Up all night: The challenge of being an NBA fan in the UK

ByMotez Bishara ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

LONDON -- As an NBA fan who moved to London in 1996, keeping up with my favorite sport from the UK had its extreme challenges.

Watching fully televised games was nearly impossible back then, and highlight shows on ITV catered more for the casual observer.

I can recall listening to a New York Knicks vs. Indiana Pacers playoff game in 1999 on grainy internet-streamed radio. Ironically, the website used to deliver that game -- broadcast.com -- was later sold to Yahoo by Mark Cuban and his partners for $5.7 billion. The radio streaming service did not last long at Yahoo, but Cuban famously went on to purchase the Dallas Mavericks with his profits.

The Knicks advanced to the 1999 NBA Finals, but the only way to watch them play the San Antonio Spurs was to visit a friend who had access to a German sports channel on satellite TV.

The now-defunct Sports Café in Piccadilly would sporadically show big NBA games in those days, often via overseas satellite channels. It didn't always make for a smooth viewing experience, however.

I remember being there watching Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings -- a match considered a classic by everyone except those of us at the sports bar.

To explain: Tipoff was at 9:30 p.m. UK time, and we were promised the place would stay open until the final horn. But by midnight, the matchup that featured the dynamic duos of Shaq and Kobe against Mike Bibby and Chris Webber was tied at 100.

"Sorry, the bar is closing, you must leave," we were told, to a chorus of boos. As a compromise the staff at the Sports Café allowed us to crowd around the street watching their screens through the glass.

Eventually, however, they turned them off and -- since we were still in the pre-smartphone era -- no one had a clue as to how the game ended.

Such was life for the NBA fan in the UK. A few seasons later Sky Sports would purchase the rights to broadcast NBA games in the UK, but without a way to record the games you were stuck staying up all night or trying to catch highlights online. Finally, the introduction of the DVR changed all of that, and by the time the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals I was able to watch enough games at my leisure.

More recently, the NBA has introduced its international version of League Pass, a website and app that streams games live and on demand (subject to blackout). Features like condensed games have come and gone on the app, but it's made life as an NBA fan in the UK a lot easier.

"It was basically impossible before the past five or six years," Richard Jarrett, 40, of London said on following the NBA. "But it's absolutely much easier to be a fan now. It's still a struggle, purely because of the time difference, but it was impossible back then."

Jarrett, a die-hard Cavaliers fan, flew to Cleveland with his wife last June to attend Game 4 of the NBA Finals. Luckily for him, it was the one game in the series against Golden State that Cleveland won.

"It was insane," he says of the experience, which he admits costed a few thousand dollars all-in. "It was worth every penny, I can assure you."

Jarrett's good friend Richard Perl is another Cavaliers fan who says it is "a real challenge" following his favorite team from the UK, mainly because he prefers watching games in real time.

Perl, 36, will stay up all night for the Cavs' bigger regular-season matchups and playoff games, showing up to his job in finance with as little as two hours of sleep.

"It's probably unfixable, but that is the big reality of it," he said of trying to acclimate for the time differences in the U.S. Perl does find solace in watching games on Sunday nights, when they often air at the more reasonable time of 8pm in the UK.

"If there were more games like that during the week I would watch hundreds of them," he adds.

Frank McKinnon says the NBA bringing regular season games to London "is a pretty big step" toward catering for the British audience, and calls this week's matchup between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers at the O2 Arena as "the first legit game that's going to be in London."

The 6-foot-7 former London Leopards youth player's fascination with the NBA began as a 7-year-old obsessed with Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. At the time he would collect SLAM magazines and order games on VHS tapes. By the time he began playing for the Leopards at 13 he was "watching games nonstop."

Now he catches up mostly via condensed games posted on YouTube, and checks out the box scores on NBA.com.

"In nine minutes you probably get 95 percent of the scores, and you get a whole feel for the game without having to sit through two hours," he explains. "I'll generally wake up first thing and do two to three of those games, and then you have a really good idea of how LeBron [James], Lonzo [Ball], Kyrie [Irving] and the guys on the Warriors are doing."

McKinnon, who shelled out 1,200 to watch Team USA win the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics, will be out of town for the upcoming Celtics-Sixers game, but he would have been fishing for courtside seats otherwise.

"It's an intriguing game this year because of all the talent," he says, noting names like Kyrie, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. "Just continue to put teams of this caliber in London and fans will be interested."

These days the NBA is one of the most advanced sports leagues in the world when it comes to social media.

It spoon-feeds its European fans clips and highlights on Facebook pages (34.7 million followers on its main page, a further 1.4 million on its UK version), Twitter (27.2 million) and Instagram (26.2 million) accounts -- making the days of grainy internet radio seem as outdated as underhanded free throws.

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