Published on February 11, 2013 | by Tom Hayward

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Lions putting London on the basketball map

London Lions in action at their new stadium [Andy Sidders]

The National Basketball Association’s visit to London last month was proof of the sport’s popularity in this country.

While the spectacle of live NBA is available only to British fans once a year, professional basketball is now a permanent fixture in the capital, in the shape of the London Lions.

Six days before the New York Knicks took on the Detroit Pistons in front of a sell-out crowd at the O2 Arena, the Lions faced Cheshire Phoenix in front of an attendance that was scarcely bigger than the school of journalists who surrounded Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony in his pre-game media commitments.

Don’t let that fool you, the London Lions are possibly the capital’s best-kept secret, but might not be the case for much longer.

The secret is quickly becoming common knowledge.

To get a better understanding of the Lions, it is important to know their history, all six months of it. The team is still in its infancy, having previously existed as the Milton Keynes Lions.

They were forced to leave Milton Keynes when the lease to their home court was sold and an alternative venue could not be secured.

The club was forced to re-brand and a make the short trip down the M1 to London, where they compete in the British Basketball League (BBL).

Rebuilding

Vince Macaulay, the club’s owner, chief executive and, for this season, its Head Coach, is the man that many people credit with bringing professional basketball back to London. The move has not been  easy, but the signs are positive.

“I’m very happy with the club’s progress on and off the court. It wasn’t until August 2012 that we saw there was an opportunity for us to move to London,” he said.

“We’ve had great support from the rest of the BBL, but we understand that we are the ones that have to go for it and we are the ones that have to make it work.

“We’ve been able to put together a competitive team fairly quickly, and we’ve had crowds of 1,200 people so far.”

Not a huge figure in terms of sporting attendances, but remarkable when taking into account that before August, the only Lions in London were those at the zoo. The club is riding a wave of enthusiasm in its existence and the good news has been in regular supply.

The club is temporarily based at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, but from next season will play home fixtures at the Copper Box, the venue for the handball at last summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Crystal Palace has been a great venue for us ahead but the move to the Copper Box is huge for the club. It’s huge for the BBL and its huge for British basketball.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make sure that a London club can take its rightful spot in a major sport. As a league, we need a London club to be successful and for us to be that club and to have the opportunity to play at the best venue in the country is terrific.”

In terms of sport, there are few cities in the world that can rival London for the variety and the availability of professional teams. That poses problems for the Lions sports teams if they want to push basketball into the capital’s sporting spotlight.

“There are a number of difficulties in terms of the indigenous audience because everyone is predicated on football in the first instance and then there is rugby and cricket.

“But the beauty of being in London is that there are more than eight million people and 27 universities, so there is plenty of opportunity for new fans. It’s a multi-cultural city and a lot of people here come from nations where basketball is the number one sport. So there is a big market for us over here,” says Macaulay.

But tapping into that market is not easy. Fans need to be aware that London Lions exist and are on their way to becoming a huge asset to the BBL. Given time, the club and league’s potential are huge.

The sport must play to its strengths, of which it has many, and one of those strengths needs to be distancing itself from the NBA, if it can, to create its own version of basketball.

Glamour

The NBA’s annual game is a great opportunity for fans to see the game played at the highest level. But its benefits for the BBL will only be seen if the right message is sent and people know that they are two very different spectacles.

The NBA is one of the premier competitions worldwide and it is impossible for the BBL to rival it.

“I’m not 100 per cent sure the NBA can act as a catalyst because the spectacle is not what you’d get on a week-by-week game in the UK. We’re not going to be aiming for 20,000 fans and all the hoopla that comes with it,” explained Macaulay.

“The celebrities that NBA attracts bring basketball to the fore and encourages people to have a look a bit closer to home and see what else is on the ground.

“In Europe, we prefer our sport to be packaged differently, with a little bit more interaction with the spectators. We can create our own style of basketball.

“There are plenty of ways that we can work together to link the two, but it should be clear that the NBA is the Premier League for the sport in the world and that’s quite different from what we offer. But obviously the media attention that it brings is a positive thing for the sport.”

European nations such as Turkey and Spain have strong domestic basketball competitions and are a blueprint that Macaulay believes can be replicated in Britain in the long-term.

“I think there’s no question we can do something like [Spanish and Turkish leagues] that. It was great to see Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Kidd in London because they are NBA legends but did anybody care about the result? I think the answer is probably no,” he said.

“I think what we can do is make them care because we’ve got local players, English players, European players that you can watch week-in, week-out. People you can relate to and I think that’s when you start to get the atmosphere that you get in other leagues around Europe.”

The importance of youngsters being able to relate to their heroes is crucial. The success of British players such as Luol Deng and Joel Freeland, who both ply their trade in the NBA are proof that Britain has the talent. It is now just about getting as many youngsters involved in order to maximise the potential for the British game.

“The different members of the league need to create a professional environment in which the children and youngsters can flourish,” says Macualay.

“One of our missions at the Lions is to give youngsters the opportunity to play at the highest level that they can play. It’s important that they know their talent is enough to propel them and as long as they do the things that professionals do, prepare the way that professionals do, then they can reach the top themselves.

“So it’s important for youngsters to play and understand that there is a pathway in the sport. It’s absolutely inspirational for the young players to be able to engage with those guys and see that deep down they have the same love for the same game.”

The Lions are sitting in eighth spot out of 12 in the BBL, but you get the sense that it was never about league position this season. This season was about surviving, consolidating and building. No matter what the team achieves on the court over the next few months, the Lions already have an eye on the future. And it seems the future is very bright.

“People are excited. The feel of the Olympics is definitely still around and when we talk about the Copper Box, people’s eyes are wide open. Partners and sponsors are keen to be involved in that, fans are desperate to come and watch a game there, and of course players are desperate to play there,” says Macualay.

“What we have to do is to make sure we have an approach to selling tickets and an approach to schools and communities that would like to be part of this project. It’s a multi-pronged attack and something that we have already started as we move on to playing our first game in August, September time.”

The Plan

“I’m absolutely excited about the potential for our sport in this country. The comforting thing for me and anybody else involved in basketball is that we fell in love with the game once we’d seen it. We believe that people will feel similar once they’ve come and seen the passion and level of athleticism on show,” Macualay says.

“If they see people that care about the sport, then they begin to care themselves. I’ve got no qualms in my mind that we can generate that snowball effect that can get things moving.”

It is important that Macaulay and the Lions do not sit back and admire their good work just yet. What they have achieved so far is astonishing, but the months ahead are vital in shaping the future for the Lions and the BBL. If they continue in the same vein, it will not be long before the Lions are roaring.

“We want to get a solid audience of 3,000 or 4,000 fans at every game. We want to be able to attract the best players to London, whether they are English players, European players or other players, so that we can have the opportunity to compete against European teams.” Macauley explained. In summary, he is unequivocal:

“The support of the people of London is going to be critical. I think if we can turn the switch on that we have a massive opportunity to make basketball huge in London.”

 

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