When Baroness Campbell, chair of UK Sport, said that “London 2012 was just the beginning, not the end, for Olympic and Paralympic sport in this country,” she clearly wasn’t talking about basketball.
This week, basketball fell victim to UK Sport’s ‘No Compromise’ policy on funding for elite athletes, which means that the sport will lose its current funding and miss out its share of the £347 million allocated for the Rio 2016 and subsequent 2020 Olympic Games. This comes despite an overall funding increase of 11% which will be shared amongst some 42 summer sports, leaving basketball as one of only five poor relations.
Roger Moreland, Performance Director for British Basketball, spoke damningly of the decision: “Having been funded to the tune of £8.5 million in the lead up to the London Olympics because of the sport’s medal potential for the future, this is a devastating decision and is a waste of that investment,” he insisted.
Certainly, Moreland can feel that the refusal to grant continued funding is an affront to his staff of players, coaches, managers and directors, who have made unparalleled progress in the growth of the elite level game since Team GB Basketball’s birth in 2006.
“Over the last five years, the GB teams have done the equivalent of going from League Two in football to the Premier League,” Moreland reminds us.
In fact, the decision to discontinue the funding will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows amongst basketball’s global hierarchy who must, once more, be wondering what exactly is going on. British Basketball has gone to great to lengths to bring the home federations (England, Scotland and, likely, Wales) together as a united family going forward and FIBA has been collaborating closely on this.
What is most bemusing about the cut is the lack of recognition for this important work: “Having dealt with those challenges [of unifying the home federations into one GB federation] so constructively, the decision seems scant reward for embracing a change designed to realise medal potential,” muses Moreland.
What may add insult to injury for many basketball fans in the UK is that, while basketball did not claim any medals in London, a significant number of other sports which will keep their funding did not feature on the medals table either. Badminton, archery, fencing, and even women’s beach volleyball, all of which are outside the sporting ‘mainstream’ and did not win medals this year, will keep their UK Sport funding.
UK Sport, for their part, take the view that basketball in Britain does not have the “credible medal potential” outlined as a prerequisite for elite level funding during the Rio cycle, and it would certainly be specious to portray them as sporting Scrooges, given the 11% increase overall.
Liz Nicholl, the funding body’s Chief Executive, insists that “UK Sport’s priority was to get the right resources, to the right athletes, for the right reasons,” and as such, they stand by their decision to axe the basketball funding.
However, UK Sport does frame the ‘No Compromise’ policy in terms that would call the cuts in to question. According to their website, the policy “sets out to reinforce the best, support those developing and challenge the under-performing.”
It seems like quite a challenge to argue that our new national heroes are not amongst the ranks of “those developing”. Moreover, given the rapid momentum of that development over the last six years, the recent remarks of Hugh Robertson, MP, Minister for Sport, seem particularly strange. The allocation of new funding, he claims, “shows our desire to keep up the momentum from London 2012.” Quite.
The question UK Sport wishes to raise, then, seems to be whether or not British Basketball has developed far enough as well as fast enough. Team GB’s men and women recorded just one Olympic win between them in London (the men’s convincing win against China) and so administrators like Nicholl may be justified in wondering whether basketball is currently developing or under-performing.
Roger Moreland views the basketball performances at the London games from a much more optimistic and long-sighted viewpoint. “A few years back, many people said GB teams wouldn’t be competitive at the Olympics. We were. The men’s team lost by one point to eventual silver medallists, Spain, and soundly beat world ranked number 10, China. The women only lost on the last shot of over-time to France who won the silver medal,” reflected Moreland.
Certainly the Performance Chairman views basketball’s medal potential as only just coming to fruition in Rio and 2020 and speaks excitedly about the “fantastic talent pool in this country.” Furthermore, Moreland insists that “the first thing we will be doing is appealing this decision,” adding that, “we have the athletes with the potential to win medals and that’s what British Basketball intends to do.”
