By Alessandro Sansica and Seb Floyd: In a football-obsessed country, establishing basketball in the UK consumer consciousness can be a difficult task, but the NBA and Pitch are working hard to do just that.
25 years after the first-ever NBA Game in London, the NBA returned to the capital last week and treated a sold-out crowd to an exceptional show, with two of the next decade’s most probable title contenders taking on each other at The O2 Arena as part of the NBA London Game 2018. The game, part of a global initiative to help expand the NBA’s reach beyond the North American borders, pitted the Boston Celtics against the Philadelphia 76ers and gave fans the opportunity to watch some of the most exciting players of the league in action, with four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving up against young and emerging talents such as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
The highly anticipated clash kept its promise to be the best game that London has seen. The two teams, who combine for 20 NBA Championships, put on a stunning show that UK fans will remember for a long time, with the Boston Celtics completing an exciting comeback after trailing the 76ers by as many as 22 points.
A testament to the NBA’s commitment to help basketball grow on this side of the pond, the game marked the league’s eighth regular-season game in London and proved once again how the popularity of basketball in this country is on the rise. Tickets sold out in less than an hour after going on sale, while more than 300 international media were in attendance to live report on the game and build-up. 270,000 people chose to watch the game live for free on BT Sport’s Facebook page and the Financial Times has estimated that the game created a global broadcast audience of 330m (vs 350m of Champions League Final 2017), highlighting the huge potential of the league to reach a global audience while opening up commercial opportunities for brands and partners that want a piece of the action. As you’d expect for an event which was the hottest ticket in town, each year the game attracts an increasingly stellar list of NBA-loving celebrities and sporting stars. And this year was no different, with the likes of Chelsea star Eden Hazard, legendary former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Tinie Tempah all watching the action from courtside.
The success of this year’s game was certainly helped by the stature of the two teams competing and the players that came in tow, showing that the NBA mean business when it comes to bringing basketball over to the UK. Commercial activations also saw London awash with basketball-themed excitement leading into the game, with presenting partner Nike and fellow partners such as Tissot and Muller all activating around the game with range of events and product launches.
So after bringing the Eastern Conference leaders to town, where does the NBA go next? NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has a plan.
During a recent interview with the Evening Standard, Silver said that hosting the NBA All-Star Game in London is something the NBA “would love to do” but admitted that the logistics would be difficult. Hosting the NBA All-Star Game, a marquee event in the NBA calendar which sees the best players from both the Eastern and Western Conferences go head-to-head in an exhibition game, may prove to be particularly fruitful for the NBA, as crowds would flock from all over the world to watch the NBA superstars perform.
Another way in which the NBA are trying to grow the league in the UK is through the Jr. NBA – a partnership between the NBA and Basketball England that has created a competitive league for boys and girls aged between 11 and 12. Recently it has been announced by Commissioner Adam Silver that the Jr. NBA league will be expanded in the UK from the current five leagues to 20 leagues by 2020, a move that highlights the NBA’s commitment to growing the sport in the UK and improving basketball talent at a grassroots level.
This new wave of investment in basketball in the UK highlights a growing commitment from the NBA to develop the game on these shores and add to the some 337,000 people that shoot hoops at least once a month (according to Sport England figures).
It will be a tall order to top this year’s NBA London game for prestige – but it will be exciting to see what the NBA pull out of the bag. Roll on 2019!