Professional basketball in Britain faces a struggle to survive without government support, British Basketball League chairman Sir Rodney Walker says.
The BBL and its clubs rely heavily on game-day income rather than broadcast revenue, and the current lockdown has seen their finances all but dry up.
Walker says the BBL has taken advantage of the government furloughing scheme but “without the ability to open up and play in front of spectators, we’re in a locked-in situation that could become terminal if it went on too long”.
He added: “I’m not without hope that sufficient progress will be made medically to allow the government to think that they can open up and allow spectators to return, and once that’s happened then basketball will be through the crisis, but without the ability to attract spectators, it’s going to be a struggle for us.
“Sports like Premier League football are blessed with huge amounts of cash behind them both from broadcasters and sponsors. The problem for smaller sports like us and rugby league is very different because [we] don’t have those reserves.”
Walker confirmed the league – along with other sports – has made representations to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to secure further support from the government.
“We are one of a very small number of sports who do not receive any routine financial support from either Sport England or UK Sport, and it is those sports who are in greatest need,” he said.
The BBL’s showpiece event, the play-off finals, was due to take place in May at the O2 Arena and would have provided a significant source of income for the league.
The loss of fixtures has been also been severely felt by those clubs that own their own venues, such as Leicester, Newcastle and Worcester.
And Leicester Riders chairman Kevin Routledge says ensuring the survival of the club will be very challenging.
“Having our own venue means we can do so much more in terms of talent development, community work and so on. That’s the upside,” he said.
“The downside is when you have literally no money coming in and you still have your overheads – you can’t turn the financing requirements off. We are now sitting here with the biggest overheads and with money going out the door at a higher rate than the other clubs.”
Newcastle Eagles are the league’s most successful club having won 25 domestic trophies since 2005, and before the lockdown were regularly attracting crowds of almost 3,000 at their new home and on course for a record-breaking year commercially.
However, as their chairman Paul Blake says, they “aren’t just about the professional men’s team”. The club also features in the Women’s British Basketball League, has a successful wheelchair team and are heavily invested in the local community with thousands of young people accessing their venue every week before coronavirus hit.
And many within the sport are keen to emphasise that BBL clubs have a much wider impact than what you see on the court.
“At Leicester we’re working on radicalisation prevention on the east side of the city with the Home Office, we’re working with the police and crime commissioner on anti-knife crime messaging and initiatives,” Routledge added. “We’re busy doing work in the community every day.”
Walker hopes the sport’s place in the community can sway the government into giving it a lifeline.
“The government’s own agency, Sport England, has identified basketball as the second most popular sport among the BAME community, second only to football. It’s way ahead of other sports like rugby, tennis, golf, so it is a very important sport, particularly in urban areas,” he said.
“If basketball at the top level suffers, then basketball at the grassroots suffers.
“The best-case scenario is that the government recognises the importance of basketball, not only as a professional sport but for its impact at grassroots level.
“If we don’t get any support then it may well be that we get a number of clubs unable to sustain themselves over the next three months, and that would have a serious impact on the league if we can’t sustain the 11 clubs that we’ve got.”