British Basketball League: How Popular Is Basketball in the UK?

Leicester Riders stadium

Leicester Riders stadiumLeicester Riders (DougPR /

Did you know that there is an equivalent of the National Basketball Association operating within the United Kingdom? Whilst basketball may not enjoy the same level of popularity as football or rugby in the UK, the sport has been steadily growing in recent years. In the world of basketball, the UK has the British Basketball League, which is known as the BBL, whilst there are also other leagues and competitions within the country that have at least a mild comparison to the NBA. It is unlikely that they’ll ever compete in any meaningful way, but it does at least offer British basketball fans something to enjoy.

It is the highest level of professional basketball in the UK and involves ten teams from across England and Scotland. This is because, at the time of writing at least, there are no clubs playing in the BBL that are based in Wales or Northern Ireland. On top of the league itself, there are also knockout competitions that are run by the British Basketball League, in much the same way as the Football Association takes charge of the FA Cup and the League Cup runs alongside the Premier League and other divisions in football. It is part of what makes the sport more all-encompassing in the UK.

A History of the British Basketball League

British Basketball League logoThe British Basketball League has a rich history that dates back to its establishment in 1987. Over the years, the league has experienced growth, faced challenges and made significant strides in developing basketball in the United Kingdom. The foundation of the BBL marked a milestone for professional basketball in the UK. It was established to provide a platform for competitive basketball and to showcase the talent within the country. The inaugural season featured eight teams, including clubs from Portsmouth, Birmingham and London, with Portsmouth ultimately finishing as champions.

The league aimed to foster a professional environment for players, coaches and fans, raising the profile of basketball in the UK. In its early years, the BBL faced financial challenges and struggled to establish a solid foundation. However, the league’s perseverance and commitment to growth eventually paid off. As basketball gained popularity and more investors became involved, the BBL began to stabilise and was able to expand. Throughout the 1990s, the BBL experienced growth both in terms of the number of teams and the quality of play that supporters got to watch.

The league attracted talented players from around the world, enhancing the level of competition. High-profile signings, such as NBA players like Dennis Rodman and Clyde Drexler, brought international attention to the league. In 1996, the BBL introduced the Play-Offs, a knockout tournament that culminated in a final match to determine the champion of the season. This format added excitement and a sense of climax to the BBL season, captivating fans and increasing engagement with the league, as well as mirroring what happened in American sports.

Tough Times Post-Millennium

The turn of the millennium brought both challenges and opportunities for the British Basketball League. Financial difficulties came about as a result of the collapse of ITV Digital, which resulted in the league taking a financial hit. The contract was worth £21 million, the loss of which saw many clubs struggle to recover. Even long-established sides chose to withdraw from the league, though new sides were created in their stead. This allowed for the creation of new teams and the promotion of others from the English Basketball League, a lower tier division.

Having come close to winning the championship thanks to 31 wins out of 40 in the previous season, only to lose out to the Chester Jets, the Newcastle Eagles won 30 out of 40 regular fixtures and won the league. They went on to win the BBL Cup, BBL Trophy and Playoffs, in order to complete the set with a clean sweep. It was a dominant performance from the Eagles, who went on to become one of the most successful and dominant teams in the league’s history. In 2003, the BBL took a significant step forward by securing a television deal with British Eurosport.

The TV Deal That Helped the League Gain More Fans

The exposure on television played a crucial role in popularising the sport and establishing a loyal fan base. The following years saw the BBL continuing to evolve and adapt to the changing landscape of professional sports. The league emphasised community engagement, launching initiatives to introduce basketball to schools and youth programs. This grassroots approach aimed to nurture talent at a young age and develop a sustainable pipeline of players for the future, as well as to ensure that more people would be engaged in basketball as a sport.

In recent years, the BBL has experienced a resurgence in popularity. The league has seen increased attendance at games, in no small part thanks to heightened media coverage, and has improved its financial stability. Strong partnerships with sponsors and collaborations with international basketball organisations have further elevated the profile of the BBL. On top of that, the British Basketball League has also embraced digital platforms and streaming services to expand its reach beyond traditional television broadcasts.

Live streaming of games and engaging with fans through social media channels have helped the league connect with a broader audience and cater to the changing consumption habits of sports fans. Whilst the BBL is never going to compete with the popularity of the NBA, it can at least do what it can to attract British basketball lovers or even turn people onto the sport who might not otherwise have had much interest in it. As football discovered with Sky Sports and the advent of the Premier League, televised coverage is a crucial step in bringing in supporters.

The Modern League

Over the years, there have been teams that have been created in different cities before falling away. The likes of Liverpool, Durham and Worthing have all enjoyed a brief dalliance with basketball, whilst the sport’s appearance in the Olympic Games in London in 2012 furthered the enjoyment of sport fans. There were record crowds turning up to Wembley Arena between 2012 and 2014, then 14,700 people watched the Play-Off final at the O2 Arena in 2015. This increased popularity has allowed teams to improve their facilities, with some clubs even building their own venues.

Cheshire, Surrey and Glasgow teams have all moved into much better venues than they were in previously, whilst the Bristol Flyers, who were the most recent addition to the league, also announced plans to build a new venue. All of this encouraged the Miami-based investment firm 777 Partners to invest in the sport, buying a 45.5% share in the league. That saw an investment of £7 million paid in, as well as organisational reform that required the addition of a new Chief Executive Officer. It showed that the sport was really only heading on one direction, which is to at least challenge other major sports in the UK for attention.

