Wednesday, 12 August 2009

British must make own move to the basket

Shaquille O'Neal and I had something in common lately. We were both in China. There the similarities ended with the Diesel causing a royal rumpus in Sichuan. He gave out four autographed basketballs to kids at a local high school which were, subsequently, confiscated for the greater good. He sent some more in a gesture of goodwill. Even the official agencies called it like it was. NBA 1, Bureaucracy 0. 

In the shopping mall in which I read the story, there was a line of girls promoting a new phone/MP3 player. It carried the brand of a well-known technology giant, whose name was also adorning a brand of beer. Score 3, that, to the NBA, and that's before we even start talking about Yao Ming's myriad endorsements of everything from electronics to sportswear, and the peculiar (but excellent tasting) Yi Jianlian range of ice creams.  

Yao has been busy, however, as he continues his recovery (or not) from injury. He purchased the Shanghai Sharks, the club from which he moved to Houston, for around £1.25m. A snip, given his vast earnings around the world. But wandering through the entire floor of sports shops at this gargantuan retail hub, there was no sign of any replica shirts from the CBA or even the national team. The visibility of Chinese basketball is virtually zero.

Even the ambitious Li-Ning brand, which is set to challenge the global supremacy of Adidas and Nike, is using the trio of Baron Davis, Jose Calderon, and Shaq as its pitchmen. 

So, it begs the question, what will the basketball-scape look like in the UK in 2013, one year after the stage of the Olympics has given the game its biggest fillip in decades? There is no question that the NBA is the most visible sporting-entity, bar none, in China. Now it is the UK's turn for the treatment by Association.

David Stern's reasoned input is always worth a listen. There are good folk at NBA Europe who have been putting in the hours under, and above, the radar. Their strategy isn't perfect. It has its detractors. Yet at least, there is something being done. With last month's formation of the All-Parliamentary Basketball Group, an initiative supported by Stern's emissaries, the politicians have now been courted as never before.

Yet, with just three years now until 2012, this has to be the time when British basketball, in all its forms and entities, learns to run its own show to the highest manner possible. In a country that dominates, on a commercial level, world soccer, there is clearly the ability and the imagination to push things forward. However, the NBA took over the marketing of The Game On tournament at The 02 because not enough tickets were being sold.

With the arena set to be barely filled to one-tenth of its capacity (despite a flurry of late free ticket giveaways), where does this leave BB and its agents, Fast Track? Questions must be asked about whether the estimated £750,000 investment in the event was worthwhile. 

You hope it will be a blip, rather than the norm. There is more dialogue between the various parties who have a stake in the future of UK hoops than ever before. That can only be a good thing. But it is only a start and the bar, now raised high above the rim, will take some reaching.  

The NBA has put a lot of resources in China. It is reaping dividends. Yet, you ask, where are the profits ultimately destined for? If, in four years time, the UK is awash with NBA-branded phones and beers, and you can get a Celtics top in every mall, it will say much for the success of American know-how. And much too about the lack of advances by our homegrown product and the people involved in developing it beyond its current exotic ghetto.

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