LICENCE TO CHANGE?

The British Basketball League has a new ten-year operating licence. But what does it mean?

The accord struck with the British Basketball Federation has turned the microscope on whether the professional game sits in the UK – and where it hopes to go.

We spoke to those involved to cut through the corporate speak and look at where the impact (or not) might come.

– What does the licence say it will bring in?
A better league via better clubs, an improved product on and off the club and smoother player pathways – all of which, in turn, fertilise the grassroots and the Great Britain national teams.

To quote the factsheet provided by the BBF and BBL, there will be evaluations of progress after four, seven and the final ten-year period of the agreement – with scrutiny focused on the following areas.

Player Welfare & Remuneration
Minimum salary level introduced, with requirements on individual player payments and average squad salary
Each club to have contracted access to specialist physiotherapy and urgent care, with physiotherapist for all training sessions and games

Community & Player Pathways
Minimum of four under-age teams in local and national competitions, two of which should be female. Each club to establish partnership with a university and a college academy. Each club to invest at least £75,000 per annum into their player pathway
Venues (Within defined periods)
Each venue to have a wooden, clean court
Each club to be long-term anchor tenants at their chosen venue
Capacity to be increased over the medium and longer term

Commercial
Targets set on turnover, season tickets and corporate hospitality facilities
No-one we’ve spoken to quite understands the university/college partnership. For one, there’s no obligation on such an institution to do a link with a basketball team (lovely and financially generous though it is in Worcester, that’s an exception that doesn’t prove any rule).

And there are wildly differing attitudes to wanting to set-up under-age teams. Some clubs do it already, some do a great job of supporting youth basketball without stepping on the toes of local developmental teams, others view their role as purely providing a professional, commercially-viable, entertainment product. Expect some conflict, and tears, here.

– What does the annual fee paid to the BBF involve?
Essentially, the federation has now made clear that the licence to operate the top flight is a business arrangement, rather than a simple accord. It will work out around £8,000 per team, although the total bill can be paid as a block out of any central league revenue rather than as a set fee for each franchise.

The sum was, insiders say, the most contentious part of the negotiations which were led largely by Leicester Riders’ Kevin Routledge and Lisa Wainwright from the BBF. The governing body’s initial request of several hundred-thousand pounds annually was rejected en masse. A counter-offer of £73,000 ended up being close to the final sum after talks were briefly broken off. Although at least one club owner told me “we could have just gone rogue and refused to pay anything – I’m not sure what they (the BBF) could have done then.”

Ultimately, peace has broken out, for now. But the initial amount is to increase over the ten years. “An escalator has been built in which means an element of profit is built in,” said BBF chair Ian Curryer said. “So it’s in both our interests to grow the league.

“Because the way the floor will grow, there will be small incremental increases. But it is potentially much larger should the sport become more attractive because there is a net share of profit built in.”

– Where does the idea of increasing to 20-22 clubs come from?

On one hand, this is a ridiculous punt in the dark for a league that has lost and gained franchises on a regular basis and still cannot find anyone to put a functioning professional team in Birmingham, Liverpool or Nottingham, to cite but a few (one could add north/south/west London, for good measure).

But this is not a licence for the immediate, Curryer said, and there are some radical ideas behind the apparent madness.

“It might take us the full ten years to get to an expanded league. What we recognise are three principles for sport the UK. Firstly, people love an expanded opportunity to travel round and play against each other. The number of clubs is important because otherwise you end up with ice hockey – playing the same teams across the season.

“Secondly, we think there are places to develop new franchises. We look primarily across all the urban centres. You look at places like London and how many clubs might be sustainable. We looked at places like Manchester. And moving towards an expanded league isn’t something we can do today but we’re looking to project across a ten-year period.

“Thirdly, followers of sport in the UK love a promotion and relegation battle. The thought of an expanded league is that you could move to two leagues – and an opportunity to move between them. That’s a concept we’d want to explore. It’s not a definite but we’d see how that develops. But increasing the size increases the turnover and increases the popularity. That’s fundamentally thinking ten years down the line.”

Clubs in the EBL – and possibly the Scottish league or Irish league – will be targeted for help to make the next leap. “It’s a statement of our ambition of where we want to be in ten years time,” Lions owner Vince Macaulay said. “And how we help other clubs to bridge the gap into the BBL.”

– Will we still have the current teams involved?
This is where it starts to get really interesting.

Look at a few key criteria. Franchise governance, venue size, commercial operation. All of which will be reviewed by a Franchise Committee where only one of the four members will come from the BBL itself.

Throw out a few names: Cheshire Phoenix, Leeds Force, Manchester Giants – all of whom, on different metrics, arrive with strong caveats over their fitness for purpose.

By the end of 2017, the league has been told to present a two-year business plan that will not only show how they develop en masse but how they will hold their own teams to account – even before the BBF consider intervention.

“At the top end, we’d expect clubs to be playing in 5,000+ arenas,” said Curryer. “We’d expect all clubs to move to 2,500 from the moment. Baseline, clubs need to pull in crowds of 1-2000 quite soon. That’s going to be really challenging for a number of clubs. But, if this is a marketable product, you can’t ask them to market games played in front of a couple of hundred people in a gym.”

In theory, the next review will come in 2021. But it’s understood that there is no minimum date beyond next summer where teams can be expelled if they are deemed to be lost causes.

Already, there is a pushback on that front. “Do we really believe they will let the BBL shrink to just six clubs meeting the targets?” one club official told me.

But on that argument, we can evaluate if the BBF has real teeth if turkeys will still be allowed to vote for Christmas.

Main pic: Mansoor Ahmed

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