Birmingham Bullets 87-63 Leicester Riders (lost footage of British Basketball League Championship game; 2001)
On 27th September 2001, Birmingham Bullets hosted defending British Basketball League (BBL) Championship Trophy holders the Leicester Riders at the Aston Villa. Occurring on the opening day of the 2001-02 season, the hosts outmatched the Riders 87-63, with both sides ultimately embarking on unsuccessful BBL Championship campaigns. It was the first BBL game to be televised live by the ill-fated ITV Sport Channel.
In the previous season, the Leicester Riders only finished fourth in the Northern Conference won by the Sheffield Sharks. Despite this, they managed to achieve an upset playoff victory, having defeated the Sharks 84-75 in the Final on 5th May 2001. They had also captured the NTL National Cup by beating Greater London Leopards 84-82. But heading into the new season, the Riders squad was considerably altered. They had lost three key players in Malcolm Leak, Purnell Perry, and Larry Johnson, though the new signings of Jon Gaines and Jermaine Brown were hoped to bolster a line-up which boasted Billy Singleton and Ralph Blalock. The Riders had also signed the Newcastle Eagles' Donnie Johnson, but following the 9/11 attacks a few weeks prior, Johnson requested a premature release. Meanwhile, Birmingham Bullets were seeking to build on their previous campaign, which saw them finish fourth in the Southern Conference and be knocked out in the Playoff quarter-finals. They had also joined the Northern European Basketball League, bringing Rob Paternostro and Rashod Johnston into the squad.
The Bullets defeated the Riders 87-63, putting the defending champions' chances of retaining the title into question. Birmingham started strongly, establishing a 37-29 score by the first half. Emiko Etete scored 17 times, followed by Brant Bailey's 16 and 14 from Rob Paternostro. Despite 17 from Jon Gaines, 16 from Billy Singleton, and 12 from Jermaine Brown, the Riders suffered a collapse early in the second half having conceded 12 without any retaliation. By 47-27, it was concluded that the Bullets had virtually won the game. Following the fourth quarter's conclusion, it was 87-63 in the host's favour. Heading into the match, the Riders coach Billy Mims noted that despite an opening game loss to the Manchester Giants the previous season, the team improved and subsequently won the championship. He insisted that an enhancement of three-point shooting would strengthen his side, with hope remaining that a similar season would commence following the Bullets defeat.
Ultimately, this proved untrue as Leicester suffered a disappointing campaign, where it only won eleven games and lost 21. They finished fifth out of six teams in the Southern Conference on 22 points, four outside the playoff spots. It was little better for the Bullets, who finished fifth in the Northern Conference with 30 points, being edged out of playoff contention by two points after winning 15 games and losing 17. Despite this, Birmingham did reach the National Cup Final, where they lost 112-105 to triple-crown winners the Chester Jets.
The game would kickstart the BBL's three-year deal with ITV Digital. British basketball experienced significant growth from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, thanks to the NBA's growing international reach and subsequent demand for homegrown sport, with over 11,000 attending the 1999 Championship Trophy Final between the Sharks and the Giants. BBL games were televised on Sky Sports, but the BBL landed a seemingly more lucrative deal when it agreed on a ten-year deal with the NTL worth £22 million. Alas, NTL's worsening financial situation led it to seek bankruptcy protection, ending the agreement prematurely. Nevertheless, a backup package with the fledgling ITV Sport channel was announced on 3rd September 2001, totalling over £1 million for three years. Further sponsorship led to the ITV Digital connection being worth around £21 million over ten years. Live coverage and magazine programmes promoting the matches would be produced by Granada Sport, with games broadcast on weekends.
