Basketball learning how to play the political game. Plus when refs and coaches clash and TV deals.

Within the grandiose walls of the Houses of Parliament, theatrics are performed for the benefit of an audience far beyond. Its back stage, however, is located across a tourist-lined street, the meeting rooms and gathering places of Portcullis House a hive of activity where the whispers and chatter combine to form the narrative for a national debate.

In a first floor room overlooking the Thames, representatives of all colours and political creeds gather every three months or so to share views and insights on basketball with those who shape the sport from within.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group serves a vital purpose, its current chair Sharon Hodgson declares. “You can come together on a single issue – in this case basketball – and come together in a cross-party way and focus on the issue. And then lobby the government, if you’re a backbench MP, or as an Opposition MP. The fact you’re doing it involving both Houses, you can really share the collective skills of people who have an interest in basketball.”

At January’s meeting, the room is almost too cramped to meet the demand. There are figures from the BBL, Basketball England, Sport England, the (newly renamed) Basketball Foundation, and others, sharing a table with MPs who have interests to serve and protect.

It has, says Newcastle Eagles chairman Paul Blake, been a useful tool since it was first established in 2008. “Basketball hasn’t been properly embraced before in political circles,” he confirms. “We just have to be able to seize this opportunity.”

Much resembles a round-table report card, who has done what, and why, and with whom. Hodgson, the Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland, darts between extra quizzing and dishing out praise. On initial view, it is a grand talking shop. But it is also a door into the corridors of power, a critical route to influence some of the most influential, including Helen Grant, the incumbent Sports Minister.

“Helen Grant has been great at granting us an audience to discuss basketball,” Hodgson reveals. “And that’s been because of the relationship that our vice-chairs Oliver Colvile and Stephen Mosley have with her. As Conservative members, they can catch her in the lobby and ask to speak to her.

Hodgson: House of Hoops (Twitter)

Hodgson: Holding court (Twitter)

“But they’ve done it on a cross-party basis and they’ve always invited me along to meet with Helen. It gives you opportunities within Parliament to meet with Ministers or use the floor for the House to campaign on an issue. And as a new group in basketball, we’ve been punching above our weight.”

No doubt, the group – and a membership that also includes former senior civil servant Lord Wasserman – figured heavily in the lobbying effort that, following a debate in Parliament, earned British Basketball an initial stay of execution from losing its UK Sport funding before landing an unorthodox assist from Sport England.

With that issue parked for the short-term, both Hodgson and Blake agree that the next point of attack is securing the halls and courts basketball needs to turn potential into progress. It is understood that Sport England is open to hearing the sport’s collective case to unlock a modest amount of ring-fenced investment. First, though, it needs to hear a cohesive argument.

“The facilities issue is a huge one for basketball,” Hodgson underlines. “Every village and town has its own cricket pitch, its own football pitch, its own rugby field. They’re established sports. But those have been paid for over the years from local and central government funds or other local sources.

“We do need to have some state investment to even begin to catch up. Because nearly all the facilities basketball uses are owned by local authorities, be they leisure centres or school premises. Some others are under Private Finance Initiative contracts which means if you want to hire it, the average is £24 – which can mean it starts at a tenner and goes up to £50.

“If you’re at the top end, it makes it almost impossible to sustain. Kids can play football for free. If you’re asking them to play basketball, they will get lost.”

It comes down to politics, Blake adds. And the root cause, he argues, is the educational dogma of past governments that blew what had been a thriving infrastructure to smithereens.

“Across the nineties, teachers and schools didn’t facilitate access to gyms because they weren’t being paid – so it stopped. And the legacy is we lost a shed load of clubs, a massive infrastructural loss. Lots of good work’s been done by the Youth Sports Trust and others to re-access that stock in a different way and re-build the clubs. But it’s a big repair job.”

Other sports did receive some investment to fight against decline. The English Rugby Union recruited 100 development officers whose primary role was to facilitate youth sections within clubs. Basketball was left out in the cold.

