Euroleague’s never-ending love affair with the UK’s capital city came up every now and again during Final Four week in Istanbul. Emmet Ryan examines the case for London and why it’s arguably the most challenging market to pursue even within Britain
Depending on which geographic definition you take, London has between 8.6 million and 14 million people living there. It’s pretty affluent too with GDP per capita north of $160,000 dollars. If you run a business built around freeing people of their disposable income, it seems like a good place to be strong. Having a lengthy history of sports fandom in terms of attendance and money spent per fan comparable only to Germany also helps.
Why Euroleague wants to set up in London is pretty obvious but the case is really complex. Where there’s money there’s competition and where there’s competition you’d better be ready to invest big. We’ll start with the upsides.
All those people
Seriously, this market size is obscene. It’s the third largest city in Europe, after Istanbul and Moscow, and one of the richest in the world. It’s not accident that a season ticket for Arsenal can cost treble what Barcelona charge, despite the latter usually ruining the former in European competition. That scale of population means there’s a really broad spread of people, including plenty of immigrants from places more fond of basketball than the UK. Breaking through in a market that size would also give Euroleague a major bump in its ability to generate sponsorship and advertising revenue.
Between the O2 Arena (capacity: 20,000) and the Copper Box (capacity: 7,500) London has the infrastructure in place to handle significant crowds for indoor sport. The pairing, particularly given their geographic proximity to one another, isn’t that far removed from Pionir Hall and the Kombank Arena in Belgrade as a combination. In between there’s also Wembley Arena (12,500), which post its renovation 11 years ago is in decent shape for hosting.
This is a far bigger one than you might think. Euroleague switching to a 30 game regular season actually works in favour of the London move as its enough games that a team could essentially not play in the British Basketball League (BBL). A hypothetical London side would, if it was capable of playing in Euroleague, have a budget that dwarfed the BBL and essentially render its presence in that competition bad for all parties. The BBL clubs would be in an unwinnable situation and the standard drop would be off-putting to imports. Furthermore, any London expansion side would likely mean Euroleague had grown to 18 or 20 sides (or even more) by that point so the season would be closer to 34 or 38 games. That’s enough to sustain a team for a season, particularly in a market that may not be ready for 30 home games.
Right. That’s the good news. Now for the rest.
Basketball means NBA
Well that’s a touch too harsh but put it this way. Basketball begins in London with NBA fandom. There’s then a huge drop to the BBL in terms of interest. Then there’s the national team/Olympics. Somewhere, out by the Kuiper Belt, is where London’s nascent interest in Euroleague or really any other basketball lies.
The 2013 Final Four was a disaster and it’s easy to see why. The venue was quite a bit out, reducing its visibility to Londoners. The marketing behind it didn’t generate notable interest locally and the arena wasn’t close to full with tickets going at bargain basement prices on the day of the semi finals (while this eejit paid the full whack for a seat in the top row). The final wasn’t even live on TV in the UK. The most the average Londoner saw of it was Boris Johnson making this shot and Boris was prone to this level of nonsense on a regular basis throughout his mayoralty to the point that it would fade out of memory quickly. The event failed so much that the initial plan to hold the 2014 Final Four there as well was quickly scrapped and eventually moved to Milan.
This is going to be expensive
London is not cheap to live in and starting a team from scratch is going to require spending a serious amount of change. That means an ownership group with deep pockets and a willingness to commit to a certain number of years with significant downsides for pulling out. You are talking about a market that isn’t used to a top tier basketball team and isn’t all that familiar with Europe’s top tier. That means you need a whopping marketing budget, not just to advertise but also to do sufficient pre and ongoing research into what market segments within London to target. In the first three years alone, you’d have to seriously consider having a marketing budget that match a top eight player budget on the continent if not exceed that just to be in any way relevant in the market. Player salaries would also have to be meaty because the cost of living will mean ballers will expect a bump even though London has plenty to do.
