The initial idea was just to invest in basketball in London, anticipating the NBA’s growth in Europe.
Investment firm 777 Partners purchased the British Basketball League’s London Lions in 2020, but it turns out that was merely the starting point for a much larger project.
“As we began to do the work on the opportunity and ascertain why basketball was not a thing in the U.K., we discovered a lot of interesting and frankly regrettable dynamics that were at play,” Adam Weiss, vice president at 777 Partners, explained.
The sport has strong levels of participation among British youth, a racially and socioeconomically diverse cohort of fans among adults, and very little funding from the government or other sources.
“It blows our mind that basketball is not bigger in London, and we know the reasons why,” said Juan Arciniegas, managing director at 777. “We’re trying to attack those reasons to make it where we believe it should be.”
- The 2018-19 Sport England Active Lives Survey found that basketball was the second-most played team sport in the country after soccer.
- While adult participation has hovered between 2-3% of the population, per the survey, 12-15% of school-aged children played weekly over the four academic years ending 2020-21, beating out sports such as cricket, rugby, and golf.
- The NBA played one game in London each year from 2013 to 2019, regularly selling out the roughly 19,000-seat O2 Arena.
Meanwhile, the government’s U.K. Sport, which provides funding with an eye toward Olympic and Paralympic success, doled out $1.7 million to support basketball ahead of the Paris 2024 Summer Games, out of $295.6 million in awards.
The U.K. national basketball team has only participated in the Olympics when the country hosted the event in 1948 and 2012, has never qualified for the FIBA World Cup, and has never finished above 13th in the EuroBasket tournament (though the women’s team notched a fourth place finish in 2019). NBA players from the country, such as Luol Deng, Ogugua Anunoby, and Ben Gordon, are few and far between.
Boxing, canoeing, cycling, and equestrian were among the sports that received around 10 times more funding than basketball, while skateboarding, fencing, surfing, and climbing received comparable amounts.
However, the lack of an established institutional presence for U.K. basketball presents its own opportunity: 777 has also invested in the 10-team British Basketball League and is working to build the sport through its vision.
Weiss sees a market opportunity in British basketball, but he also sees a social cause.
“It’s for the disaffected East and South London community, mostly immigrants, that have been neglected by British institutions,” he said.
- A 2019-20 Sport England survey found that among Britons who play basketball, 47% are from non-white backgrounds — far more than other sports, which top out at around 30% in that metric.
- While white English and Welsh residents made up 81.9% of the population according to the 2021 census, the picture was quite different in London, which was 40.2% non-white.
Given those demographics, Weiss sees the aforementioned funding disparity as not just a misallocation, but a travesty.
“The government has institutionally and systematically not supported the sport of basketball. The consequence of that is inequity felt amongst minority groups and lower economic classes,” Weiss said.
- According to 777’s own research, 59% of ethnic minorities and 35% of all respondents don’t feel British sports teams represent the diversity of the nation.
- The firm’s research also found that ethnic minorities feel sports can divert people from antisocial activities and help overcome adversity.
With help from the British government, the NBA, or other investors all uncertain, 777 is willing to make this a very long-term investment. The firm does not have defined funds with predetermined exit dates, and no short-to-medium-term plans to cash out.
“Over the next 10 years, I would say [our investment] is going to be more in the hundreds of millions than in the millions,” said Weiss.
While the firm’s biggest verticals are insurance, aviation, and financial services, 777 has growing sports interests, which to date have centered on European soccer, a market where they see an intriguing combination of history and volatility.
Promotion and relegation can create big swings in team revenue and value, and media rights at the top levels can bring big payouts to teams. Even among teams with no fear of relegation, whether or not a club qualifies for the UEFA Champions League can produce big spikes and drops in year-to-year income.
Scanning the teams they’ve invested in, it’s easy to spot a theme:
- 777’s soccer stakes include clubs in Italy, France, Belgium, Argentina, Spain, and as of last month, Germany.
- All were founded in the 19th century.
“One of the many characteristics we’re looking for is we’re finding clubs that are not at their peak,” Arciniegas explained. “Hopefully they had a peak before, so they’re very historic clubs with massive fan bases and a very identifiable brand and culture and history.”
The promotion/relegation system provides plenty of upside if the clubs can return to previous glory.
“We’re acquiring them at a [cyclically attractive] price, and the only place they have to go is up,” said Arciniegas.
Hear Them Roar
The vision for the London Lions is to help them rise from the ashes into a viable asset.
Weiss sees the British Basketball League in general as a way of learning about and embracing the future of sports consumption and technology integration without having to go through the same steps as older leagues.
“We have the benefit of modern programming language and new technologies to build the future state of sports leagues,” he said. “We’re not encumbered by media rights [contracts] or players unions — we can be really experimental.”
The league recently streamed a game on TikTok and is paying special attention to short-form platforms as it targets a younger audience which may not be in the market for hours-long viewing experiences.
Original content that introduces British and global audiences to basketball culture in the U.K. will be essential, and 777 has a unique opportunity with its on-the-ground presence across the pond.
“We’re not gonna be better than the NBA at putting a product on the court or hosting games,” said Weiss. “But we can beat them in content creation that actually reflects the zeitgeist that is basketball in the U.K.”