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RaptorsHQ Goes Inside the "NBA in the UK" Experience

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Last weekend marked a historic moment for the NBA as two regular season games were played in Europe for the first time.  The Toronto Raptors were participants in this event, and the HQ talks to a fellow blogger and Raptors fan from that side of the ocean, about his experience.

Was it just me, or did the NBA's "UK Experience" come and go without much fanfare?

Sure, it wasn't like the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers were involved, but for something as historic as a major sports league stretching its boundaries onto another continent for its first regular season matches, I did expect a lot more "noise."

However to me, things kind of came and went without much discussion.

The local Canadian media discussed the games, but no more so than a regular Raptors' match.

And failed to have anything much about the event, aside from a top 3 link on its basketball page, one that I didn't think would have been there had the second game not gone to triple overtime.

My first press experience was in fact an international one, attending a portion of the Toronto Raptors 2007 training camp in parts of Europe.  At that time, a possible European expansion of some sort was on everyone's lips and I even asked David Stern about the possibility of a sort of "Champions League" style tourney between the NBA and various top Euro-clubs.

Stern didn't suggest that it was a definite part of the NBA's future plans, but didn't outright dismiss it either, and the bottom line was that there certainly seemed to be a lot of hype around an NBA Europe plan of some sort.

So what happened?

Did the Euro-expansion plans lose their luster over the past three, four years?

Or was there actually still a huge hunger for NBA ball on the other side of the ocean, but being bombarded by the exploits of Charlie Sheen and the Heatles, we were simply missing out on it?

These were some of the questions I pondered this past weekend, as the Toronto Raptors continued their brave march to the NBA lottery with two losses in London.

And to get some answers, I thought "why not talk to someone who participated in the "NBA in the UK" experience?"

Paging Tom Hurley.

Some of our readers may be familiar with Tom's work as we linked to his site, Tom Hurley Sports, in our Lunch Box Links last week.  Tom, a budding sports journalist living in England, kept a account of the "NBA in the UK" experience on his blog, and I had a chance to talk to him recently about the whole she-bang; from the hype of the weekend to the in-game experience...


1)  RaptorsHQ:  Over the weekend, The Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets played in London, England marking the NBA's first regular season games in Europe.  How big was the hype leading up to the actual event?

Tom Hurley:  Unless you're a fan of basketball, or knows someone who is, then you wouldn't of known much about this weekend's games. The NBA didn't do the best of jobs publicising 'basketball week', which in addition to the two Raptors/Nets games,' also included fan zones and coaching clinics at various cities throughout the UK. In fact, even people who were in The O2 complex (where the arena is located) for an evening out were coming up to me pre-game and asking 'what was going on in the arena, tonight?' It's a shame, because everybody in Britain knows the name Michael Jordan, and are aware that the NBA exists, even if they don't play or follow the sport closely.  And even if they are unsure of the game's finer points or couldn't afford the high ticket prices, they may have been interested in attending the fan zones or taking their kids to a coaching clinic, so they could learn a bit more about the sport.

2)  RHQ:  While the teams that were involved in these matches were hardly from the NBA's "upper echelon," it seemed like the matches brought out a fair amount of UK celebs; from futbol stars to cricket masters.  Would you say these matches viewed in the same light as say a Heat versus Lakers match in the US?

TH:  I got the impression that the soccer players and other high profile sportsman who attended the games were there either because of free tickets, or because they knew they'd get on television across the pond by sitting courtside, which would increase their profile in the US & Canada - something i'm sure their agents advised would be a good marketing idea. I was actually quite surprised at how few celebrities attended the games. When the likes of Miami, Boston and the Lakers have played pre-season games in London, there were many more high profile sports stars and celebrities on hand to take in the game. The games were definitely not viewed in the same light as a match up between LA and the Heat would have been. A lot of the friends who I asked to go to the games with me didn't want to know because it was Raptors/Nets. The games struggled to sell-out, which considering these were regular season fixtures, and the pre-season games mentioned above sold out within days, only really can be explained by the fact it was Toronto and New Jersey in town rather than Kobe Bryant & co.

3)  RHQ:  What about the press coverage of the games, did they usurp Premiership talk for even a brief moment on the city's sports' pages?

TH:  Normally the only coverage basketball games get in sports pages or websites is a ping pong ball sized section featuring simply the final scores of the most recent games. And although there were small features about the games coming, they were few and far between and generally not written by people who understand the sport; rather by your usual soccer or rugby reporter who had been told by his editor that they needed to run a piece on the upcoming London games. One national newspaper which is quite good with basketball had a good sized portion of previews and game reports, but it was nothing compared to the coverage which the ongoing rugby season, cricket world cup and the various professional soccer leagues here have been getting over the duration of NBA London week.

