A new season in the British Basketball League dawns tonight with not one, but two reasons for interest in Yorkshire to be piqued.
Established club Sheffield Sharks tip-off their 21st season in the BBL against Durham Wildcats at the English Institute of Sport. For more than two decades the Sharks have been the standard bearers for a sport beloved on the other side of the Atlantic, but still to be embraced widely on these shores.
They have support this year – or rivalry whichever way you look at it – in the shape of expansion team Leeds Force, who are one of two new franchises added to the 13-strong BBL.
Eight years after being established in co-ordination with the basketball programme at Leeds Metropolitan University, they have been elevated to the elite tier on the strength of their senior, women’s, community and junior programmes.
A remit to grow the sport, one which has echoes in that employed in Sheffield, helped convince British Basketball to welcome Leeds to the top table.
The Force’s first game is, coincidentally, against the Wildcats in Durham on Sunday.
Their historic first home game pits them against Glasgow Rocks next Friday night (7.30pm) at the sports arena at Leeds Beckett University. They have severed their ties with the university because of the step up to professionalism, but they remain on campus with full use of the facilities.
The key to success for Leeds Force is in how successful they are in growing the sport in the area, and swelling an average attendance of 300 achieved as they rose through the national leagues.
“The aim is to attract converts to the sport,” said Matt Newby, Leeds Force’s director of basketball, who has been with the programme since the outset and has been the driving force of their elevation.
“At times during the season we’ll see new faces come through the door, and it’s our job as a club to entertain them and give them a reason to come back.
“Basketball is a short, exciting game, there’s points being scored and a chance to cheer every 30 seconds. The pace of the game lends itself to a spectator sport.
“As much as being successful on the court, it’s also our job to educate the uneducated.”
On the court, Newby has recruited heavily from overseas as most teams have to, but there are a number of homegrown players on the Leeds roster who have progressed through the programme. Their ambition in their first season is merely to be competitive, with a place in the top eight and the end-of-season play-offs the target should they prove adept at the first challenge.
Down in Sheffield, Sharks coach Atiba Lyons says the minimum he expects is a top-four finish from a team that came second last year and lost in the semi-finals of the three knockout competitions.
The Sharks have also introduced a second team into the English National League this season ‘to identify and develop players’ as the concerted effort to grow the sport across the county continues.