No prep games, barely any prep time, and no broadcast coverage back home. That was before the games, EuroBasket 2022 has only gotten worse for the Great Britain team since. Emmet Ryan on the sad state of the GB men’s national team
Luke Nelson stopped in the mixed zone moments after yet another crushing defeat in Milan and told us how he felt. “Pretty depressed if I’m honest, embarrassed, upset.” That was following the Estonia game but it could have just as easily been the games with Ukraine, Croatia, or Greece.
Nelson, like every other member of the Great Britain team, refused to blame the team’s paltry preparations for the tournament. Dan Clark, the team captain and record appearance holder for Great Britain accepted the preparation hadn’t made things ideal. Gabe Olaseni was probably the most brutally honest. Yet, to a man, they didn’t want to shirk their role. They felt it important to accept the blame.
Yet, as an outsider, it seemed like they were all too noble as they showed the character of men determined to take responsibility. That responsibility however can’t just go on the players or coaching staff.
Great Britain had no friendly prep games before the tournament and were forced to treat their World Cup Qualifiers as such. Everyone else had around four more. Great Britain had three days of training together, compared to the weeks the other sides had. Arguably worst of all, Great Britain’s squad arrived in the early hours of Thursday morning, just before I did and a day before their tournament opener.
The criticisms of GB’s situation began before they had even tipped off their opening game. A tweet by Greek journalist Dionysis Aravantinos sparked a conversation from the British Basketball community that has only increased in frustrated rage since.
“Beforehand I thought more people would be interested in Great Britain. I thought people in the UK, even though they don’t watch basketball that much, would have been interested in seeing Britain take on the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo or great teams like Italy and Croatia. I was surprised when I saw that no channel was broadcasting the games live in the UK,” Aravantinos, who is social media manager at HoopsHype and Instagram director at EuroHoops, told BallinEurope.
“People in the UK, even the ones who love basketball, prefer the NBA and that comes from when I studied in Swansea. I saw fans watching the NBA but didn’t have a clue about European basketball in general.”
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Of the 24 nations represented in EuroBasket, only one doesn’t have its games being broadcast on TV back home. No BBC, no Sky, no BT Sport, not even Premier Sports are broadcasting Britain’s games from Milan. The only representatives of the British media on site are working for FIBA and I’ve been mistaken for or assumed to be British repeatedly. It’s not a one-off either. At Istanbul in 2017, there were no members of the British media on site either outside of team and tournament organiser staff.
“I’m surprised there are no journalists here. Not even the BBC is caring about it. I looked at the home pages of newspapers and there was no mention. The NBA has done a good job of promoting its product in the UK more than European basketball and that’s a big issue. People in the UK know basketball and think it’s the NBA and only that,” Aravantinos said.
“I know the UK is not a basketball country but, still, BBC could have at least broadcast a game or two.”
Those that do care about basketball in Britain, and there are many of them, are frustrated at the shape of events albeit not altogether surprised.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a lack of media interest or coverage of GB at EuroBasket. This has been the status quo for decades, it’s incredibly frustrating that basketball is overlooked by the mainstream media,” Sam Neter, founder of Hoopsfix, said.
“It’s easy to point fingers at the media for not showing an interest but there is very little effort made on the side of the federation to engage and get these media outlets onside. It goes both ways.”
Neter was one of those that engaged with Aravantinos after his tweet and he understands why those outside the UK assume basketball is a non-entity in the public eye there.
“There’s massive frustration within the basketball community here that there’s a perception that British people don’t care about basketball. There’s a huge amount of people that do. It’s the second biggest team sport for 11 to 15 year olds in the UK but the perception remains that it’s an American sport,” he said.
“There’s a real disconnect between the perception of British basketball and what actually exists. We’ve seen this summer what it can look like and how involved people can be if they’re engaged in the right way. In the UK, there’s a lack of awareness of the wider basketball community around the world.”
A missed opportunity
The financial challenges facing British basketball aren’t new. The UK government’s funding model for sport prioritises those where top tier, such as Olympic, success is likely. Still, it’s mind boggling that a sport with such enormous participation rates can’t generate enough of its own money to run a proper training camp for its senior national team or even field teams at the recent European U20 championships.
Ireland, Britain’s nearest neighbour and where I’m from, is a pauper compared to Britain but even it has found ways through commercial support, fundraising, and, most importantly, buy-in from the basketball public, to deliver the types of preparation needed by national teams at all ages to prepare for tournaments.
