Belfast is in line to become one of the next destinations on the British Basketball League’s map, backed by support from the United States.

A group in the Northern Irish capital has already held talks with BBL officials and, having received encouragement, have begun the process of putting together a formal franchise application.

Brennan (right) believes Belfast can support a BBL team

MVP can reveal that, pending approval from various authorities, Belfast could be a candidate to join the league as early as 2012.

The concept is being driven by the US-NI Sport initiative, a charitable foundation which promotes sporting ties on both sides of the Atlantic.

The organisation – which has former Orlando Magic and Ireland forward Pat Burke on its board – was behind last summer’s invitational tournament in the city, which featured the University of Pittsburgh and England, as well as an Irish select.

“We had 3000 people attend then over two days,” declared Deidre Brennan, one of those leading the bid. “That suggests there is an appetite there.”

Brennan, currently the coach of the Ulster Elks, believes the market is ripe for a fully professional side. With the Irish Superleague reverting to a semi-pro basis in recent years amid financial problems within the domestic game, a BBL team – starting with a clean slate – might have a chance to fill a void.

Northern Ireland currently boasts just one full-time sporting team, ice hockey’s Belfast Giants, who have thrived on drawing a cross-community support which has historically eluded football.

Ulster Elks are one of two semi-pro sides in Belfast

And while the Elks and their long-established rivals Belfast Star have a small devoted following, a brand-new club – potentially playing out of the 7,000-capacity Odyssey Arena – could potentially find its own niche.

“At the moment, we’re trying to see if there is investment around to support it,” Brennan revealed.

“Everyone has seen how successful the Belfast Giants have been and the attraction they are in the city for local people to be entertained.

“It’s the only professional sport available in Northern Ireland. But we don’t see why basketball couldn’t be a major attraction as well.”

BBL sources confirmed that the idea is receiving serious consideration.

“We have spoken to them,” said league chairman Paul Blake.

“We want to expand. London’s obviously top of our list to capitalise on the Olympics and then there’s the likes of Birmingham and Manchester. But Belfast would be another good opportunity.”

There are some logistical hurdles to overcome. It is understood that Basketball Ireland would need to approve the idea, as well as Basketball England who license the BBL on a five-yearly contractual basis.

The idea of a Belfast-based franchise has been floated before, only to fade away. However, with the London Olympics looming – and a drive to capitalise on basketball’s promotional platform there – Brennan argues that there is a need to raise the bar in Northern Ireland.

“Star and ourselves are semi-professional,” Brennan outlines. “We don’t pay anybody to play on the Ulster Elks. We have a scholarship programme which is much more like you’d get at an American college.

“Star has one professional, as do most of the other teams in the Irish Superleague. So the standard’s not the same where you have every player getting paid.

“The BBL would be a step up, a much superior level of competition. And we think there’s a market for that. The higher than standard, the more chance you have of people paying to come along and watch.”

Gareth Maguire from USNI Sport talks about this year’s Belfast Classic Invitational Tournament on Vimeo.

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