kobe_kids_competition_568It’s time basketball started selling itself, argues Iain Roberts.

British Basketball’s had some bad news.  The sport in England is getting a small funding increase from Sport England, but there’s no money available for GB’s Rio medal hunt in 2016 – not one penny – and that has to hurt.

Some are complaining about it – and they may be right – but given the limited pot of money available across all sports, I’d be surprised if anything changed.

The question for me is what happens next?  My perspective on this is probably a little different to most.  I don’t play basketball, and I don’t coach either (there’s a team out there who should be eternally grateful for that).  I’m a basketball dad.  Like thousands of other parents up and down the country, I turn up to watch the games, pay the subs, wash the kit, act as (increasingly ineffective) opposition for one-on-one training in the garden and get more annoyed with referees than I have any good reason to do (sorry guys – you do a great job, honest!).

I’m lucky enough to live within thirty minutes of three local teams, and I get to see Manchester Giants, Manchester Magic and Stockport Falcons playing on a regular basis. And I’m the councillor responsible for sport at Stockport Council.  Stockport supplied twenty Olympians and Paralympians in 2012, bringing back nine medals, and if that wasn’t enough we’re home to John Amaechi – all things we’re very proud of.

It seems to me that English basketball is missing a trick.  Walk around almost any area in the country and you’ll see basketball hoops in gardens and on driveways.  Councils up and down the land are building Multi-User Games Areas – MUGAs.  They cover different sports but the two that seem to be absolutely standard are football and basketball.

Basketball’s a cheap sport to play: there’s no expensive equipment or special clothing needed and a perfectly usable ball costs just a few pounds.  There are never enough sports halls around, but almost all the ones we do have cater for basketball.

The sport looks impressive, too.  There’s a visual physicality to the game that’s a pleasure to watch in its own right.  We pay good money to see Harlem Globetrotters exhibition matches just for the enjoyment of watching the skills – there aren’t many sports you can say that about.

On the ground, a small army of volunteers supported by experienced staff give their time week after week to ensure youngsters and adults can train and play basketball – and provide a route for those with the desire and ability to move up to higher leagues, perhaps even one day to represent their country.

All of which leaves us with a conundrum.  A sport that’s visible, cheap and easy to start playing, great fun to watch with a strong grass-roots structure in place is seeing falling participation.  What’s going wrong?

Why are so many of those garden basketball hoops quietly rusting?  Why is it relatively rare to hear the smack of ball against backboard at your local park?  Why is it that five million kids are convinced they can become one of a couple of hundred home-grown football Premiership players, and yet are largely uninterested in basketball?

It’s because – outside the core of fans and devotees – basketball is largely invisible as a sport.  All the infrastructure’s there, but how many young people have the faintest idea who the stars are, which teams play in the BBL or NBA, what the opportunities are as a professional basketball player, or even what the rules are?  (Let me confess that I still struggle with the rules, and how they’re interpreted by different refs, even though I’ve watched hundreds of matches.  That’s probably just me, though!).

It seems bizarre that you can barely walk through any park or sports centre, or along any residential road, without seeing basketball facilities, and yet ignorance about the sport is so great.

That’s why, when my son’s friends are given the choice in PE between football and basketball, nine out of ten head for the soccer pitch.

It’s easy to state the problem, but far harder to fix it.  England Basketball have got some really interesting plans with IM Basketball and Ball Again, and the BBL is doing a lot right.  But clearly it’s not enough, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.  As things stand, basketball is just one minor sport and now has even less money than most of the others to fight its corner.

We need to create stars.  We need an exciting narrative – a gripping story across the season.  We need something that’s going to burrow into the brains of young people and somehow grab a little space alongside (footballers) Sergio Aguero and Robin van Persie.  We need showbiz sparkle.

Who to create it?  That’s simple – not the hoop heads.  Everything we know about sports like F1 and snooker which have successfully broken through to the mainstream tells us that the pioneers have to be people whose first skill is making money promoting sports.  The players, former players and aristocracy of the sport need to take a back seat.

Much as it goes against the grain, basketball needs people who may not care about the sport very much at all, but know how to turn it into a commercial success.  That’s the missing piece of the jigsaw.

Iain Roberts has responsibility for sport on Stockport Council

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