is confident Britain can become the destination of choice for fans and players outside of the NBA.
“With the right investment, commercially the BBL will improve and more and more British star players will decide to return to play at home,” he said.
($1 = 0.7592 pounds)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)