This month saw the New York Knicks take on the Washington Wizards in London in the ninth edition of the NBA International Series. Now, bosses are looking at taking the series across the channel to Paris to expand their European fan base. We caught up with Jasper Willems, a BA (Hons) Sports Business & Sports Broadcasting student, and president of the UCFB Basketball Society, to discuss the game, US sports in the UK, and the possibility of London losing the popular international fixture…

What did you make of this year’s game between the Knicks and Wizards? 

Jasper founded the UCFB Basketball Society

The game itself was a great spectacle. Neither team is having a particularly glittering season, so it allowed for a close, well contested game. As a Knicks fan I was obviously disappointed by the result, however the season for us is as good as over so it mattered little. I think the match-up was a nice one as well for European fans as getting a big market team like the Knicks to come to London is great! The Wizards over the last couple seasons have been a play-off team so it’s great that European fans can actually experience an NBA game first hand. The only shame for the game was that big stars like Kristaps Porzingis and John Wall were not available to play.

After nine years in London, is the appetite for a regular season NBA game still as strong as ever?

I think so. People are still paying really high prices to go and watch these games, so there is definitely a demand for it. Also, the fact that Sky Sports have paid a substantial amount of money for the rights to show games suggests that there is a strong and committed fan base in the UK. It is still one of the highest played sports in terms of participation in the UK, so lots of young kids are now getting much more involved than in the past.

Why do you think there’s been an explosion of interest in US sports over the last decade in the UK?

I think the NFL has to take major credit for this due to their exceptional marketing and how they have not simply brought American football to the UK, but expanded the whole idea of an international series. I think this has got UK sports fans far more involved in not only the NFL, but also the NBA and MLB. This also includes the re-brand and expansion of the MLS. I believe there has always been the interest here, it was just about how these associations could access the market. In the case of the NBA, they did well getting in early but have not fully marketed and expanded the series in the UK. The event has an exclusivity around it, whereas the NFL is fully marketed and caters to the average member of the public. There is always a market for exciting sports in the UK, it’s just about unlocking the potential.

What do you make of reports that the international game could be moving to Paris next year? 

London first hosted an NBA game in 1993

As previously mentioned, I feel the NBA and their London games have stagnated a little bit over the past couple of years. They have not marketed it and expanded as they could have, so it doesn’t surprise me that they want to move it to a different European city. Central and Eastern Europe are far bigger markets in terms of fan participation then the UK. For some reason the UK does not seem to want to fund basketball, and it never creates the hype it does in countries like Spain, France and Turkey. There are also far more teams with Central and Eastern European player representation, so they could create much more of a storm in terms of marketing in using the national identity of the players in these countries. Whilst it’s a shame for the UK and will definitely be a step backwards in the development of basketball in this country, I completely understand the move if the NBA were to move its international series games to Paris.

Who are your favourites to win the respective conference titles, and the championship crown?

There is no doubt in my mind in the West is has to be the Golden State Warriors. They are way too strong to beat, and it would have to take a minor miracle to take them off the top. Plus, now with DeMarcus Cousins back to full fitness, they will be even harder to stop. I don’t think Lebron James (LA Lakers) has a good enough team around him to challenge the Warriors, and the only ones who are close are Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and the Houston Rockets. Denver are having a great season and have beat the Warriors already, but the play-offs are a different animal. James Harden needs to drop at least 50pts to come close and Oklahoma need Russell Westbrook and Paul George to play out of their skin. Even with one of their stars missing though, the Warriors will still win.

The East is much harder to call. I predict a Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics conference finals, with the Celtics winning. But that could be completely wrong as the Philadelphia 76ers with Jimmy Butler look a serious contender, and the Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo who could be MVP this year. I am sticking my neck out though and staying the Celtics, they have the depth and class to outshine the others in the hunt. Whoever wins in the East though has the honour of getting destroyed by the Warriors in the finals, that I am certain of.

As the president of the UCFB Basketball Society, what message do you have for students interested in joining? 

I would say what are you waiting for. Sport at UCFB is the best and easiest way of meeting new people. Even if you’re not keen to play, get involved in our socials which always seem to turn into debates on anything and everything NBA. The basketball team is still a project in its infancy and will only expand, and the quality will become better and better as the years go on. I’ve had a cracking time meeting these new guys, it’s a great laugh and is a great way of keeping fit. The games are all against London based universities so we never have too far to travel and they are always feisty affairs. If you have played for years or want to give it a go, there is no harm in coming down and showing everyone what you’ve got.