by Vlad Ionasc
On the 13th of November, the British Basketball League announced that – for the first time in almost 20 years – Sky Sports would provide live coverage of the league after the two sides had struck a two-year, 30 games-per-season deal. As part of the agreement, Sky Sports would also air the BBL Trophy Final, BBL Cup Final, BBL Playoffs and provide live coverage of the Women’s BBL Playoff final.
The first teams to benefit from the alluring Sky Sports treatment?
The Cheshire Phoenix and Sheffield Sharks.
Disraeli Lufadeju – Cheshire’s longest-tenured player – believes that the Phoenix, an often-overlooked franchise that usually operates on a shoestring budget, will have a lot to gain from the increased media coverage.
“More people will not only want to invest and partner with our club, but it also means that more people will come to our games and spectate, which will then bring more revenue to the club,” said Lufadeju.
The British point-guard stated that securing a deal of this magnitude with a media conglomerate such as Sky will only accelerate the growth of basketball in the UK and in turn force the government to fund the sport properly.
“The more people that watch, the more people will want to participate in the sport. If you have more participants joining the basketball community, that forces the government to invest heavily into that sport, because it’s what the people want. If we have the government backing the sport, who knows the level that we could reach?” wondered Lufadeju.
The last time a BBL game was broadcasted by Sky Sports (28th April 2013, per Daniel Routledge), Ben Thomas was coaching the Phoenix under-18s, Cheshire hosted their opponents at the Northgate Arena, and Mike Tuck was playing for the Sharks.
Seven and a half years have passed, and Thomas is now a BBL Cup-winning coach, the Nix play at the Cheshire Oaks Arena (EPSV), and Tuck is still suiting up for the Sharks!
“It’s been a long-time coming man,” said Tuck about the new TV deal. “I think that basketball is a sport that deserves to be on a major platform in the UK. I think we should’ve been back on Sky years ago.”
Tuck has worked at Sky Sports as an NBA Analyst since March 2019, providing in-game analysis, making appearances on shows like ‘Heat Check’, and also contributing to articles featured on Sky Sports’ online platform.
He revealed that basketball – in terms of TV viewership – is growing exponentially in the UK.
“The basketball market and audience in the UK is growing at a really quick rate,” declared Tuck. “Being involved with Sky for their NBA coverage I’ve seen the numbers grow with that and I’ve seen the momentum, so to add the BBL to that, why not get that domestic league in the mix? It’s only going to go from strength to strength and it will draw more eyes on the sport in general.”
Currently, there are 12 players in the BBL that have played for a team in a ‘Power Five’ conference (ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC) in the NCAA:
Bristol: Daniel Edozie (Iowa State – Big 12) & Eric Lockett (NC State – ACC)
Leicester: Mo Walker (ruled out for the season) (Minnesota – Big Ten)
London: DeAndre Liggins (Kentucky – SEC) + Kingsley Okoroh (California – Pac-12) + Shane Walker (Maryland – ACC) + Byron Mullens (Ohio State – Big Ten)
Newcastle: Rex Pflueger – (Notre Dame – ACC)
Plymouth: Prince Ibeh (Texas – Big 12)
Worcester: K.J. Lawson (Kansas – Big 12) + Matthew Bryan-Amaning (Washington — Pac-12)
Sheffield: Kipper Nichols (Illinois – Big Ten)
Six other guys played at colleges in the Big East and AAC; two prestigious and highly-rated conferences that aren’t part of the traditional ‘Power Five’:
London: Kevin Ware – (Louisville – AAC)
Manchester: Breaon Brady – (Houston – AAC) + Sam Cassell Jr. – (Connecticut – AAC)
Surrey: Connor Cashaw – (Creighton – Big East)
Worcester: Mike Parks Jr (Memphis – Big East) + Lamarr Kimble (Louisville – AAC)
Leicester’s Geno Crandall spent his senior year at Gonzaga, a college that plays in the WCC, but is nonetheless considered a powerhouse in the NCAA.
Teams around the league have retained plenty of autochthonous talent, and in the cases of Teddy Okereafor and Fahro Alihodzic, attracted it.
The BBL is inundated with talent and now the league has been given the golden opportunity to flaunt it all in front of a national audience.
“Players will realise what this means so I think that you’ll see a different animal coming from us because I know that when I played back in university in America, whenever we had an ESPN game, you knew it was time to show up,” said Tuck.
“There will be new fans, new people experiencing basketball for their first time, so you want to give your best showing of the sport, so therefore you’ve got to bring your A-game,” added Lufadeju.
“You’ve got to play harder than you would usually because that new viewer might be a new sponsor for your club, they might want to invest their time and money into coming to spectate a game live, so you definitely want to showcase your best performance.
“The first time I watched basketball, I was seeing dunks and scores happening in quick succession,” reminisced Lufadeju. “I was like ‘wow, this is so exciting’ so hopefully both the Phoenix and Sharks put on a good show to make other kids feel that same excitement that I felt when I first watched basketball.”
Lufadeju and Tuck emphasized that they have both been proactive in terms of trying to increase the current viewership of the league.
“For any game, not just because of Sky, I always tell my friends and family,” said Lufadeju. “I always make them aware of a game that’s taking place. Also, what I do is I put a lot of it on my social media platforms. I always tell people to repost my games just so more people are aware of the sport.”
“I e-mail about 50 people with the YouTube link every time we have a game,” said Tuck. “Not only here in England, but across the world. I want people in Canada, in America to be tuning in.”
Tuck suggested that everyone involved in British Basketball in any capacity must now make even more noise in order to attract bigger audiences.
“We need eyes on the game, we need engagement on our social media platforms, we need views on all of these Sky Sports games,” said Tuck. “As clubs, as players, as management, we need to be shouting about our games.”
Despite being regarded as storied franchises, with rich histories and winning cultures, the Nix and Sharks have both struggled in the opening month of the 2020/21 season.
Cheshire were wrecked by coronavirus implications within the camp, which forced coach Thomas to rely on fringe players for the entire BBL Cup campaign. The Nix crashed out of the competition after they picked up four losses in as many games.
The Sharks were placed in the ‘Group of Death’ alongside the star-studded Lions, Riders, and Eagles and were eliminated from the competition on Sunday night, after picking up just one win in five games.
“Both teams are better than what the record shows right now,” said Tuck. “Cheshire have had multiple problems with guys sitting out, so they haven’t had a chance to really get rolling and play with a full squad yet.
“For us, we had a great pre-season, and when it came to the Cup, we’ve just hit a few stumbling blocks and dug ourselves some holes early in games.
“It’s still early doors, right? It’s the first month of the season, we’re still learning how to play together and get our offense in check. We’ve got to learn how to put the ball in the basket.”
Both teams have made re-adjustments ahead of the start of the regular season.
Cheshire replaced rookie Devin Mitchell with a proven BBL guard in Mike McCall Jr while Sheffield shocked the league by axing Mackey McKnight – who had been at the club since the 2017-18 season – and replacing the former Lehigh point-guard with Jeremy Hemsley, a rookie out of San Diego State.
“I’m feeling a lot more confident now that we have our full roster,” said Lufadeju. “The cohesion on the team is a lot better, we’ve made some adjustments and I think it’s for the betterment of the team.
“Come Thursday night, I feel like we’ll definitely be ready to showcase what we stand for as the Cheshire Phoenix.”
Tip-off between the Phoenix and Sharks is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Thursday, 3rd of December, with the build-up starting at 4:30 p.m. on Sky Sports Arena and Main Event.