However, scepticism arose not long following the deal's signing. The Guardian reported some within BBL were disappointed that only 21 games across 13 arenas would be broadcast live. It is possible BBL coverage was deemphasised in favour of rugby union's Heineken Cup, and the crucial Football League coverage forged from a £315 million deal that necessitated ITV Sport's creation in August 2001. The Football League deal crippled ITV Digital, as the coverage failed to attract enough subscribers, its situation worsened by Sky Sports' Premiership broadcasts and widespread piracy. By May 2002, ITV Digital collapsed, with ITV Sport ceasing broadcasts on 11th May 2002. Whereas the Football League suffered greatly as many of its clubs depended on the television revenue, it appeared the BBL had remained cautious throughout ITV Sport's short-lived existence. In March of that year, BBL's chairman Kevin Routledge claimed most BBL-affiliated teams relied on only 10 to 20% of their budget from television revenue. Hence, while all teams would certainly take a financial hit from ITV Digital's collapse, it appeared most would survive, unlike the Football League's clubs.
By October 2002, it seemed emergency handouts by the BBL would save all its teams. However, the real damage British basketball suffered was extensively reduced coverage. Even with a national deal, live games suffered pitifully low ratings. The failure of ITV Digital and NTL meant very few alternative channels were interested in carrying the product. The BBC for instance was only keen to televise the National Cup Final, whereas Sky Sports had only shown fleeting interest in covering BBL once more. As BBL payments dried up and sponsorship reduced as British basketball's popularity decreased, teams like the Jets were forced to cut back significantly, while several other franchises dissolved over the next few years. Among them included the Bullets by the 2006 season. Thus, British basketball suffered a difficult decade with a recovery process thwarted by the sport's low investment despite it otherwise being surprisingly popular within the country's working-class population. Nevertheless, hope remains of a turnaround by the 2020s, with the Riders remaining the oldest professional British team and having achieved three treble successes by 2022.
The Bullets-Riders encounter was among 21 BBL games televised live by ITV Sport. Ultimately, most have fallen into obscurity as they received low viewership during their inaugural broadcasts, not helped by the channel's collapse and the decline of British basketball. No footage of the game has publicly resurfaced. Most other ITV Sport broadcasts are also lost, though the BBL did upload the full airing of the North-South All-Stars game to Facebook on 5th June 2020.
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ITV Digital Media
- ITV Sport (partially found coverage of English football matches; 2001-2002)
- Manchester City 3-0 Watford (partially found footage of Football League First Division match; 2001)
- Sheffield Wednesday vs Blackburn Rovers (partially found footage of Football League Cup matches; 2002)
- Watch With Monkey (lost unaired pilot of scrapped BBC family comedy show; 2003)
- Eurobasket detailing the 2000-01 British Basketball League season. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- BBC Sport reporting on the Riders winning the 2001 Championship Trophy. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- BBC Sport previewing the 2001-02 season.
- The Guardian previewing the season and the Riders. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Leicester Riders summarising its history. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Archived British Basketball League providing a game report. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Archived British Basketball League listing the Riders' 2001-02 results. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Archived British Basketball League listing the Bullets' 2001-02 results. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Eurobasket detailing the 2001-02 season. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Archived The Telegraph reporting on BBL's three-year deal with ITV Digital. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- The Guardian detailing how British basketball failed to capitalise on its growth during the turn of the millennium, particularly caused by ill-fated television deals. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Last Word on Sports detailing the changing status of British basketball, affected massively by the ITV Digital collapse. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- The New York Times summarising British basketball's popularity in the 1990s and how it has found it difficult to attract a large audience since. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- The Guardian reporting on NTL being close to filing for bankruptcy protection. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- 4rfv reporting on Granada Sport winning production rights for 21 live matches and magazine programmes. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- BBC Sport reporting on Routledge's comments surrounding BBL's future as ITV Digital's situation worsened. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Four Four Two detailing ITV digital's "too good to be true" deal with the Football League and the far-reaching consequences it had. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- ONhistory providing a press release concerning ITV Sport's launch and planned programming. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- The Guardian summarising the Sky and ONdigital/ITV Digital battle, and how the latter failed. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- BBC News reporting on ITV Digital's closure. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- The Guardian reporting on ITV Sport's impending closure. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Independent reporting on optimism surrounding BBL's future by October 2002. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Cheshire Live reporting on the financial consequences of ITV Digital's collapse for the BBL, particularly for the Jets. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- BBC News noting the Bullets went into liquidation by 2006. Retrieved 30th Sep '23
- Reuters reporting on British basketball's status by 2008. Retrieved 30th Sep '23