Why British Basketball Can't Compete With The NBA and The American Draft System

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Why British Basketball Can't Compete With The NBA and The American Draft System
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Pops Mensah-Bonsu, one of the success stories of British basketball

Inside the education emporiums of America, are the giant sports halls and fields, and every week, thousands of locals, students, and dedicated fans flock to see the game. Mothers and fathers, who represented the university in their youth, are there to see their child shine on the big stage. Scouts and academics can also all be seen at 'the game'. The smell of pretzels and hot dogs fill the air. Beautiful, sparkly cheerleaders called Stacy and Jordan urge the crowds to cheer. Thousands of tickets and dollars change hands. Journalists with camera crews, beam the game into millions of homes across the country.

 These men and women are not flocking to see an American, bigger and better brand of the chauvinistic, rich sportsmen we have in the UK. Quite the opposite, they're there to see college sports. Taking to the field and courts are young, amateur players, who become heroes or villains on the day, but spend the rest of the week studying, and enjoying their sport. Some of these individuals will become professionals one day, and this is where the world and their future employers discover them.

The attendance figures of two of America’s favourite sports, basketball and football, show a huge attendance at college level that even competes with the British professional figures. 2,365 people, on average went to every college basketball game in America in 2009. That includes over 1000 colleges/universities, some of which are very small, playing over 14,000 games. Championship Tournament games had an average attendance of over 20,000 – and four Universities had average attendances throughout the regular season of over 20,000. That’s more than professional Premier League soccer teams end of season averages, like Wigan Athletic, Portsmouth and Burnley. University football in America’s attendance is even larger. The average in 2009 was nearly 14,000 – the top teams averaged nearer to 45,000 - and there were eighteen teams who had a larger average attendance than Manchester United last season.

The same atmosphere and excitement is not created in England. James Perry, captain of the Leeds Carnegie American football team, and a regular on the rugby team confessed: “On good days, 50 people come to the sports games. They’re usually friends and family of the team. I wish we got more coming”. Leeds Metropolitan, where Mr Perry attends, has the most students in Britain, and places a large emphasis on sports. The situation is worse at other, smaller universities. Warwick Cann, the Pathways coordinator for the English Basketball League, an amateur league, breaks down the domino effect of problems that some, especially amateur, sports have: “Lack of finance into the sport means lack of participation, which means a lack of knowledge and understanding that means lack of national coverage and attendance”.

The reason for the crowd disparity is down to the different systems used. In the UK, sports teams are free to sign players from an early age. Paul Blake, the Chairman of the British Basketball League, and Managing Director of the Newcastle Eagles attributes much of his club’s success to this British model: “We train players from twelve years old, until they’re an adult, and create our professionals that way. It’s the British philosophy – taking players from grass roots level.”  Most British professional sports clubs adopt this system. Jack Wilshere, an English soccer player, for example joined the Arsenal academy as a nine year old. This means that the majority of quality young players can be seen at the professional clubs training academies, not on the school grounds trying to make a name for themselves, while still thinking about their education.

In contrast, the Americans work with a draft system. Potential professionals must enter themselves into a yearly lottery, where the teams who perform the worst in their league get to choose first from those who enter their names into the draft. This theoretically creates some equality between the teams. The rules on eligibility for drafting are that the individuals must be at least 19 years old at the end of the calendar year for the draft, and they must also have graduated from high-school – which is equivalent to our pre-university A-Level stage. The majority of players go on to play for a university team, to give themselves more exposure, and increase their chances of being picked in the draft. To keep their place in the team, universities have an ever increasing grade point average that the athletes have to reach. This means young athletes have to focus on education if they want to become professionals – and this in turn creates a higher standard of play in the university – hence the higher game attendances.

The objective of the universities in any country is still to produce intelligent graduates. Mr Blake identifies the problem that some young people, who don’t consider the chance that they may not be drafted, have: “When you reach 23 [if you haven’t been drafted] it’s back to the real world again. You need to think long and hard about what your career path is post-college, because you’re doing all this to become a professional player. You’re not doing it for four years of pseudo-stardom on a college campus. That is not what it’s about. Offering the combination of a sport, and an educational model is difficult to beat.” The advantage to the American system, as identified in movies like Coach Carter, is that because the draft is so competitive, athletes need to have a back-up plan, so that they can survive in the real world. The real Coach Ken Carter locked his winning team out of the gym, and forced them to go to the library to improve their grades.

It may not be much of a surprise to read about America’s success in basketball and football, but their diligence towards sport will also help them become a force in soccer. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, the writers of Soccernomics: Why England Lose... predict that instead of the Europeans or an African country (as predicted by Pelé) prevailing in the future of world soccer, the Americans are one of the countries predicted to eventually become a soccer superpower. On the final page, they conclude: “the best bets for the future are probably Japan, the US, or China... the US has the most young soccer players of any country, and has reached a World Cup quarter final.“ Japan and China are thought to become successful because of their economy, and their population, but both have had limited success on the world stage, and neither have many players playing in Europe. The MLS (the US soccer league) also uses a draft system, and while it’s difficult to measure the increase in standard of the MLS, more and more Europeans are playing in the MLS, and more American soccer players are coming to play in Europe. Players like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Brad Freidel, Jonathan Spector and Jozy Altidore are all first team players in the Premier League.

Warwick Cann maintains that “the draft system is not needed in British basketball”. Many would argue it is not needed in the Premier League either. But would the draft system work in English soccer? Not unless the FA scrapped the promotion and relegation system. There are sixteen teams in Major League Soccer, thirty teams in the National Basketball Association and thirty two teams in the National Football League, and none of them play for promotion or relegation. But there are over 100 professional teams in England, spread over seven leagues. In the American draft, the worst teams get the best players. It would be like sending the next Wayne Rooney to Accrington Stanley. The divide between the top and the bottom teams is much greater than in the American leagues. There was a soccer school independent of clubs, set up by the FA called Lilleshall, and it worked. It produced players of the calibre of Michael Owen, Sol Campbell, Jermaine Defoe, but was shut down in 1999.

While the draft may work for middle-class sports like cricket or rugby, as Gianluca Vialli’s search for middle-class soccer players showed (he found one), soccer is a game played by the working class, many of which would not graduate from the equivalent of high school, for financial and academic reasons. Studies show there are less working-class students since the introduction of the university fees, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest a lot of soccer players are not intelligent enough to graduate from the equivalent of high-school level. Nicholas Hobbes writes: “it was generally agreed that Jurgen Klinnsman spoke better English than his Tottenham Hotspur teammates”. Hans Meyer, a former soccer coach, commented on soccer squads: "In every squad there are five completely stupid players... At least one of those would end up begging on the streets if he didn't play professional football. If the England team had to exclude five or more of its players for academic reasons, there would be public outcry, and the team would be at a major disadvantage.

Even Mr Blake concedes defeat to the American system: ”This might seem like a contradiction, but I think the American system is outstanding. It’s just a completely different cultural system to the one we have here. I explain the system to people not involved in basketball on a daily basis, and they struggle to get their heads around it.” Another problem he has is the ignorance of independent basketball coaches. “The coaches have no comprehension of what is happening in the UK, and they’re not even willing to try and find out – and when they’re told, they don’t want to listen. It is incredibly demotivating. We offer a model combining education and basketball that I’m very proud of – but is that comparable to spending four years at North Carolina? It’s difficult to say, because that is the choice of a lifetime.”

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