In Stratford, East London, London Lions, one of the two professional basketball teams in London, play every other week. After the Olympics ended the Lions made the Copper Box, used for handball at the Olympics, their permanent home. Now, eight years later the club is thriving and attracting fans from around London.
On a wet, dreary Wednesday evening the Copper Box hosted London Lions vs Cheshire Phoenix – however inside, away from the monotone British weather, the arena was packed and full of young and lively fans. Music blared out of the arenas speakers as an MC hyped up the trendy, energetic crowd. Even some famous celebrities came out to watch their local team play, among them R&B singer Ray BLK who sat courtside in the club’s VIP seating.
Although the main attraction was not the chart-topping Ray BLK but Love Island star Ovie Soko. After the game Ovie was in high demand – the star was mobbed by eager fans and teenagers wanting a selfie to show their friends. Ovie, a professional basketball player before his TV fame, decided to return to his local team, the London Lions, after finishing his stint on Love Island. Soko had previously played professionally all-around Europe.
This move is something he hopes will promote the sport in the UK. Basketball is one of the most popular sports for young adults in London yet it gets a fraction of the funding that the Government dishes out to all of the UK’s sports. It is is the second most popular team sport among young adults across the country however due to the lack of funding the future of British basketball is in danger.
After the Lions finished off the Cheshire Phoenix in a fiercely competitive game, Ovie declared that the sport is “definitely underfunded, especially the females. The females are doing absolutely amazing. Team GB should have gone to the Olympics and how far they went without being funded is amazing.”
Ovie also suggested that the lack of funding had hindered his career; he would have liked to have stayed to play basketball in this country to make it professional but at the time the popularity and funding was not there: “I had to go overseas to progress and reach a certain limit,” he says.
Today, basketball is huge for young athletes in London and across the country according to Vince Macaulay, head coach of the London Lions: “There are clubs up and down the country: up in Plymouth you’ve got a massive central venue league, in Newcastle you’ve got the same, there are a massive amount of kids playing regularly. This is a massive development which is going to bring a big wave of youngsters in the next 5-10 years,” he says.
However, the sport still suffers from a huge lack of funding from a Government level. “There is a massive lack of funding for British basketball, right from the grassroots level to the elite level. UK sport sponsors the elite level and they believe that we can’t qualify for the Olympics and that’s why they don’t invest at the top end. At grassroots level it’s left to clubs and federations to develop what happens but we need a lot more investment to be able to create better and clearer pathways into professional basketball,” says Vince.
More obscure sports such as rowing and sailing gain a higher amount of funding from UK Sport and Sport England because of team GB’s success at a high level. The national team for basketball has not had much success at recent Olympics and the sport as a whole has been punished for it despite having a huge impact at grassroots level.
Mark Hinton, a veteran youth coach in his local community, offers the view that smaller clubs are suffering under the current funding conditions and as a result so are communities. “Basketball England currently have an interest in sustaining higher level larger clubs, while smaller clubs are falling by the wayside,” says Mark.
Basketball has suffered throughout Mark’s time in the sport: “I have seen many changes. The most recent is the current Basketball England initiative to lower the number of leagues and teams playing at National League level. This has personally proved a huge issue for Saints as this year our club was not offered National League basketball and therefore, we currently have over 150 players who now don’t play competitive basketball.”
Yet, the basketball community have continued to create pathways on their own for promising talent. “We offer scholarships with our partners at the University of East London to allow those who don’t want to go to college in the states to still get an education and play basketball alongside the lions,” says Vince.
Many young players recognise there is a route to education through the sport, US colleges and some UK universities offer scholarships to players who will come and play for them. This is a route to university without tuition fees, something appealing to many players.
Basketball in London and the rest of the country is obviously extremely popular – the London Lions, the number of young players and the dedication from its’ self-sustaining community are all proof of this. The only thing holding the sport back from being as popular as it is in every other country is the funding from the Government and only some help from those higher up will help the sport blossom.
By Greg Kennedy