opinion

The BBL - A duopoly worth celebrating or worth fixing?

Back in May, Leicester Riders beat Newcastle Eagles 84–63 in the BBL playoff final. In doing so, the riders claimed 3 of the 4 trophies up for grabs that season.

Over the past 4 years, these 2 teams have combined for 13 of the titles on offer. Over the past 13, they have won a collective total of 33. To say that the pairing is dominant is an understatement. This lack of competitiveness across the league is a worry for the development of British Basketball, but more than that, it also makes for relatively unexciting television viewing. 

For the first season in recent memory, last season the BBL was televised on the BBC, via the BBC Sport website and red button. The move was considered a coup for the league by many, but over the course of the season, the on-screen product has failed to live up to expectations. 

Of the 23 televised games, 14 have been blowouts. Of those, the closest was a 91-74 triumph by Worcester over the Manchester. With so much garbage time, it’s hardly a great advert for the league. With yesterdays announcement of live streaming on Facebook to a huge audience via Unilad, we must look at what can be done to improve the product. 

 

In any league or sport, there are dominant teams that often hold their peer-leading position for a period of time. The Warriors and Cavs have enjoyed something of a duopoly in the NBA for the last few years, and before that it was the Heat, the Lakers and in the nineties the Bulls. 

But in the NBA, like in many other sporting cases, dominance very much comes in waves…

The Warriors came out of nowhere, a perennial make-up-the-numbers team until the Splash Brothers came to town. The Heat and Lakers teams disintegrated into lottery-level franchises after their respective title periods, and since the Jordan-era came to an end in 1998, the Bulls have made it to the eastern conference finals just once. 

Great teams are built around transcendent superstars; but superstars have a half-life, and each of these teams burned out at some point. In the BBL, at least for the past 15 years, dominance has been perennial. 

So what are the reasons for this dominance? Is it something we should aspire to fix? And if so, how do we do that?

What is it that underpins the duopoly?

  • The Eages and Riders both value consistency: they tend to retain core players and build around them with shrewd acquisitions year on year. This consistency engenders familiarity, and a culture of standards that are created by benchmarking aspirations and performance from one group of players to the next. 
    Quite clearly, a revolving door approach to team-building carries greater risk (in terms of not knowing what you will get) and creates huge challenges in maintaining a culture over a period of time. There are few consistent touchstones to benchmark by.  
  • Budgets are important, and thanks to their stability and thoughtful owners, these two clubs also benefit from bigger budgets than most teams in the league. (However, this factor is clearly useful but not determinative: the likes of Plymouth Raiders are reported to have one of the BBL’s largest budgets, but continue to suffer disappointing season after disappointing season, finishing the 2016–17 season in 9th place.)
  • Importantly, it’s the mentality, philosophy, and long term thinking that has served the top two clubs so well.
  • Fan engagement – valuing their fans and creating a tribe. The value of Tribe-building has been thrust into public consciousness in recent years. Tribalism is endemic to sport, but it’s not automatic; it requires the ingredients being in place. In the NBA, it’s actively encouraged and supported – think the Dubs’ ‘Strength in Numbers’ or the Cavs ‘Protect the Land.’ 
    In the Celtics run to the title in 2008, the importance of tribe-building was blatant, promoted and specific. Pushed by head coach Doc Rivers, the celtics adopted the maxim ‘ubuntu’, a Nguni-expression that means “a person is a person through other people” and often summarised as "I am because we are".Thanks to the Eagles’ and Riders’ efforts at fan engagement, they have also been able to develop passionate, supportive and (crucially) returning fanbases. Look around the BBL and you will quickly realise that’s not a common trick.

Dov Rivers' Celtics

  • Access to venues for practice and games, and access to ancillary game-night revenue has long been a huge problem for teams in the BBL. Both Newcastle and Leicester have enjoyed consistency with their playing venues, and more importantly, with the opening of the Eagles’ new arena on the horizon, they will both own their own home. This demonstrates the long term thinking of their visionary operators. And ultimately it means then should generate significantly more revenue; which is likely to only grow the gulf between these two teams and the rest of the league.
  • Success … breeds success, that’s for sure. Just as you become accustomed to losing (see exhibit A: Manchester Giants), so you also become accustomed to winning. That becomes the expectation. Anything else is a disappointment. And this cycle of success supports continued high performance.
  • Strong recruitment. Multiple successes, and some failures. But generally an ability to find good players. Typically, particularly in recent years, they don’t just pick up BBL players from elsewhere.
  • Strong coaching. Both teams are lucky enough to enjoy this. And when you find a good coach, support and back them. Ie. don’t do a Cheshire with Coffino or hire a non-coach like Plymouth.

leicester riders vs newcastle eagles

Is it their own strength, or the weakness of others?

The Eagles and Riders benefit from strong, long-term thinking and a culture of consistency and fan engagement. But also, and frustratingly for supporters of both the British game and the BBL as a whole, these two teams also benefit from the chaos and/or inconsistency that continue to dog many of the other teams in the league. When there is a chink in the armour of the BBL frontrunners, invariably there are no credible contenders ready to take advantage of the opportunity.

All of this leaves us with a BBL that is comparable in competitiveness to football’s La Liga (a Barcelona/Real Madrid duopoly) and the Greek A1 (basketball) or Superleague (football), both of which have been pretty much a straight fight between Olympiacos/Panathinaikos for the past 20 years.

Whilst 2 step forward, the rest flounder

It comes as no surprise then, that it’s these two teams that have made the first moves to take control of their own arenas, and no surprise that their owners are some of the most open and vocal about their hopes for the British game, as well as the problems that it currently faces.

Both Eagles MD Paul Blake and Riders Chairman Kevin Routledge have been featured speaking about these very topics on the excellent Hoopsfix podcast with Sam Neter, and all signs point to the teams that they run being the two to bring European basketball back to the UK.

And whilst they continue to lack consistency and financial control, the other teams will continue to struggle to keep pace.

On paper, London Lions have a great base to work from — a hugely populous location, a fantastic facility, and a position in one of the world’s great sporting and commercials hubs. However, the club has proved unable to deliver a product that basketball fans will engage with and pay for (not just London; other teams too). 

Even with these opportunities on their doorstep, and with the benefit of modern media and online methods of distribution and fan engagement, the Lions have been unable to capitalise. The ‘Olympic effect’ and the legacy (and facilities) of the Olympic Park seem to have been almost entirely unused as a platform for growing the sport.

Why? Because both BBL teams and the BBL itself don’t seem to think about or treat the game as a consumer product. To move forward, they must.

What is the BBL selling?

Perhaps the most crucial factor to the lack of success of basketball in Britain is the continued struggles of those in power to turn the game into a commercial proposition. The playbook and paradigm in this respect has already been set out by the likes of the NBA and the Premier League, or on a smaller scale, events such as WTA end of year finals tournaments, or the off-season International Champions Cup in the US and Singapore. 

The game itself is not enough to constitute a scaleable, high-volume offering. Particularly so, given that the BBL competes with not just the same sport being played in multiple other countries (some with far greater visibility and quality), but also with every other sport as entertainment, and if you take the competitive landscape on a wider level, with every other entertainment gig out there.

The BBL can’t compete on quality of play. If it tries to do so, it will lose. We all know that.

So engagement must come from something else. Or multiple other something elses. For that, we can take guidance from other sports.

An idea as to what they might be is a topic for tomorrow's blog.

By Sam Hall

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on it. Stay tuned for the second part tomorrow. I want to support the development of the game in Britain, hence why I write.


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