The British Basketball League

British Basketball League teams

As you might imagine, there are aspects of the British Basketball League that look to emulate the way that the sport works in the likes of the United States of America. At the same time, if it were to work as nothing other than a mirror image of its American counterpart then the likelihood is that most people would simply watch the more established version of the sport. There was, for example, a salary cap in place known as the ‘Team Payments Cap’, which stop teams from spending more than £250,000 on player salaries. It was hoped that it would keep overall costs down and allow for competitive balance.

Starting at the beginning of the 2022-2023 season, the salary cap was abandoned, with the belief being that it was hampering the growth of the teams in the BBL when it came to European competition. The rules are decided by the league itself, which is an independent company that is owned by the member clubs. Each of the clubs within it has an equal share of the BBL as well as a representative on the board of directors. The flagship competition is the BBL Championship, which features all sides playing one another in a double round robin format during the league season.

At the time of writing, here are the teams that play in the BBL as well as the arena where they play their games and the year that the team joined the league:

Year Joined

Bristol Flyers
SGS College Arena

Caledonia Gladiators
Emirates Arena

Cheshire Phoenix
Cheshire Oaks Arena

Leicester Riders
Morningside Arena

London Lions
Copper Box Arena

Manchester Giants
National Basketball Centre

Newcastle Eagles
Vertu Motors Arena

Plymouth City Patriots
Plymouth Pavilions

Sheffield Sharks
Ponds Forge

Surrey Scorchers
Surrey Sports Park

How the League Works

The league season runs from September through until April, which is when the teams involved will take part in their games. They are played according to the rules set out by the International Basketball Federation, which means that games have four quarters of ten minutes apiece. A win in a game results in two points towards the league, with over-time played if the two teams are level once time is up. An unlimited number of over-time periods can be played, with each period lasting for five minutes, and the game reaches its conclusion when a team is ahead at the end of an over-time period.

When the regular season reaches its conclusion, the team with the most points is crowned the BBL Champion and therefore the British champion. Should two or more teams be level on points then the head-to-head results will come into play, followed by the points difference between the teams from their matches. At the end of the normal season, the top eight teams move into the Play-Offs, which take place in the post-season and are usually played in April. This is a knockout tournament, with seeds depending on their finishing position in the Championship.

The quarter-finals and semi-finals are played over three-games, with the team higher in the Championship getting the two games at home. The Grand Final takes place at the O2 Arena and sees the two semi-finals winners go up against one another in a one-game event to decide which team is the Play-Offs Champion. As you might imagine, it is not uncommon for the Championship winners to also win the Play-Offs, although it also isn’t a lock that they will definitely win them both. It adds a degree of excitement to the post-season that the Play-Offs are different.

The Competitions

BBL Cup and BBL TrophyThe British Basketball League also has some other associated competitions that teams play in. The first of these is the BBL Cup, which emerged as a breakaway from the National Cup, which had been organised by the English Basketball Association. It was first contested in the 2003-2004 season, with the Sheffield Sharks being the competition’s first ever winners. It is played as a group stage followed by a knockout stage in a similar manner to what football fans have come to expect from the Champions League, with the final being played at the Arena Birmingham.

The other competition of note is the BBL Trophy. This has its origins in the Anglo-Scottish Cup, which was first played in 1984, which was a battle between English and Scottish teams. It is a knockout competition, with the pairings for it drawn completely at random and no seeds in play. Invited teams from the English Basketball League and the Scottish Basketball League will often take part in the tournament, with the final played each March in a neutral venue. As with competitions like the FA Cup, the draw for the next round is made after the majority of ties in the previous one are complete.

Teams that play in the British Basketball League are also eligible for entry into European competition, provided they play their games in an arena with a capacity of at least 2,000. The Basketball Champions League is, despite its name, the third tier of continental basketball. There is also the FIBA Europe Cup, with the top-flight being the EuroLeague. Qualification for the various competitions depends on numerous factors, though at the time of writing only the Leicester Tigers and teams from Glasgow, London, Newcastle and Worcester are able to play in the BCL because of venue size.

Comparisons with the NBA

London LionsLondon Lions (Bblfan /

Whilst the British Basketball League may not have the same level of global recognition or financial resources as the NBA, it serves as a vital platform for the growth and development of basketball in the United Kingdom. The National Basketball Association, which is undoubtedly the pinnacle of professional basketball globally, sets a high standard in terms of talent, competitiveness and commercial success. Its influence in the UK cannot be understated, with regular-season games played in London and increased television coverage ensuring that it has gained a substantial following in the country.

Many British basketball fans look to the NBA as a source of inspiration and excitement, supporting their favourite teams and players across the Atlantic. However, it is important to recognise the unique appeal of the British Basketball League. The BBL provides opportunities for homegrown talent, giving British players a platform to showcase their skills and develop their careers. The league’s close-knit community and passionate fan base contribute to the vibrant atmosphere at games, creating an experience that is distinctly British in nature and loved all the more because of that fact.

Author: Willie Rodriguez