For all the progress being made in on the court performance, London Lions and Paris Basketball have one common problem. Their arenas are rather empty. The wins for both in Eurocup this week offer some small promise.
The on the court performances of London Lions and Paris Basketball this week were ideal. Paris Basketball*, heavily influenced by last year’s Bonn team, looked great against BC Wolves. London Lions had to fight for their win over Reyer Venezia. There’s promise in both but the hill is steep.
*That name is odd but it’s useful for differentiating between the city and the team
Those stands are empty
There are a few common threads with both sides. Euroleague really wants teams in both cities. This makes sense on the face of it as both are big markets. Teams in such markets help attract sponsors and other forms of commercial income.
The thing is, that only works if people in those markets visibly care about those teams. That word visibly matters. The darkened Halle George Carpentier couldn’t hide that most of the arena was barren.
Tuning into London Lions at the Copper Box on Wednesday night, at least the lights were bright. Unfortunately that plus the many zoom out shots that showed the upper tier meant it was clear just how few people were there.
There are other ways for basketball teams to generate revenue beyond ticket sales. With cities like London and Paris however, the sheer look of an arena matters. These are big markets where you need to show demand and interest in your product to move the needle.
If your games are sparsely attended, it doesn’t really matter how good the product is. Nobody is going to consider you one of the hottest tickets in town with a mostly empty arena.
In both cases, the clubs were competing for casual eyeballs with the UEFA Champions League. This however is an issue for most cities in Europe. It’s all the extra options for spending disposable income on top of that which make large cities a challenge to succeed in.
Pricing and marketing
As it happened, I was in London at the weekend. There was a big American football game in Wembley stadium. This was a game that attracted 80,000 people. Yet it wouldn’t have been obvious to the casual observer. I noticed the jerseys dotted around but that’s the thing, they were dotted around. It wasn’t a flood because it’s hard for any event to truly overwhelm a city of that size.
The NFL has put a lot of time and investment into its London games to ensure people know those games are on and those games sell out. Selling the offering is part of the business of sport or any form of entertainment, including basketball. London’s size is only an asset if you invest in making it work for you. Right now, the word Eurocup means nothing to most people in that city. The same goes for Paris.
Part of that involves that you’ve got to get the sales job done to build up the product. Right now, the London Lions seem to be running before they can walk. Adult tickets on the ground level for their next Eurocup game, against Paris Basketball as it happens, are either £54 (€62) or £30 (€35).
That may not seem like a huge amount to readers in some places, and there are cheaper tickets for the upper tier, but there’s context here.
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Lower tier tickets start at just €14.50 for adults for Alba Berlin’s first home Euroleague game against Baskonia. The highest price on tickets for that game is still lower than London, at €59.50, and most of the tickets come in below €30.
Berlin is an affluent city but Alba are a far more established part of it than London Lions or Paris Basketball can claim to be. They compete with other options for disposable income but, again, not to the same level as Paris or London. Alba is the absolute peak of what those two teams should be dreaming of hitting with prices.
Fans have also been educated to understand that this is a high value product, namely Euroleague. They understand that more expense comes with that. There’s far more education required with the potential fan in London or Paris to make them spend that much. Those markets simply aren’t ready for top tier prices for basketball. At least not yet.
We’ve been here before
I’ve written before about both these cities and the potential to develop a top level basketball team in them. Here’s what I said about London in 2017:
“London is not cheap to live in and starting a team from scratch is going to require spending a serious amount of change. That means an ownership group with deep pockets and a willingness to commit to a certain number of years with significant downsides for pulling out. You are talking about a market that isn’t used to a top tier basketball team and isn’t all that familiar with Europe’s top tier,”
“That means you need a whopping marketing budget, not just to advertise but also to do sufficient pre and ongoing research into what market segments within London to target. In the first three years alone, you’d have to seriously consider having a marketing budget that match a top eight player budget on the continent if not exceed that just to be in any way relevant in the market.”
Things weren’t exactly more budget friendly with my assessment of Paris in 2019:
“There’s also the massive marketing cost, like London, that competition for cash and work in building a new identity means a great deal will need to be invested in that regard, particularly in the early days, while still ensuring there’s enough to pay competitive salaries.”
There have certainly been marketing efforts in both cities. There has certainly been investment too. Yes I am writing elephant in the room with London. It’s the Josimar piece in case that’s too vague. To be honest, that’s mainly because it’s distracting from the wider discussion here.
That wider discussion is basically understanding the sheer weight of the challenge. I outlined them in 2017 and 2019 but, if anything, I understated the scale of the task.
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But the basketball is good
No, seriously, watch this Paris Basketball team in a road game. They’ve taken serious pieces from the Baskets Bonn team that won the Basketball Champions League. In addition to coach Tuomas Ilsalo, they’ve got TJ Shorts, Tyson Ward, Leon Kratzer, and Michael Kessens. Those were all key pieces for an extremely entertaining side last year.
In their first Eurocup outing in their new jerseys, this core showed that same flair. Beating up on Wolves is obviously only a start but it’s a good one. Ilsalo is a tremendously impressive young coach. He could make this a team that merits people watching purely for the thrills alone.
And it’s competitive
London Lions were missing Sam Dekker for their opener in Eurocup against Reyer Venezia. For three quarters that had to hang in there without their star man. They found a way and got the win and an important one at that.
Last year, missing the playoffs was difficult with 16 out of 20 teams progressing. The organisers realised that and made a change. They took the idea of a remarkably handsome basketball journalist for this season.
That means that only the top 6 in each 10 team conference progresses. There are also better incentives for finishing in the top 2. That’s good but it also means London Lions and Paris Basketball both have more compelling narratives to sell.
So what now?
I don’t expect London Lions or Paris Basketball to suddenly cut their ticket prices. For starters, it’d be harsh on those that bought season tickets. There are better ways than turning the lights off to improve matters. For starters, bussing in kids isn’t a one-season trick. To establish the culture, you need to engrain it over time. That means there should be busloads of kids for the first few seasons. That’s at a minimum.
Beyond that, it’s really marketing and identity. That means spending more in tough markets to break through and get attention. It’s not pretty, it’s never cheap, but it’s the most effective way. Having a winner helps but Paris and London are cities that expect more than national titles. They expect to dominate on a grander stage. Winning means more than national championships.