Football is so powerful
Across the top five tiers of English football, there are 16 football teams. Of these, 5 play in the Premier League, 2 will be playing Champions League football next season, and a third just missed out on it this year. You are not going to compete with football, you are looking to find what is left after it. It’s that simple.
But plenty of Euroleague clubs have ties to football clubs? Yup, indeed all of the Final Four teams are part of wider sports clubs. All four of those teams also have extensive histories of said ties and, with the exception of FC Bayern, the same goes for all other notable multi-sport clubs in Europe. If a football club gets tied there are two plausible scenarios: Either the fans of the football club complain about money going on a basketball team or the club puts no money in and charges for licensing rights.
You’re not just competing with other sports
On top of football’s huge presence there are two notable rugby clubs (three if you count the interest Reading based London Irish get from the Irish community in the city), immediately targeting more affluent customers, and cricket will always garner some money too although likely not from the target markets. That’s all before you get to the real issue. It’s not just sports you are fighting with for interest.
There are many, many, ways to be entertained in London. Get the escalator off any tube station that has one working and you’ll be quickly reminded of this. Ads fill the walls for all kinds of gigs, shows, and whatever else someone might want to spend their money on. It’s also a pretty good city to eat in. You are fighting with all of this for interest and you’re the new kid in town.
This also plays into media coverage and how you energise a fanbase. London has more journalists per square mile than near any city on the planet and it rings true for sports journalists too. There’s no shortage of outlets all vying for slices of the market and to get those outlets to care you better have a market for them to reach. Otherwise, well it’s going to be ice-skating up hill.
This is also why cities in other parts of the UK would at least prove somewhat better fits. They have a lot of the other issues mentioned here but just not with the sheer scale of London. The likes of Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and, to a lesser degree due to population, Edinburgh all offer upsides in terms of reduced competition. None of these are easy, actually all of them are really tough in their own individual rights, but all of them bear much more of a resemblance to Munich in terms of the ability to get an initial presence. None of these are realistically on Euroleague’s agenda and all of them lack the euros per capita of London nor do they have the same ability to be spun into something with the same internationally allure of the city in the eyes of sponsors.
Remember the Broncos
This would be far from the first time a sports league without a traditional heritage in London tried to establish itself there. The nearest example lies in the repeated and expensive efforts to establish a rugby league side in the UK capital.
Briefly, for those unfamiliar. Rugby union is the sport you probably see more of on your TV, it’s 15 a side and typically has a history of attracting more affluent support. Rugby league is 13 a side, has its heritage in the north of England and tends to be a more working persons game.
League has made repeated goes dating back to the 1980s to establish a London side, the bulk of which formed around the London Broncos. They managed a solid 17 years in the Super League, changing their name to Harlequins (the same as one of the union sides) for their last 5 years. The sport bent over backwards to make it work, adjusting import and financial rules, and it was a money leaking failure that had no long-term benefit. The team still exists in the second tier, back as the Broncos, but it just never managed to get the large northern England diaspora in the region to care never mind those who wouldn’t have roots in the sport’s heartlands.
Not all Londoners are the same
This is the most obvious one to anybody that’s ever lived in or even known someone who lived in London but the city is really regional. That’s natural when you have a city so big. Think of Istanbul, admittedly much larger than London, but getting someone from Besiktas to like Fenerbahce even if they didn’t have a team and no other differences would be tough enough given the sheer journey required to go see them play. Add in all the sub-regional factors, and it’s no surprise that a city gets splintered. There is still the broader idea of a Londoner but it’s not enough to count on when you are trying to target a certain group of fans. All of the potential venues are lengthy journeys from the heart of the city. That’s a big ask.
So, in summary. This is a huge and relatively affluent market, the league is the right format, and it has good venues. This market is wildly crowded in sports and other forms of entertainment, it’s really expensive to establish a presence, and split along multiple geographic and cultural lines, oh and other sports have tried a similar tactic and found it to be an expensive failure.
The positives mean London will always remain attractive, everyone wants a piece of a market that big. The barriers mean its hard to see it being more than an idea for quite some time to come.