HEARN’S REDO GIVES BBL NEW LOOK

For those who think a five-point shot is the death of basketball as we know it, Barry Hearn asks you to postpone judgement.

Until tonight, at least, when the inaugural Betway All Stars Basketball Championship is done and dusted and a rare radical makeover for the sport has been put through its paces at London’s 02 Arena.

Powerplays, rolling subs, 12-minute games – hoops: reinvented, featuring the top eight teams in the BBL and a prize pot of £100,000 – of which one quarter will go to the winning side.

Having transformed darts and snooker, and packed a few punches in boxing and elsewhere, Hearn’s Matchroom organisation is taking another punt and it’s no harm, no foul, he proclaims.

“We’re paying prize money. We’re putting it on Sky and on TV around the world which they’ve never had before,” he says. “So the sport is better off – whether that’s a benefit for one year or 20 years, we’ll have to wait and see.

“There will always be traditionalists who vote against. Say in cricket, those in the county game who are against Twenty20. There are plenty who still don’t like it. It’s not that I’m not interested in traditionalists because I need everybody. But I’m much more interested in the casual millennial customer who wants to be entertained and have a great experience.

“Therefore, it encourages me to make changes. I’m sure I’ll make loads of mistakes – I always do – but I’ll learn from them. I’ll either make away or move on but I’ll never stop experimenting because if you do, you go backwards.”

It comes in tandem with a similar venture in netball yesterday which drew on its Fast5 variant which is even closer in philosophy to basketball.

Other innovations this afternoon include a reduction in the number of fouls allowed in a bid to keep the action incessant and enlivening.

And although a number of BBL coaches have privately criticised the tinkering with the traditional rules, Glasgow Rocks captain Kieron Achara claims the event can serve as an ideal tune-up for the new season.

“We’re just going to use it as a chance to compete and to see the competition we’ll be facing when the season starts,” the Great Britain forward. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be giving it our all though. Any exposure for the league is great and hopefully it will bring in new fans to the BBL.”

Boring, Hearn pledges, it will not be.

“That’s our method across all sports – whether it’s been snooker, darts, fishing, pool, even boxing – we try to take away the barriers and make sure it’s digital-related these days,” Hearn proclaims.

“We can have the fun of experimenting and bringing something different to sports, and then listening to people’s comments and seeing if there’s a future.”

Philanthropic entrepreneurship, he would argue. While the extra veneer might not be to everyone’s taste, that each tournament offers hard cash to those involved is a boon.

The BBL has not had a sponsor in years. Its offshoot competitions, only nibbles.

With every sponsorship pound hard to come by in an ever more competitive market, every drop of exposure helps.

“There’s been a tremendous response from people who are not that engaged with the BBL but who are interested because Barry Hearn and Matchroom are now involved,” says the the league’s Commercial Director Bob Hope. “His idea was to make it more interesting – how it will pan out, I don’t know.

“But the positive is we’re on TV and at The 02, the weekend before our season starts. And commercially, when people find out Barry Hearn is involved with us, they ask why? It’s generated interest.”

Enough that it is expected around 10,000 fans will head to East London, one week ahead of the start of the new domestic campaign.

“There’s a lot of money put up but it’s an unknown event,” Hope adds. “Barry’s done his homework. This concept may or may not work well. But I don’t see him coming in and out again. He knows where the league is going and he’s spoken to partners of ours who he’s worked with as well. So it’s going to be interesting to see what the response is.

The impresario will observer, and then appraise. Whether either is the new darts (an undoubted success) or the new bowls (a venture best forgotten) will be determined in the weeks ahead.

“I’d like the players, firstly, to say that was fun,” he says. “I want the crowd to want to come back and to tell their mates about it the next morning. And I want the sponsors and the TV companies to believe it’s good value. Because if I give value, I’m never going to be out of a job.”

This might be a one-off experiment. Or a glimpse into a Hearnesque future where, he signals, a deeper involvement in basketball could be possible.

“Without being big-headed, we’ve enough investment available for any sport we’re interested in. But let’s see how they go and the reaction. The financial outcome won’t be the first consideration – it will be the last one. The jury is still out.

“I could do with bigger crowds. I wanted to sell out The O2. I’m nowhere near. But that’s OK. From small acorns grow great trees.”

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