Q&A : Ask the BBL




Ever wondered why the BBL divided up its league in two ? Or why it's playing key BBL matches at central venues ? Well, now's your chance to find out from the horse's mouth in April's Q&A. Rob Webb from the BBL has answered your questions and explained the issues which concern supporters in Britain. 

Will the experiment with central venues be continued, given the fact that there is little support for it from supporters given the low turnouts so far?And how much was Sky borne in mind when you came to the decision?
Glenn Hardaker / Paul Jarvis ?

Before I answer that one directly, let me explain a little bit about how the BBL is owned and operated, and therefore how such decisions are made.

The 13 clubs are all equal shareholders in the BBL organisation as a whole. All have equal voting rights on decisions, have an equal say in how the BBL’s money is spent, and take an equal distribution of BBL’s profits - the money raised centrally from sponsorship, television rights etc.

All decisions relating to the running and management of the sport are taken by this BBL board made up of the thirteen clubs. The BBL central office works to manage and promote the sport in partnership with the clubs, working to the brief given to it by the BBL board.

So when you read, for instance, that a club feels the BBL should change something, then it has the perfect opportunity to do so – by raising it at the next BBL board meeting.

To answer your specific question, the move to central venue events was originally made based on the feedback from the core supporters in a survey last season. The message was clearly that you wanted the chance to see your team take part in the big games of the season, and that you were being denied that opportunity because of the scheduling of these games.

By definition, teams only know at relatively short notice whether they will be taking part in the later stages of the cup and it’s difficult to secure weekend dates at arenas at this kind of notice. Remember that it’s not like football or rugby where the venues are just sitting there waiting to be played in – our arenas host a wide variety of other events including concerts, exhibitions, other sport etc.

This meant that these games – the key games of the season – were often being scheduled to be played midweek at short notice. This was proving no good for home fans, particularly those with children (as we all know, the best basketball crowds are for weekend matches), and no good for away fans who were unable to make the trip due to work commitments. If you’re an Edinburgh fan, how would you feel about basketball if your team went on a cup run, and was drawn away to Brighton in the quarter-finals on a Wednesday night, and away to Thames Valley in the semis the following Thursday?

The idea of moving to central events was to stage the matches at a centrally located venue, on a guaranteed date, at the weekend – so that everyone could know exactly when and where it was, and be able to get there if they wish.

Bearing in mind the change was made with fans in mind, the response has been extremely disappointing, and our latest fan survey will be trying to find out why this is. Tickets are inexpensive at £8 and £5 so it’s unlikely to be that the cost of admission is putting people off. Is it because of the cost of travel? Because most people only want to watch their team at home? Because you can watch it on TV anyway? How about getting together with a number of other supporters at your club to come and watch the next one? Comments to feedback@bbl.org.uk will always be appreciated, although please bear in mind that there aren’t enough hours in the day to reply to each one!

In terms of next year, we’re constantly reviewing everything we do and this will undoubtedly come up for debate. But with such a groundswell of opinion against the old system, it’s unlikely that we’ll revert to that. What we may look at instead is how we can make it easier for fans to get to these games.

With regard to Sky, let me dispel a few myths. Sky Sports are an extremely important factor in the overall development of British basketball, and as such we work in partnership with them to ensure a good TV product. Television exposure, both terrestrial and satellite, is crucial in the growth and development of every sport.

Their coverage is excellent, and admired by many other European leagues where incidentally, the domestic game doesn’t get regular TV coverage in many countries.

If you’re looking for sports that are controlled by television, do a quick comparison between us and rugby league, which is now played in summer rather than winter because of TV requirements.

To go back to the question, the matches at central venue events are the biggest games of the season, so Sky would have been covering them anyway. 

Where it has made a difference has been with the BBC, who have been able to show the cup semi-finals for the past two seasons, in addition to their coverage of the final. This year’s semis were watched by nearly 1 million people on Grandstand – a very positive move for the sport.

British clubs have suffered from the anomaly in European competition because of the fact that there are more than two foreigners per team allowed in the domestic game. This restricts the development of home players. Does the BBL not consider it necessary to fix this by changing the import quota system for next season?
Danny Marriot / Steve Burnett / Jim Rangon

The Bosman ruling, allowing the free movement of labour across EU states, had as dramatic an impact on basketball as it did on football, and in reality the international federation is still coming to terms with its impact.

Because of the requirements of Bosman, all of the European leagues now accept an unlimited number of foreign players – except the BBL, where five places on each team are reserved for British players, one of them under 24. Just take a look at the Telebasket site to see the cosmopolitan nature of many European sides – for instance, the Greek champions of two years ago didn’t have any Greek players at all!