“There has been a complete and total failure on the part of GB and the home country associations to really raise real commercial and private revenue sources. That has been a repeated story going back before the Olympics. It definitely is hard to raise money but it has been done and it can be done. The federation has got to take responsibility for not being able to engage commercial partners in the right ways,” Neter said.
“When I look at some of the sponsorship deals we’ve [Hoopsfix] have done over the years, it amazes me that we can get a deal with Nike or Jordan Brand and the federation can’t. There’s no reason a global brand should go to the likes of me before they go to a national federation, who have more reach and access to the basketball community on paper.”
Britain’s failure at EuroBasket, comes at a time when the British Basketball League is generating renewed interest with the likes of London Lions investing significantly and entering Eurocup.
Yet the national team, the core building block for any sport in nearly any nation to rally its troops around and broaden interest, has become an afterthought.
“Within the British basketball community, there isn’t as much interest as you would hope but that’s largely because they have no idea about them. That connection with the fans or the grass roots isn’t there because there has never been any strategy to build it,” Neter said.
“If you go into any grass roots club in the UK and ask them to name 5 or 6 members of the national team, they would struggle to do that. There’s a real disconnect there. If you’re a talented basketball player in the UK, you leave the country as soon as possible.”
This saddens Aravantinos, who believes that basketball being strong in Britain is good for the sport across the continent.
“European fans are more passionate and connected to their national teams. In Greece, after winning its first Eurobasket in 1987, everyone fell in love with the game. From that stage on, basketball took a huge step forward. That’s something that could happen in the UK, if they had major success or the next Giannis Antetokounmpo is born in the UK. Then people would be more likely to watch basketball there and fall in love with it,” he said.
“The passion that European fans have for their national teams is immense and you see it with EuroBasket, the World Cup, the Olympics but also with Euroleague basketball where the fans are very connected to their teams. That comes from years and years of working on that connection.”
It’s a decade since GB had men’s and women’s teams in the London 2012 Olympics. The men’s side was achingly close to making the knockout phase of EuroBasket 2013 while the women’s side was brutally unlucky to miss out on the Olympics in Tokyo last summer. There have been signs of progress, reasons for hope, and Aravantinos feels that Britain is missing only a few elements that could really aid the sport there.
“It has come forward to some extent. When I studied in the UK five years ago, I could see people were getting the feel of basketball but only on the NBA side of things. The Olympics could have been a way to show that basketball is a sport worth watching but, at the same time, the British aren’t necessarily basketball people so it’s going to take a while for them to fall in love with the game,” said Aravantinos.
“There needs to be that player or team that takes the next step and competes. Now, with London Lions in Eurocup, it should get the attention of basketball people in the UK. If they make it to Euroleague in the next few years, the UK will pay more attention,”
“The UK is a market that is needed in European basketball. It’s important for European basketball to move forward. The last few years, it has been clear that Serbians, Greeks, and Turks are the only ones that are travelling for their clubs in Europe. If the UK succeeded and had a club with an owner that invests, then more people will fall in love with the game.”
Neter said it’s time for the whole British basketball community to take a long hard look at themselves and ask what must be done to make things better.
“The sport has been let down from every single possible avenue, whether that’s the federation and leadership or externally like the [British] government and funding bodies or the actual community itself – there’s a real culture of wanting everything for free and not parting with your money for basketball in the UK. £200 for a pair of Nike trainers, no problem, but £5 to watch NBL Division 1 basketball, god forbid,” he said.
“There is a collective responsibility that needs to be taken on where the game is. I’d like to see a change in leadership. Great organisations are led by great people and the sport needs great people in the right places, given the freedom and autonomy to do their jobs properly, to get us to where we want to be. We all know this sport has amazing potential and can be so much better and bigger than it is,”
“We need people who are world class at what they do but also know basketball, specifically British basketball. It’s a unique market with specific niche problems that only people who are in it truly understand. It’s no small task, but I believe it’s possible.”
On Thursday it will be 9 years since Great Britain’s men last won a game at EuroBasket, when they could taste a hope that is alien to them now. Two more windows of World Cup qualifiers follow before the campaign to qualify for EuroBasket 2025 begins. This roster is only getting older and it’s not clear who will replace the likes of Ben Mockford, Myles Hesson, or Carl Wheatle when they step aside.
All of these players deserve better, Nelson, Olaseni, Ovie Soko, Pat Whelan, and especially Clark who has done more than anyone could ever ask of him for the jersey yet sees so little back in return. It shouldn’t take an Irishman sitting in Milan to tell British basketball that the work they put in on the court begins off the court.