Winning the race - Leicester Riders on the verge of entering the Basketball Champions League
LONDON (Diccon Lloyd-Smeath's Champions League Insider) – When the Basketball Champions League tipped off its inaugural season in 2016, it also opened a door into high-level European basketball for many clubs and leagues that had previously been on the fringes - none more so than the British Basketball League (BBL). Since 2007 - when the Guildford Heat lost all ten games in the ULEB Cup - there has been no British representation in European competitions. With the commencement of the Basketball Champions League, we also saw the start of a race in the BBL, to become the first club to end that drought.
When you observe the speed that tickets to the NBA London games sell out (every year) and then also consider the 6000 fans that watched Lithuanian giants Zalgiris Kaunas, take on Polski Cukier Torun in London in September 2017 - it’s clear to see that the hunger to consume high-level basketball in the UK is as palpable as it’s ever been.
When it comes to teenage participation figures, basketball is the second most popular team sport in the UK and reaches under-represented and under-privileged parts of society that very few other sports can. Until recently, the sport has also been under-represented in terms of media attention. After years of failing to garner attention from the mainstream media, the BBL is now available on the BBC and has also shrewdly aligned itself, with multiple opportunities to view games via the medium of live-streaming - Livebasketball.tv being the primary source. There is some steady momentum building in the game again. Yet, at this point in the journey, the FIBA World Cup Windows are the only opportunity those teenagers get, to watch the best British players, play on British soil. A BBL team entering the Basketball Champions League could have the power to change that and in-turn, help to translate a generation of passion for the sport into viewers and fans of the BBL.
The Leicester Riders are the dominant force in British basketball. This year they won their third consecutive BBL Trophy crown, the Play-Off Finals and the BBL League title - thus becoming back-to-back treble winners. According to Leicester Riders Managing Director, Russell Levenston, the time is right for the Riders to win the race.
“There is never a perfect time,” said Levenston “but we feel confident that the pieces of the puzzle are in the right place and after winning eight trophies in three years, it’s the right time for a new challenge”.
This has clearly not been a snap decision and for good reason - the last three British clubs to enter European competitions all folded for various reasons (primarily financial). Levenston and the Riders have spent the last six years carefully planning and learning what it will take to get in and ultimately stay in.
“When I started in 2007, we put together a plan to build around our community and the passion was to create sustainability and a player pathway," Levenston reflected. "We are now in a position where we have teams winning and competing at the highest level domestically, for men and women, University men and women, male and female academies and a thriving junior programme. Now the vision is to create a sustainable European club. BBL clubs are constantly operating at 110% of capacity, so it’s important to know that we can achieve this without sacrificing any other part of the club going backwards”
A huge part of the ability to build a sustainable club was the development of their own facility and with that, the ability to host high-level basketball events. To anyone reading this in Europe, it may seem strange to hear a professional club talking about developing their own facility but clubs like the Leicester Riders and the Newcastle Eagles are very much the exception, not the rule in this respect.
“The BBL is probably as healthy as it’s been for a long time and maybe the biggest development in that, was clubs building their own facilities. For us, hosting the GB vs Greece game in the World Cup Window opened doors and gave us confidence that we had the ability host a Basketball Champions League game.”
On the court, the preparations have been ongoing as well. In recent years, the Riders have played pre-season games against ACB side Monbus Obradoiro CAB, and the former champions of Belgium, Crelan Okapi Aalstar. At the start of the 2017/18 season, the Riders also recorded two wins in the Czech Republic against BK Decin. These results and the ability to compete with clubs of this ilk, are reasons for optimism but should also be considered with some caution. The shape of a team’s roster can change drastically from pre-season to tip-off at the start of the season and winning in the summer, is a long way from being a reliable predictor of success during the season. What these games have certainly done, is help the Riders build up an experience base of travelling to games on the continent and an expanded network with which to share best practice - in particular sponsorship ideas and building an image of what a competitive roster might look like.
Despite winning the domestic triple this past season, the need to expand the roster is a topic that Levenston and the Riders are acutely aware of.
“We feel we can be competitive now but we will need to be creative with our roster and some of the limitations with imports in the BBL. We will also need to have a deeper roster to manage the challenges of a full domestic season and mid-week, European basketball, especially considering the way we would want to play.”
In terms of playing style and recruitment, the success of clubs like MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg hasn't gone unnoticed. The German club reached the Final Four after starting in the first round of qualifying and played a brand of full-court, up-tempo basketball that could suit a BBL club. The learning curve of playing against European teams that know how to control tempo against teams that want to increase the tempo, could make for fascinating watching.
As in any country, British basketball fans will always identify with home-grown players. The Riders have had strong teams in the past, with a core of British players, including players from their own pathway. The opportunity for young British talent to develop by playing against top level European opponents may not only have positive knock-on effects for the GB national team talent pool, but might also be a vital component in the Rider’s ability to compete on considerably lower budgets.
“We are very proud of our talent pathway and excited by the opportunity this may present to expand on that development pathway. We are also working towards the possibility that we may see some of our stronger British players returning,” said Levenston.
Which players Levenston is referring to isn’t clear, but an interesting parallel to make here, could be the champions AEK. Dusan Sakota is their talismanic captain and also represents Greece in the senior national team. His impact on and off-court for AEK and their fans affection for him, is tough to measure. The closest comparison for a British club would be Dan Clark. Clark is not only close in playing style to Sakota but also potentially in the status and impact he could have on a BBL club. AEK aren’t alone in having home-grown players in key roles. Across the Basketball Champions League you will find clubs with key players that are also part of the senior national team in their country. Whether or not Leicester Riders are in a position to attract British players of the calibre of Dan Clark at this point remains to be seen, but if they are to be competitive in the long-term, they may well need to be.
Before anything though, the Riders will need to qualify for the Regular Season in the Basketball Champions League. Like the aforementioned Ludwigsburg, the chances are Leicester will need to navigate their way through three rounds of qualifying - a big ask. Even if they aren't able to achieve that on the first time of asking, doors could still open into the FIBA Europe Cup - a competition that would also offer very similar development opportunities and help build experience for another attempt next season. Until we see the roster that the Riders are able to compile, we won't know which of those two outcomes might be the more likely.
What is clear though, is that the Riders are taking a holistic approach based on longevity and building on solid foundations that avoid the mistakes of the past - they should be commended for doing so. If there is anything to be learnt from Nick Nurse’s near 20-year journey from BBL coach of the year to the Toronto Raptors Head Coach, it’s that there doesn’t always have to be a shortcut. The Leicester Riders might be winning the race to get a British club back into European basketball but this time, it might be more of a marathon than a sprint.
(photo credit: Leicester Riders)
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