Where the BBL differs from other FIBA competitions is in the type of foreigners allowed. The five BBL overseas places are open to players of any nationality, with the other five reserved for Brits. FIBA allows two players of any nationality, with the other eight spots on each team for players of any European nationality.

The reason BBL has gone down this line is very simple. As those who watch the odd games on satellite will know, European basketball is very, very dull. 30 second offences, very tight zone defence, and well drilled but unspectacular players make for a product aimed more at the purist and played for the sake of pure sport.

It certainly isn’t the kind of product to appeal to BBL audiences who are looking for a fast, exciting game that makes for an entertaining spectacle. So why take players from those European Leagues, when others are available who can provide a much more entertaining product.

The next time you’re channel hopping and come across European basketball deep in the satellite channels, take a good look at the product on offer and decide how often you’d want to go and watch your team if they played like that.

Changing the BBL to two foreign players and unlimited European players, or even two foreign and eight British players wouldn’t necessarily make the Towers any stronger in Europe, and would certainly weaken the BBL as a whole.

For a start, it isn’t this restriction (or even the team payments cap for that matter) that’s preventing the best of the British players from coming back to the BBL – it’s the huge differential in salaries they can earn from playing in mainland Europe, where in many areas the sport is heavily funded by local government, who take a pride in the success of the town’s local team.

Players will play where they can earn the most, and at the moment the differential is so huge that the British clubs have no hope of competing for signatures – some of the top Brits abroad are earning comfortably more than the entire team payments cap all on their own.

While losses made by BBL clubs have been shrinking in recent seasons (they are certainly nothing in comparison to the deficits in other sports) and things are heading in the right direction, remember that even at the current salary levels, the only people making any money from British basketball are the players.

Obviously the current regulations allow the Towers (or any other club) to recruit Europeans rather than Americans to their five overseas spots to bolster their European Cup ambitions. However, bear in mind that the same market forces that have hiked the salaries of British players, have done the same thing to Europeans of an equivalent standard.

In the end, it all comes down to what clubs can afford to pay, and the BBL sides just can’t compete with mainland Europe at present - although we’re heading in the right direction.

Now consider the effects on the BBL. By restricting overseas spots per team from five to two across thirteen clubs you would take away up to 39 of the best players in the competition. For example, think about your own BBL team and the five overseas players it has – now imagine losing three of them, and see what sort of team you would be left with.

And what would you replace them with? Would you go to the FIBA example and replace them with a bunch of second rate Eastern Europeans? Or would you stay all British, and encourage clubs to recruit the top 39 British players currently playing in the NBL? 

In terms of player development, the BBL clubs are keen to give every chance for the up and coming young British talent to play at the highest level, and a number who are good enough are already doing so – there are examples on every BBL team. 

But in what professional sport do you actually try to develop your game in the top flight? Surely the better model – for the individual more than anything else – is to develop your game in the lower divisions and then move into the top league when the individual is ready to play at that level.

Remember that the many of the Brits currently playing overseas aren’t necessarily playing in the top division in that country. It’s just that they can earn a salary in the lower divisions in say, Belgium, where in most cases they can’t get a paid job in NBL 1 and 2. Because they merit a paid job in the lower divisions in Belgium, does that mean they merit a paid job in the top flight in Britain?

I would like to know what proposals or ideas even have been put forward this summer that the BBL will improve the game or increase the fan base?
Roger Grooms

The BBL is constantly working to achieve both of the objectives you’ve stated, either centrally or through the clubs themselves. These schemes go on all year round, not just through the summer.

In terms of increasing the fan base, schemes range from major promotions working alongside sponsors or other commercial partners, right down to players from clubs making public appearances at local fetes and carnivals. Whatever it is, it’s all about spreading the word and constantly taking basketball to a new audience.

BBL has an impressive reputation as being one of the biggest innovators in developing the game of basketball. Just look at some of the rules that FIBA will only just be introducing this season – four quarters instead of two halves for example – and ask yourself where you saw it first. 

There are a wide variety of club initiatives planned over the summer – keep an eye out in your local press for news of what’s going on.

I anticipate that this will be my last season of attending Leicester Riders home games after ten seasons as a season ticket holder who loves the game.. Why? The refereeing is almost without exception appalling and biased. What is the league doing to address this issue?
Rob John

The last two years have seen refereeing become a major issue in just about every sport – think about what you hear and read in the media with football managers, rugby players and coaches, ice hockey players going on about it, and the situation is no different in basketball.

Let’s deal with the standard of refereeing first. In addition to the sums paid out by BBL on fees and expenses for each match, there is also a significant budget put to the training and development of our top flight of referees.

BBL became involved in this issue a few years ago when it became clear that it was no longer a priority for the governing body to devote resource to developing an elite group of officials to service the top flight of games.

