by Rob Scott / @robscott33
UK Sport, the government-appointed body that allocates funding for elite sport in Britain, has removed all funding for the Great Britain national basketball programme. A year after a stay of execution, the future of the men’s and women’s senior and u20 programmes is in serious doubt following this summer’s qualifiers for Eurobasket 2015.
In total, £271,970,955 of National Lottery and government funding was allocated to ‘Olympic sports’ for the funding cycle to Rio 2016. The clue is in the terminology used by the holders of the purse strings: Olympic Sports. With no realistic prospect of a medal at either Rio 2016 or Tokyo 2020, a national basketball team is entirely disposable in the eyes of the British political class.
By UK Sport’s narrow criteria for funding, they made the correct decision. No credible basketball observer would say Great Britain have a chance of qualifying for a 12-team Olympics, let alone medalling. The problem is is not UK Sport’s answer to the question, it’s that they’re asking the wrong question.
At least there can be no misunderstandings now: The British government is interested in buying Olympic medals, and they don’t give a stuff about which sports the medals are won in. Youth and adult participation, cultural relevance, spectator numbers - none of these things matter. Modern pentathlon was awarded nearly £7 million, archery nearly £3 million, canoeing over £20 million.
These are niche, non-spectator sports with a very narrow pyramid of competition around the world. The barriers to becoming a top 3 modern pentathlete are minuscule compared with a team sport that has generations of mass participation and social capital in countries all over the globe. In the world of UK politics, all the more reason to divert funds towards fencing, shooting and swimming, and if you can combine those all in one event with 300 ranked competitors in the world, then all the better.
The misunderstanding of how team sports work and how success is achieved was even more apparent in UK Sport’s justification following the announcement. There appears to be no comprehension that in a team sport, you can’t just pump money into a few selected individuals’ training facilities, coaching and nutrition and turn them into a world-class contender. A game awash with billions of pounds in revenue hasn’t managed it, and basketball is no different.
As Sam Neter of Hoopsfix reported from the scene, apparently UK Sport sees GB’s best players playing abroad as the main obstacle in front of an Olympic medal. Clearly this is total nonsense. Dozens of football, basketball and other team sports programmes have succeeded with the majority of players playing and developing abroad.
Long term, of course a higher level of professional competition in the UK is needed, but this decision is about the prospect of winning an Olympic medal in the next six years. It’s almost painfully hilarious that UK Sport felt the need to point out that British basketball could re-apply next year “if they show medal potential”.
What can be expected to change in 12 months is not immediately clear. It’s plausible to imagine than UK Sport sincerely don’t see any difference between going from zero to Olympic medal within fifteen years in basketball than they do in modern pentathlon. Such is the level of indifference towards the game amongst British sports bureaucrats.
Most disappointingly the news comes following the best year at youth level that Great Britain and England have ever had. England under-18s beat bronze-medal wining Spain and finished a credible ninth in their first go at a Division A tournament. Great Britain under-20s finally won promotion to Division A by finishing runners up to Poland in Division B. The definitive youth scouting service Eurohopes lists British players in its top 20 prospects for the 1993, 1995 and 1996 generations. The volume of talent necessary to build an elite senior programme has only just begun to appear - it would need another decade of 1995-calibre players to emerge to succeed at the Eurobasket level, let alone in the Olympics. But the pathway to that ever happening is about to disappear, smothered under a souvenir Olympic pillow before it ever had a real chance to succeed.
GB Basketball, the organisation charged with running the national team programme, is not blameless here. The lack of organisational integration between mass participation, youth competition and elite success is deeply harmful. So is a national governing body that has just lost out on participation funding to the private sector. But these things take time. More time than the nine years, between 2005 and 2014, that has marked the extent of UK Sport’s patience.
Arguably a more streamlined funding package may have driven through efficiencies out of necessity that should have been made voluntarily. But even £1 million per year would be a significant contributor towards the basic infrastructure of running an elite national team: medical support, training camp, coaches’ salaries, nutrition, travel and accommodation.
A skeleton operation would be better than nothing. Perhaps a couple of hundred thousand pounds could have been siphoned from the £58 million awarded to rowing and sailing combined. Remember the main source of this funding is the National Lottery. This is not money that needs to be diverted from health or education.
Perhaps a commercial sponsor can be found to plug the gap, but in a challenging economic climate, large companies are not lining up to pump money into professional sport, particularly one that offers only a few home games per year and a limited television audience. The deal with current sponsors Standard Life ends this year, and it is likely that the giant insurance firm was motivated by the exposure that came from London 2012, with no incentive to continue. The problem is that with little revenue-generating capability, the British team is unlikely to attract sufficient commercial interest.
World Cup winning Rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward has persuasively argued that there is a gap in UK Sport funding criteria, and it needs to be filled:
“We must adopt a broader and longer-term vision and aspiration rather than leave ourselves accused of developing an unhealthy lust for medals at all costs, and invest and develop other sports, especially team sports on the back of our Olympic and Paralympic triumph”
Woodward argues that sports like basketball should be made to sign-up to a long term business plan that requires qualified success at a realistic level and over a longer period of time. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? But he is one of the few prominent figures from the British sporting mainstream who has spoken up for basketball. Make no mistake, UK Sport is perfectly comfortable with Britain not having a national basketball team, because the outrage at losing it would be confined to a sporting community that is invisible to the wider public, at least the part of it that holds political capital. Basketball is played by more under-25s in Britain than rugby or cricket, but that has not translated into visibility amongst the wider public.
That, in the end, may be the final word. Nobody in a position of power within British government sports administration will ever lose their job because our basketball team failed to perform. Nor are they likely to lose any sleep.