IF YOU are lucky enough to be among the 20,000 or so witnessing the NBA’s dazzling roadshow tonight at the O2 then you are probably either a celebrity or quick out of the blocks. Tickets for the match between the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks sold out faster than ever – a sign, NBA chiefs believe, of basketball’s burgeoning popularity on these shores.
For the first time Britain is now the NBA’s biggest market for merchandise outside of the United States, while UK Facebook likes have tripled over the last year. Such growth has prompted the NBA to relocate its London EMEA headquarters to a bigger office in the West End and fuelled the belief that, in time, the sport can be second only to football in this country.
“The world is becoming more global and the future for global sports is extremely strong. The two that I see as truly global are football and basketball. So for me basketball has all the attributes to become the true second sport in the UK,” Ben Morel, the NBA’s vice-president and managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, tells City A.M.
“It’s a simple sport to practice – you just need a hoop; you can play by yourself, with two people, three people – and very simple to understand. When will that happen? As fast as possible, but that’s what I truly believe.”
Basketball has faced an uncertain domestic future after Sport England withdrew its funding 12 months ago, but a partial reprieve in November and projects such as the academy run by British NBA All Star Luol Deng, with support from the NBA, in Brixton have injected a measure of fresh momentum.
Despite the increasing popularity of the now-annual O2 spectaculars, attended last year by Sir Paul McCartney, Cara Delevingne and a host of Premier League footballers, Morel plays down talk of staging further regular-season games here, as the NFL steadily has. “At this stage, no. We are very happy with one game, the demand is fantastic. It requires heavy logistics, so we are very happy with one,” he says.
A London franchise, like the one planned by the NFL, is a more credible prospect, though only as part of a dedicated European division of the NBA likely to also include teams from Spain, France, German and Turkey. A 20-year timescale was mooted in 2013 and, while he says there are “no immediate plans to announce anything”, Morel believes the requisite demand and facilities are slowly manifesting.
“We’ve always said we need two things for a division to happen: the building of arenas of a standard to justify the NBA level of investment, and fan affinity,” Morel says. “Buildings are getting built, the O2 has paved the way, you’ve got buildings now in Berlin, the Bercy arena being refurbished in Paris to elevate its standard, so things are going in the right direction.”
Expansion of top sports leagues is not a one-way street from the US to UK, though, with the Premier League repeatedly floating the idea of staging fixtures abroad. Morel believes English football’s top flight has all the ingredients to emulate their export success, but insists any matches taken overseas would have to be competitive, regular-season games – as tonight’s is – rather than mere exhibition friendlies.
“Absolutely. They see it: the clubs are touring Asia, the US, the Middle East etc, so we like to see people applying the same strategies,” he says. “[Regular-season games are] as close as it gets. It’s extremely authentic. At the same time you need to be able to recreate that atmosphere and a building that is up to the standards, which is why London is such a fantastic host.”
English football has faced calls to apply stricter checks on those involved in the game amid the furore over former Wales striker Ched Evans’s attempts to resume his career after serving two and a half years for rape. The NBA proved decisive when it faced a similar crisis last year, banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and fining him $2.5m (£1.6m) following a racism storm, and Morel believes sports organisations have a moral duty to vet participants.
“There is an absolute responsibility, given the importance that sport has in today’s world, that sport organisations be the role models that they should be. So we apply a clear zero-tolerance policy,” he says. “I’m not going to comment on what other leagues do, but it’s very important to take swift action and not leave anything for interpretation. You can’t be praising that you’re popular around the world if you’re not a global role model as well; those two things go hand in hand.”
The Milwaukee Bucks take on the New York Knicks as part of NBA Global Games London 2015 at the O2 tonight. The game is live on BT Sport 1 and NBA League Pass.
NBA GLOBAL GAMES
■ Tonight’s is the fifth regular-season NBA game to be played at the O2. All have been sell-outs
■ It also marks the culmination of the NBA’s Global Games series of seven regular-season matches staged in six different countries outside America, also including Germany, Turkey, China, Brazil and Mexico
■ NBA chiefs say there are no plans to increase the number of regular-season games in London, despite tickets selling faster than ever