The future of competitive British basketball is in doubt because of a lack of funding despite being the second most popular team sport played by teenagers.
British basketball is arguably at its lowest ebb in a decade and currently receives just £10million in funding over four years from Sport England and nothing from UK Sport. Funding was cut in March because of a perceived poor performance at London 2012 despite the world’s premier basketball league, America’s National Basketball Association (NBA), appearing committed to growing the sport in the United Kingdom. The NBA has hosted six regular-season games in London in recent years and helps run four youth leagues in three cities.
The game remains popular among young people, with 218,000 boys and girls aged 14-16 playing basketball once a week. That makes it the second most popular team sport behind football, according to a 2014 UK Sport survey into participation, with half of those kids coming from black and minority ethnic communities.
The level of funding basketball receives stands in stark contrast to that received by more expensive, restrictive sports such as rowing (£32.6m) and sailing (£25.5m) because of the way UK Sport divides its pot of money.
Rowing and sailing, for example, receive high funding in spite of lower participation because at the elite level British athletes are medal winners. The policy has undoubtedly improved Team GB, which climbed from an embarrassing 36th in the medal table at Atlanta 1996 to third at London 2012.
However, only 75,000 teenagers row at least once a week, which is about a third of the number who play basketball. For all over-14s participating at least once a month, the most recent survey (October 2014-September 2015) shows that basketball (367,500) has almost as many playing as rowing and sailing combined (372,500).
One example of the effect of lack of funding has on Team GB was seen during the qualifying for EuroBasket 2015. The veteran player Kieron Achara revealed that a preparation camp had to be cancelled because it cost too much. Also, the team, by nature very tall, had to travel on a budget airline with cramped leg-room and were forced to sleep in tiny beds at the event, living on “£15 a day”. Team GB were eliminated after losing their four games against Bosnia-Hezergovina and Iceland.
The funding was cut because Team GB basketball’s performance at the Olympics was perceived as poor – the men and women’s teams won just one of 10 games. And now Team GB basketball will not be represented in Rio De Janeiro this summer after failing to qualify.
However, Britain’s last remaining NBA player, Luol Deng, argues that Team GB’s performances are not as bad as they look. And speaking to the Independent on Sunday in November, he lamented a missed opportunity for continued growth of the sport.
“[Missing Rio is] really upsetting for me,” said Deng (above), who plays for the Miami Heat. “Last time we only won one game but people don’t realise the progress we made. Four years before we were in Group C, the worst teams in Europe, before that we didn’t have a team. In the Olympics we played [silver medallists] Spain and lost by a point.
“All people did was look at results, but we were losing to the best in the world. We did that in four years.”
Reaching his arm to full stretch he added: “The US are way up here, Spain are a bit lower and all the other teams are here – we were right there. But they just looked at the score. It hurts a lot. I really feel we missed an opportunity.
“The potential is there. I tried my hardest to help the growth of the game, I just feel more could be done. A lot of kids love basketball, but as they get older there’s nowhere to turn. They stop playing.
“I always say that if there’s a kid that’s really good then get him out of [the UK] and bring him to the US. That’s not me trying to take him away from his family, but to give him a better chance of reaching his dream. If I’d have stayed in the UK for longer then came [later] and went to a smaller school, then my path would have been much different.”
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