British race to the Basketball Champions League
The arrival of the Basketball Champions League this season has not only caused excitement in mainstream Europe, but also raised some eyebrows in the United Kingdom.
With no British team having played in European competition since Guildford Heat’s ill-fated attempt in 2007 in the ULEB Cup that almost bankrupt the club, the continent has been awaiting for the next team from the British Isles to make a foray.
And the Basketball Champions League seems like the perfect next step for a top tier British Basketball League (BBL) club, but who will be first?
Leicester Riders and Newcastle Eagles, the two powerhouse clubs that have dominated professional basketball in Great Britain over the past decade, are the most likely candidates and have both made public statements of intent to get into Europe.
However, more recently, the capital’s only professional side, London Lions, have also declared their interest in the Basketball Champions League. All three teams have reiterated the importance of having a British team playing in Europe.
“It is absolutely crucial that the BBL do this,” said London Lions’ Chief Executive Vince Macaulay.
The BBL has recently announced they’ve come to Heads of Terms on a ten year license renewal with the British Basketball Federation, whilst the league has also signed a multi-year deal with FIBA rights-holder, Perform, to show games on Livebasketball.tv this season, along with an agreement with the BBC for games to be broadcast online.
“I think it's the next step,” said Newcastle Eagles Managing Director Paul Blake on competing in the Basketball Champions League.
“There have been some big moves forward for the league in recent weeks and development in this area will help us to gauge and market the true position of the BBL in Europe, rather than relying on opinion.”
The Leicester Riders opened their own purpose built basketball facility in early 2016, one of the few in the country, whilst Newcastle Eagles have planning permission approved for plans for their own in 2017.
Meanwhile, getting a team into Europe is no small task and with a history of financial turmoil of British teams trying to make the jump, Riders’ Chairman Kevin Routledge has emphasised the ability to do it sustainably.
“There are numerous potential barriers if you want to compete sustainably, and improve year on year,” he said.
“For example, you need to build a mid-week basketball market; we note in some places in Europe, the support is not necessarily as good for European club competitions, as for the domestic competitions.
“There are implications for squad size, travel, for playing in BBL competitions, type of sponsors, marketing, level of medical support, and more.
“All need to be considered and we are currently doing a detailed review so that we better understand all the implications.”
Both the Riders and Eagles have been testing their competitiveness with European sides for the past couple of years, hosting their own pre-season tournaments.
Riders have faced the likes of ACB side Obradoiro CAB, and former champions of Belgium, Crelan Okapi Aalstar, whilst Eagles have faced teams including current Basketball Champions League side Bakken Bears, registering a win.
London Lions have also dipped their toe in the water, suffering a two point loss to Basketball Champions League side Oostende in pre-season last year, and taking on Polish side Asseco Gydynia this year, going down by three.
Macaulay said: “I think we could be competitive right away but we definitely need to strengthen from a physical standpoint for those rigours.”
“We have shown we can compete against teams playing in the Basketball Champions League and FIBA Europe Cup,” Blake enthused.
“Our challenge will be to add depth to our squad to cope with the travel commitment and the potential of playing 3 games a week. This requires additional finance, which our new building will help us realise.”
Leicester’s Routledge is equally optimistic, adding:
“We have a pretty good idea with our current squad we could be reasonably competitive in Europe on any given night; we have seen that from our pre-season games and from those of other clubs in recent years including Newcastle.
“That is not just our view but that of experienced commentators like Mark Clark who know the European club game very well. But the challenge will be to do so over a season campaign and to address the potential knock on effects on the BBL competitions. So we are still assessing what the implications of a European campaign would be on the overall success of the club, so we don’t jump in blind.”
With all three teams making significant strides towards the step up to Europe, it is clear that a British team competing in the Basketball Champions League is a case of when, not if.
Image Credit: Joe Pinchin/Leicester Riders