Should such an initial appeal fail to soften the stance of UK Sport, British Basketball will be left to do it the hard way once again. The current investment spans the next four years, as part of the Rio cycle, but is being administered as part of a longer 8 year pathway. As such, the funding will come under annual review, which may provide a glimmer of hope for hoops fans.
However, facing the prospect of having to prove their worth on the court, as has continually been the case over the last six years, a huge onus will be placed on Team GB’s performances at next year’s EuroBasket Finals, which will be the men’s third consecutive appearance and the women’s second.
This creates an inevitable ‘Catch-22’ situation as Team GB are, essentially, reliant upon UK Sport’s £8.5 million funding. Moreland and his fellow directors have yet to appoint a new Head Coach and finding one of sufficiently high calibre may prove even more difficult given the dearth of ready money. The replacement of Chris Finch will prove crucial in continuing the sport’s long-term development towards Rio and beyond. Finch’s recent appointment as Assistant Coach of the NBA’s Houston Rockets speaks to the quality and rapidity of improvement of Team GB under his guidance.
Furthermore, securing the release of top NBA players such as Chicago’s Luol Deng and Portland’s Joel Freeland is heavily dependent upon adequately insuring these players against injury. That, as anyone can imagine, might run into astronomical figures. Significantly, too, British Basketball will be desperate to avoid any repeat of the on-off debacle that surrounded the eventual withdrawal of Charlotte’s Ben Gordon from the Team GB squad.
If Moreland and Team GB had been eyeing a medal challenge in 2016, 2020 or any of the Euros in between, this decision will undoubtedly make that a formidable challenge, but what may be even more detrimental to basketball’s development in the longer term is the aspirational deficit it will inevitably create at grass roots level should the sport’s progress hit the buffers.
Should Team GB be prevented from consolidating their development up to now, should they be prevented from securing the commitment of our elite players and coaches, or should they even fail to continue as a unified body, UK Sport’s decision will not have “challenged the under-performing” so much as choked the thriving.
One of the major concerns of the national federations of England, Scotland and particularly Wales, is over what implications the decision to merge into one over-arching basketball union might have on funding in the various regions and, although this current funding cut applies only to Team GB and not community basketball, there will be a whole raft of new concerns about just how serious UK Sport’s commitment to the sport really is. That the funding cut will apply to the GB Under-20 programme, surely everyone in UK basketball will be wondering what the future holds for youth development as a whole.
From a Northern Irish perspective, this week’s decision could turn out to have a frustratingly negative impact as young players whose first experiences of watching and cheering on their own team at the highest level of international basketball came in the form of Team GB this summer and they could see that dream fade almost as quickly as it came into being.
Although BNI currently functions as a region of Basketball Ireland, Ireland is, quite despairingly, without a senior international team, and Team GB affords youngsters in NI their first opportunity to watch players from these islands compete against the very best in the world and think, one day that could be me.
From a long term development point of view, it is vital that young people can have aspirations that are achievable, that they can see a clear and open path to the top of the game, and that they are taken seriously in their pursuit. When that does not happen, children see the highest reaches of the game as distant, unrealistic and as secondary to other interests. When that happens, children choose football, gaelic and rugby instead of basketball.
Sadly, it seems all too unlikely that Ireland will ever really be able to reach the top tier of the international game (given the regression at the elite level that has left the country with no national representation) and that leaves the fortunes of Ireland’s, and particularly Northern Ireland’s, youngsters tied up indirectly with the fortunes of Team GB. We should all be quite dismayed by UK Sport’s decision.
It is worth reflecting, in closing, on the demographics of those who make up the considerable majority of basketball’s grass roots participation in the UK and Ireland. Basketball is a game that thrives in the inner city. Look to Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Limerick for dominance of the game here. Moreover, what of inner city London, Birmingham, Manchester and others?
Roger Moreland sees this as central to the importance of basketball’s continued development as a vehicle not just for medals but for individual opportunity and social improvement in places where it is needed most. “There’s a fantastic talent pool in this country which comes from different parts of the community than the majority of sports UK Sport supports. They deserve better.”