NBA opens new front with women's game

By Jessica CreightonOlympic sports reporter
GB's Julie Page & Atlanta Dream's Arminties Price
GB's Julie Page and Atlanta's Arminties Price will go head-to-head on Sunday

The meeting between the Atlanta Dream of the Women's NBA, and the Great Britain national team in Manchester this weekend will serve as more than just a warm-up for GB's European Championship campaign.

It will mark the first time a WNBA team has played in Europe and forms a new front in the NBA's assault on the UK basketball market.

Since 2007, the NBA's has staged annual pre-season games in London in the hope of getting more people watching and playing the sport in the UK and hence increasing their awareness of the NBA.

On Sunday, Manchester's MEN Arena will host experienced WNBA side Atlanta Dream against the British women's team.

"The UK is a priority market for the NBA and we've been very encouraged by the progress the NBA has made," NBA Europe senior vice-president Sophie Goldschmidt told BBC Sport.

"Football is hugely popular but basketball is the second most popular sport in the world. And we've see positive trends in the UK," she added.

Although the NBA continues to struggle with sustained impact in the UK, one-off games tend to be successful.

Back-to-back NBA games between the New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors, at London's O2 Arena in March, played in front of a sell-out crowd.

"Every time we've played [in the UK] there's not a problem selling tickets," Goldschmidt said.

"The demand from a fan perspective to watch top level basketball is definitely there. The fans come out in their tens of thousands to watch."

Earlier in the year, a flurry of festivites were organised throughout the UK to announce a partnership between Manchester City Council and the NBA. to bring more elite level basketball to the city.

As such, the men's and women's US national teams - both defending Olympic champions - will play London 2012 warm-up friendlies next year.

The British women's team, who will play in their first EuroBasket competition in June, go into Sunday's match against the WNBA's Atlanta Dream as underdogs.

Atlanta Dream were the WNBA's top scoring team last season and made it to the WNBA Finals.

Despite impressive showings by the GB team during an exhibition tournament against Lativia, Germany and Cuba, head coach Tom Maher is realistic about his team's expectations.

"We're not expected to beat a WNBA team but we will be ready, I hope, to gain respect," the former head of the Australian national team said.

"The WNBA teams are all-star teams. They've got their pick of professional players from the USA, Europe and Australia and they're full of internationals.

"Winning for us isn't just about getting more points on the board than the opposition, we're trying to establish a class act, to become something the british public can be proud of."

GB women go into the match a relatively young side and having only played as a unit for four weeks.

But 21-year-old Brit, Yemi Oyefuwa, who plays for the University of Maryland in the US, expects her teammates to give their all.

"We're definitely ready to get up and down the floor. They won't mind banging you around to get the ball so we can expect a very physical game", she said.

"It will be a great experience to see the style of play of the next level up, where we ultimately want to head."

NBA Europe are expecting another sell-out crowd at the MEN although tickets are still on sale, an encouraging sign for growth of basketball in the UK.

But whether the British public are ready to regularly pay to watch basketball is still not proven.

"Compared to the domestic professional level of other sports, clearly basketball has some catching up to do," Goldschmidt said.

"It's about getting more fans engaged in the sport - either through participation or watching. It's about building interest in the sport from the ground upwards."

"Basketball continues to grow in popularity and we've been very encouraged by the reception we've seen from fans and the demand to bring more activities to the UK."