In reality, the development of elite officials had been underinvested in for a significant period of time, and there’s no way that we’re going to be able to change that situation overnight.

However, progress has been made and the general opinion is that things are clearly heading in the right direction. 

Let’s remember that our group of referees are amongst the most highly respected in FIBA, the international basketball federation. We have a number of referees on the FIBA list, who spend much of the year travelling Europe to oversee key games.

Sure referees make mistakes, but then so do players, and on the whole referees make a lot less than players do. 

After every match, each coach fills in a referee assessment, and returns it to BBL. Any official scoring consistently badly will have their position reviewed, and constructive criticism from coaches is passed on to the officials concerned as part of their individual development.

I spend a lot of time sitting in the stands watching the game with fans but from a neutral standpoint, and the number of times that a bad refereeing decision influences the result of a game can be counted on one finger. Bad calls even themselves out over the course of a game, and certainly over the course of a season.

Biased? Unfortunately, if you listen to some of our coaches, they’ll have you believe that their team should have been unbeaten all season long winning all the trophies, but the referees just don’t like them.

Think about some of the games you’ve watched on Sky, and then seen one of the coaches complain about the referees after the match, and then think about how often it has looked like sour grapes. One coach has been beaten by 20 or more points on two separate occasions this season, and has blamed the officiating each time.

When your coach has just lost a game, he isn’t actually at his most rational about refereeing. Some coaches even have a public policy of criticising officials at every possible opportunity to encourage fans to get on the refs back, and try to get some advantage from it in the next home game.

I support Sutton in NBL Division 1 who appeared in both the Uniball & National Cup competitions this year. As BBL are experimenting with central venues, why not try a 32-team knock-out in NCAA format at the beginning of the season? This could use four central venues over three weekends from start-to-finish. Is this a considerattion given that the initial stages of the Trophy are largely meaningless ?
Stephen Carlin / Patricia Kent

It’s a very valid suggestion, and we’re certainly looking at how we can use the BBL teams to do more outreach work and come in to contact with more venues and new areas next season.

While it’s a perfect ideal, the reality is somewhat different, mainly due to the increasing gulf between the BBL and the NBL, and then again between the top of the NBL and those in its midsts.

The reality is that in 21 matches between BBL and the top three NBL clubs across the uni-ball trophy and National Cup last season, only one NBL side recorded a win. 

Going back a few years when the BBL clubs used to come into the National Cup earlier, teams were racking up winning margins of well over 100 points against the minnows. This obviously isn’t good either for the teams involved, or for the credibility of the game.

We’ll certainly throw your suggestion into the mix for our pre-season plans for the start of next year. If we follow it through, consider yourself invited as guest of honour.

In terms of the trophy, we were more than happy with how the initial stages operated last season. The battle for the top positions, with the knockout stages seeded according to final placing, gave the competition plenty of bite and we look set to employ a similar structure next year.

Can I ask why is the signing deadline in the middle of the season rather than open-ended?

Basketball follows the model used in the vast majority of other sports by having a signing deadline around two thirds of the way through the season. There are two main reasons behind this move – both of them tied to maintaining the credibility of the sport.

Firstly, a constantly changing set of players does little to help the sport’s credibility and status, or to help develop the personalities in the game. If the season starts in September and ends in May, then by the end of January the coach ought to have got his line-up right.

The second and more important reason is that in countries where there is no signing deadline, teams are prone to either significantly weaken or significantly strengthen their team as the season goes on, depending on their likely fate in the playoffs or the final weeks of the season.

For instance, imagine a team this year that had a fairly average season, and just squeezed into the playoffs, but was clearly going to struggle to compete with the top teams. It’s a fairly extreme example but they could, for instance, cut their current squad and bring in a set of players made up from teams who hadn’t made the playoffs – Brandon Brantley, Purnell Perry, Ralph Blalock, Cypheus Bunton, Darrian Evans, Ian Whyte, Kojo Bonsu, Karl Brown, Kevin St Kitts and Stedroy Baker. 

A lot of peolple I have met seem interested in the NBA but won't give British basketball a chance, and are not interested in watching it . Is this what you find and if so how is this overcome?
Keith Bredin

It’s certainly true that a lot of people have heard of the NBA – it’s one of the world’s biggest brands, and is constantly reinforced through retail, music videos, American TV shows etc.

However, I’m not entirely sure that it goes as far as most people taking an active interest in the NBA – for instance, your average bloke on the street still thinks the Chicago Bulls are the best team in the NBA.

The obvious advantage the BBL has over the NBA in the UK is that there is something people can go and see, and interact with – it isn’t just on a TV screen.

We all know that no matter how good the TV coverage, the experience of watching basketball live at an arena is very, very different, and it’s this that really turns people on to the sport.

