Where To For African Basketball?

Where To For African Basketball?
(Photo by Cyril Ndegeya/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Patriots of Rwanda and Rivers Hoopers of Nigeria players during the opening game of the inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL) in Kigali, Rwanda on May 16, 2021.

Maieane Nkhahle, a South African basketball enthusiast and former Universities All-Star and MVP, weighs in on the Basketball Africa League, and why the game of hoops still hasn't reached its full potential in Africa.

In January this year, an English Premier League (EPL) coach suggested that Premier League players be fast-tracked for vaccination, laying out several financial, economic, and social reasons for his proposal. The Twitter explosion of fury and indignation at privileged multimillionaires potentially jumping the queue ahead of frontline workers and other higher risk groups was expected. One commentator complained that authorities were seemingly bending over backwards to enable a bunch of overpaid prima donnas to chase and kick a ball around a big lawn. This is a common misconception that fails to appreciate the extensive economic value chains that culminate in a professional game of football or basketball. For context, consider that the EPL's contribution to the UK GDP approached $10 billion in 2020 numbers.

Enter Basketball On The Continent...

While basketball is the number two sport in many African countries, where popularity and participation are concerned, it lags far behind football in terms of the metrics that really matter. Basketball players who grew up in South Africa in the '90s will remember a time when anything seemed possible. We had a professional league that attracted the best talent from around the continent. There was a thriving and well-organised schools and university talent pipeline, packaged into exciting national and regional leagues and tournaments that fired up youthful imaginations. And there was significant interest that developed various commercial properties that had begun to generate value, and revenue, for stakeholders well beyond the immediate confines of the basketball arena. But even then, basketball's commercial and socioeconomic value proposition was decades behind South Africa's national pastimes of football, rugby, and cricket. Everyone believed that we were on an irrevocable upward trajectory. Being the fastest growing sport in the country and on the continent during that decade, it was just a matter of time before basketball would take its seat at the main table.

Sadly though, the story since those halcyon days has been one of arrested development. The growth trajectory levelled off and was quickly followed by periods of stagnation and decline. Although there have been pockets of excellence over the past decade, South African basketball has since been struggling to replicate that early promise. There are different manifestations of the same story across the continent and while generalisation when approaching different African markets consistently leads to failure, there are common threads that can be drawn.

"A lot has been said and written about those common threads, and why African basketball has been failing to really take off despite the abundance of talent — none of it particularly surprising. There is a paucity of structure and a severe shortage of facilities. Talent slips through the cracks very early due to a lack of skill development programmes at youth levels. Those basketball skills [that have been developed] are not properly harnessed due to a lack of life skills training programmes that build discipline, resilience and a full appreciation of the full range of possibilities that basketball can offer. Inadequate skills development structures are not limited to players alone. Coaches, referees, trainers, physiotherapists, counsellors, nutritionists, administrators, event managers, stakeholder managers — all these, and more, are simply the basic elements in a thriving and sustainable basketball ecosystem."

Development 101

A useful way to think about basketball development, or any sport for that matter, is the sports development pyramid. Picture a pyramid divided into four sections. Though there will be some overlap, each section from the bottom up represents the stages a player must go through to eventually get to the very top of the game — foundation, mass participation, organised competition and high performance. Foundation and mass participation are primarily aimed just at getting children involved in the game, either at school or community levels. Socialisation, rather than competition, is often the main objective. Mass participation funnels a portion of participants into organised competition in the form of junior and senior leagues and tournaments, which translates into high school and university level competition in most parts of the world. Professional leagues such as the NBA and the Basket Africa League (BAL) make up the high-performance stage. The African basketball pyramid that we have been observing over the decades is much narrower at the base than its North American or European counterparts, but definitely has the potential to be much wider than either. A narrow base can only result in a trickle of African talent into the global apex arenas of basketball.

"This brings us to the BAL – long overdue, highly anticipated and a development poised to catalyse the development of our talent. The new league is a partnership between the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and, according to the BAL, builds on the foundation of club competitions FIBA has organised in Africa. The inaugural season, delayed by over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is made up of twelve teams drawn from the four corners of Africa. Six countries are guaranteed a spot for their national club champions, while the other six needed to make it into the league via various qualification tournaments. The tournament is being played in a COVID-19 bubble in Kigali. Subsequent seasons will quite possibly take on a slightly different format once the world has successfully reckoned with the current pandemic."

The advent of the BAL means that commercial and organisational rigour will be introduced into the value chains that run across the different parts of the basketball pyramid. One of the most underappreciated aspects of basketball on the continent is the business of basketball. The golden era of the 90s, in South Africa, went into decline due to a lack of appreciation of the crucial role commerce plays in sustaining thriving leagues and tournaments. A large part of why basketball, and sport in general, has not reached its full potential is because there are far too many important people who, at worst, see it as nothing more than some fun and games, and at best, see it as a bit of entertainment to indulge in after we have attended to the really serious stuff. Like vaccinating the vulnerable against COVID-19. The person who disparaged EPL football, for example, would be very surprised to learn that those football games support over 100,000 jobs in England. Sports value chains employ people, generate tourism activity and provide platforms for towns, cities and businesses to connect with partners and customers around the world.

Way Forward?

The main challenge to basketball development in Africa is, first and foremost, an economic one. There are simply too many socio-economic issues competing for the same limited fiscal attention. Those inadequate structures and facilities mentioned earlier are in constant competition with everything else — ranging from healthcare and housing to economic infrastructure and social security — for state resources.

"If the basketball scene is to flourish, there need to be strong business cases for private companies to come onboard as long-term partners. The BAL (or the NBA and FIBA, by proxy) will not be the magic bullet that will solve all our problems in one big bang. Not even close. Okay, everyone probably knows that, but it must be said, nonetheless!"

However, a slick, well-oiled machine like the NBA becoming involved in professionalising African basketball portends good things. The NBA is less a basketball league than it is a very well-run sports marketing entity. One could probably say the same about the EPL, the NFL and any of the other ridiculously successful sports leagues around the world — and one would probably be right. But none of those other leagues have formally extended their reach into Africa in this ballsy sort of way. Geddit?

And that right there is the point! This is a ballsy move by the NBA, and it is fraught with all sorts of financial and political risks. In five years from now, careers and reputations will have either been burnished to a high shine, or irretrievably destroyed. There is very little middle ground. To make it work, you can bet that the NBA machine will marshal its considerable legal, commercial, and operational resources to keep those risks in check. The NBA machine has such gravity, that if the BAL can find any sort of sustainability over the next several years, the various elements of the African basketball ecosystem cannot help but be pulled into its orbit. For African basketball, those orbital paths mean better structures, improved facilities, but most importantly, commercial, organisational and legal rigour. This can only be a good thing.