4)  RHQ:  Talk to us a bit about basketball itself in the UK, is this a sport on the rise and do you think at some point (even 30 years from now) we could see an NBA franchise set up shop?

TH:  Almost every school playground and city park in the UK has a basketball court dating back at least the last fifteen years, and basketball is one of the most popular participation sports in the country. Video games such as NBA Jam and the EA Sports 'Live' series are immensely popular and it'll be a rare day when you'll walk through your local mall and not see a handful of people wearing NBA jerseys. There is a professional league here, and during the late 1990's teams played in high capacity arenas, with crowds of over five thousand common; unfortunately a decline over the last ten years has seen most teams suffer financial problems, causing them to leave the arenas behind and set up home court in leisure centre sports halls, playing in front of crowds of between 500-2,000 depending on which British Basketball League team's home venue you're at. The BBL manages to draw crowds in upwards of four thousand to their knock out cup finals and play-off finals which are still held in large arenas, but the league is not as healthy as it once was. The national team is hoping that by having the likes of ex-Raptor Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Chicago's Luol Deng in their line-up, they will be able to qualify for the London 2012 Olympic games, which would go some way to increasing the fan base of the sport on these shores.

Could an NBA team call London home one day? Possibly. There are enough fans here now to fill an arena forty one nights a year no problem, but high ticket prices and expensive transport links to the capital city could pose a problem for the majority of basketball lovers in the UK. But as proved by the contrast between fan interaction during Friday's game and Saturday's triple overtime thriller, those who are unsure of all the ins and outs of the sport but can afford tickets will quickly learn the sport and become passionate about the game taking place on the court. The arena is here, the sponsors are here and the fan base is here. For me, if the NBA can work out the logistics of travel, then there's no reason why the city couldn't support a franchise down the line.

5)  RHQ:  And what about the game experience itself?  Both matches were sold out but was the ambiance anywhere near attending even a lower level Premiership match?  And was the crowd more of a pro-Raptors one?

TH:  During the first quarter of the first game, from my seat way up in the second to last row of the upper bowl, I could clearly hear shoes squeaking, point guards calling plays and the thud of the ball bounding off the hardwood. In fact, the crowd didnt really cheer at all aside from during the time-out entertainment. Baskets were met with polite applause and it took a monster jam from DeMar DeRozan to ignite the building. Although as the game wore on, the decibel level did begin to rise, and there were even a few faint chants of 'Let's Go Raptors'. A few Nets jerseys could be seen, but the number of Raps jerseys more than quadrupled the number of NJ uniforms.

Saturday's game was much better, there seemed to be a lot of Italian and Spanish fans in the crowd who were obviously in town to see Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calerdon in action.  They brought with them noise and a LOT of support for the Raptors. The energy level in the first quarter was already as high as it had been during the opening period of the previous night's game. Choruses of 'Let's Go Raptors' were heard throughout, and by the time the last five minutes of the fourth quarter came around - that arena was quite rowdy. The atmosphere during the three overtimes was almost as close to the volume level you'd get at any arena in the NBA, fans were standing on their feet, cheering at baskets and blocked shots, and they could sense (well, they were told by the arena MC) that they were witness a pretty special game. Although, I still appeared to be the only person in my section who was standing up after big plays, vocally appreciating the efforts of Amir Johnson and Ed Davis in the paint and applauding the Raps to and from the bench at time-outs. It was great to be in such a pro-Raptors crowd, with the only hint of pro-New Jersey chants coming from the Nets' 'Team Hype' who were trying in vain to get the London crowd on their side. Just don't ask me about theme encouraging the wave which started going round the arena during the first OT.... ugh.

As far as comparing it to a soccer crowd goes, was it similar? Yes and no. You get a different atmosphere depending which soccer stadium you go to - in general the more expensive the ticket is, the less working class people you get in the stadium, and the lower the noise level will be. A Premier League game at Old Trafford where Manchester United play for example will feature a core support chanting in one section, while the rest of the stadium will be full of sponsors, tourists and more reserved fans who generally don't get loud unless a goal is scored. Whereas if you went to see Millwall, from The Championship League play, you would experience a fiercely passionate support who really get behind their team, intimidate the opposition and aren't afraid to use choice language when letting the officials know what they think of decisions not going their team's way.

The type of crowd noise going on during the Raps/Nets games was more of the North American style of cheering, rather than the type you'd get at Millwall's The Den stadium, but it was much louder, and more excited, in overtime especially, then you're ever going to get at Old Trafford.     

A big thanks to Tom for answering our questions and be sure to check out his site for more in-depth coverage of the games, as well as some great photos of the weekend.