Whilst basketball has always been a popular pastime in America, in recent years it has started to break out across the Atlantic to the UK and Europe. From a little known sport that was first played in the 1890s with balls thrown into fruit baskets nailed to the wall, basketball has become a multi-million pound industry, complete with star players and fans on every continent. Even in 2007 the sport was fast gaining ground, with a report by Roper Starch Worldwide finding that 11% of the world played basketball. The report also highlighted that the sport had already replaced football as the most popular sport in areas like Asia and Australia and predicted world domination was next.
Roper Starch Worldwide isn’t the only organisation to have seen the potential of the sport. Although he might be slightly biased, according to the secretary general of FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, the sport is not simply gaining ground but has already established dominance. Patrick Baumann said recently, “if you look around the world and get the statistics of what’s the most popular sport in the age group 14-18, it’s basketball across all genders.” But what is it that makes basketball so popular and how is its fame spreading?
As with any sport, the international broadcast of games has much to do with the fact that basketball now has a serious fan base. No matter where you are in the world you can watch the American NBA games thanks to the wonders of satellite TV, and most domestic leagues also have their own coverage. The internet has also fueled interest in basketball, with teams having their own web pages, chatrooms and forums, as well as the buzz that is generated all over the world on social media when a big game is played.
Then there’s the celebrity element – whilst Michael Jordan may once have been the only real celebrity in basketball, now the names are numerous – not everyone is that familiar with the minutiae of the team sheets, but most people will have heard of the LA Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (considered to be the second Michael Jordan by many), Miami Heat’s Lebron James (or ‘King James’ as he is also known) and the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose. As well as the celebrity players themselves, the profile of the game has undoubtedly also been raised by the celebrity connections – there are always plenty of famous faces attending the matches, from Leonardo Di Caprio to Justin Bieber and Kanye West, and of course anyone who has every watched ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ will recognise Los Angeles Clippers player Lamar Odom.
Basketball has also made its way into the parks and playgrounds of countries outside of the US and this too has contributed to its widespread popularity. In the UK, football and rugby are no longer the only options for those looking to get involved in some team sports and there are basketball leagues, federations and amateur competitions all over the country, encouraging participating from everyone from primary school children to the over 60s. Luke Mohr who runs a sports club called Go Mammoth, which runs numerous social basketball leagues in London points to other reasons for the games growing popularity with social players in the UK;
“With a set of rules that doesn’t hold the same complexity as some of the more involved sports and similarity in terms of the basics to other games such as netball, making the transition to playing basketball has been a natural step for many.”
And with more than 300,000 people a month in the UK already playing the sport, its profile looks set to get even stronger in the years to come.
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John is a freelance sports journalist from London.