“I didn’t have access to a junior club as a kid, other than travelling to a National League team,” Blake recounts. “And we’re still desperately trying to fill those gaps. It’s a stepped process. Our sport uniquely needs help.”

Ears will be bent to ensure the pleas for support are heard. With an general election looming in exactly 100 days, pledges will come easy but guarantees are impossible. Whatever happens in May, it will remain incumbent on basketball to knock on doors and make its voice heard.

But, Hodgson notes, “there are a lot of facilities out there. It’s about getting access to them. Sport England are currently undertaking a piece of work with Basketball England in mapping what we’ve got across the country.

“Once we’ve got that picture, we can go back to the Sports Minister and say: ‘look this is where the gaps are and we need someone to step up and fill it.’”

Taking the charge

The decision to only hand London Lions coach Vince Macaulay an undisclosed fine and three penalty points (it takes ten for a one-game ban) has come under fire from some referees for the league not having their collective backs.

Macaulay went onto Twitter in the wake of his side’s loss in Glasgow on January 16 (see video below) with incendiary posts which accused the officiating crew of cheating.

The three-person BBL Disciplinary Panel, which is made up of members who are independent of the league, found Macaulay guilty of infringing the Code of Conduct with respect to unacceptable behaviour.

vnce tweet

Relatively, league chief operating officer Andy Webb said, it was more than a slap on the wrist. “Only warnings have been issued previously for comments on social media. This is the first time that points and a fine have been handed out.”

One senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MVP that the punishment did not adequately fit the crime. “The league’s credibility on discipline sinks to new low in my opinion,” he said. “The senior referees in this group would like the BBL to be stricter and protect the image of the game and the officials a bit better.”

Vince’s one saving grace? The refs in Glasgow got it wrong – with BBL officials chief Mick Howell holding up his hand on behalf of his crew and admitting that a charge was erroneously called as a blocking foul as the Lions attempted to hold onto a slender lead.

Regardless, if this was the NBA, it would have been a ban and no further debate had.

“We tell all our referees not to discuss games on social media because if they do, they’ll get into trouble,” Howell confirmed. “And the season before last, I sat someone out because of that.”

Lions forward Drew Sullivan lent some degree of support to the view that British officiating needs extra backing and not just criticism.

That is already in hand, Howell adds. “We use a video tool called Sport Lounge that allows referees to go on it by the next Tuesday and see clips from the games they’ve worked. It’s a great tool to help.

“We also had a clinic before the Cup Final with a lot of younger referees and FIBA Europe’s officiating chief (and ex-BBL whistler) Richard Stokes, using a lot of analysis. We also had one coach who came along (Cheshire’s John Coffino) who went away saying it was as good as anything he’d come across.

“I hope it’s the first of many. We really strive to improve things on a budget that’s quite minimal.”

Screen shots

– Talks between the BBL and BT Sport to broadcast May’s Playoff Final at London’s O2 Arena, while described as constructive, have failed to reach an agreement with the broadcaster unable to accommodate the league’s pre-arranged date and time. Instead MVP can reveal discussions with the BBC are said to be advanced with hopes high of the showpiece going out as a Red Button option or website stream.

Additionally, FIBA are also thought to be anticipating approaches from both BT and the BBC to screen Great Britain’s games at EuroBasket Women in June.

– The NBA has pledged branding restrictions will no longer be a stumbling block in any grassroots programmes it co-sponsors with Basketball England.

While a number of past initiatives have foundered due to the tight agreements the US-based entity demanded to protect its trademarks, Ben Morel, vice-president for EMEA, has issued assurances that their commercial focus is to be deprioritised. “Licensing won’t be an issue,” he stated.

Outside shots

Leeds Force are taking giant leaps forward, says Oliver Hylands

Paul James claims Champions tag puts pressure on Worcester Wolves

2015 squad can be Newcastle Eagles’ best, according to Fab Flournoy

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP

Main pic: Parliamentary copyright

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