And while we’re on TV, we should note that when both the NBA and the BBL were televised on Sky during the same period, the audience figures for the BBL way outrated those for the NBA – usually by more than 2 to 1.

With arenas such as the MEN coming on stream, and clubs putting together excellent NBA style entertainment programmes, the at-game experience is of a very high standard even if the on court product itself is of a lesser level.

In reality, we find more people take an active interest in the fortunes of their local BBL team, than an active interest in the NBA.

Would the BBL allow the Storm franchise to re-locate ?
Anna Spiers

As you rightly point out, the BBL works on a system of franchise areas, with each club given a geographical area to operate in. 

The club is also permitted to move its home venue within this franchise area provided the new venue is suitable, and provided that it doesn’t bring it within five miles of another club’s venue.

There is obviously some previous history of clubs being given permission to relocate outside their franchise areas – the most recent being Worthing’s move to Brighton last summer.

Each of these applications is dealt with on a case by case basis, and depends on the individual circumstances involved.

What is the BBL and its clubs doing to improve the development of the sport at grassroots ? Shoudn't it be compulsary for each club to have a junior side ?
Dan Salley

All of the BBL clubs do development work of one form or another, despite the fact that the responsibility for grass roots development, and the funding associated with it, is with the EBBA and SBA.

Development activity ranges from outreach work, with players going out to schools and community groups to give as many kids as possible a chance to sample the game, through to elite development to bring on the next generation of players.

One example is the Birmingham franchise, which runs a huge development programme, with work all the way up from mini basketball (9 year olds) and teams at under 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19, as well as the reserve team which played in National League Division 1 this year.

Across the BBL, some of this development work is backed by government schemes and commercial partnerships, but in reality the vast majority is carried out at clubs own expense.

Why do they do it? Well, the sums of money involved in the sport aren’t significant enough to follow the football model and pick out the best kids at eight years old and tie them to contracts, and in reality the higher salaries available in Europe mean that the best of the English players are going to play over there by preference in any case.

So they really are doing it for the good of the game, and the BBL clubs deserve every credit for doing so. It’s not like they’re able to write it off against profits!

What is the BBL doing to improve media coverage of the sport. Where I live, our two local daily papers have news but hardly any elsewhere. Is there no interest 
from newspapers?
Karen Harper

BBL has a very active media department, that is one of the most highly respected in any sport – we regularly get comment from both regional and national media about how what we do could teach football a thing or two in terms of how we support the media and drive the profile of the sport. 

This produces some solid results – an independent analysis shows that last year over £10m of exposure was generated through the national and regional press, the vast majority of that coming from the national side.

Perhaps the Britball Ed would like to give his views on the level of service we provide?! (Better than footie by a long way - Ed)

In reality, however, this doesn’t translate to regular coverage in the national newspapers – which is the individual point you pick out – and this is for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, the national newspapers are still dominated by the big seven sports – Football, Racing, Rugby, Cricket, Golf, Boxing and Tennis. Secondly, the time we play our games doesn’t help the situation – Saturday night is a great time to watch a basketball match, but it’s a lousy time for the Sunday papers – the majority of editions have gone to print before we even tip off.

Thirdly, we’re not perceived as a national sport - in essence, the BBL is seen as 13 pockets of basketball rather than as a whole, and the absence of a successful national team doesn’t help the matter.

The same arguments don’t apply to the regional media – if the big seven sports don’t have a local team or personality you don’t cover them, there’s no problem with the time we play games because of the different deadlines for what are (usually) evening papers, and the local interest levels in the team are comparatively high in terms of the overall population and readership.

Despite these challenges, we continue to make inroads with the national newspapers. The latest analysis shows that outside the big 7, we have the best spread of regular coverage than any of the other sports. Sure, athletics might do well in the Olympic year, but in terms of regular coverage we’re right up there.

Good things are also happening outside the newspapers at national level – for instance with the weekly coverage on Sky Sports and Sky News, and Hoops, which continues to be one of the best things on Radio 5.

One thing for sure is that no matter how much coverage you get in the sports pages, it seems to have a negligible effect on attendance levels. What seems to drive these is taking the sport out to new, non-traditional audiences, and I can see us spending more of our time doing this – for instance, the Pertemps Bullets Birmingham appeared on BBC1’s Live & Kicking a few weeks ago, which at over 8 million viewers is a very good hit.

The one area that turns all of this on its head is the use of the internet – we already have a very comprehensive official site at bbl.org.uk with a depth of news and factual information that you can’t find anywhere else, as well as an e-mail newsletter that has approaching 1000 subscribers who receive it each day.

In the medium term, we’ll be looking to develop this further and get into areas such as live commentaries on matches. The demand isn’t there yet to justify the resources required, but I see it as something that we might try out on the big games next season.

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