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After teething troubles, Big3 basketball league begins to find its feet

  • TV ratings and attendances for Ice Cube’s three-on-three league have grown steadily
  • League expanding number of teams and cities, while players have shown more interest
  • Early issues included lawsuit against Qatari investors and sacking inaugural commissioner

After suffering early growing pains, the Big3 basketball league appears to have found its feet ahead of its third season this summer.

Founded by hip-hop star-turned entrepreneur Ice Cube and his business partner Jeff Kwatinetz, the professional three-on-three half-court basketball league is expanding from eight to 12 teams and, in its touring model, will visit 18 cities in 2019, up from 10 last year.

Matches will now take place on two nights per weekend instead of one, while there will be three games a night instead of four. According to the league, this “benefits TV time and in-arena experience”.

Meanwhile, in an effort to expand the player pool and to engage with its young fanbase, the eligibility age for players has been lowered to 27, with professional international experience being allowed for the first time. In the first two seasons, the league was limited to just former NBA players who were at least 30 years old.

The head coaches have real star power, with NBA legends Julius Erving, Gary Payton, Michael Cooper, Rick Barry and George Gervin on the sidelines. The league has also stolen a march on the NBA by naming two female head coaches: Nancy Lieberman and Lisa Leslie.

The league, which aims to provide basketball fans with a fix during the NBA off-season, has shown signs of commercial growth. Average attendance was 14,000 last year, up from 11,000 in 2017, the league’s first season. On TV, average game ratings across Fox and Fox Sports rose from 191,000 to 395,000. The network’s coverage of the second Big3 championship game recorded just over a million viewers, up from 632,000 in 2017.

With innovations such as a four-point line and a 14-second shot clock, the league has proven attractive to a younger audience. The median age of the Big3 TV audience is 44, younger than that of every major league and collegiate sport except for the NBA (42) and Major League Soccer (40), according to Nielsen data.

Commercial partnerships have followed. In April 2019, the league announced a sponsorship deal with Toyota and a jersey-patch deal with cbdMD following the league’s use of cannabidiol for pain management. Adidas became the league’s official outfitter in 2018, in a three-year deal, while the two companies have partnered to start Young3, a three-on-three youth basketball initiative. Meanwhile, 2K Sports and EA Sports have reportedly expressed interest in creating a video game based on the league.

The introduction of three-on-three basketball at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo is also likely to increase interest. “More exposure to the sport is always a good thing. The fact that three-on-three basketball is so popular globally is only positive for our league,” Big3’s chief executive Amit Bajaj tells SportBusiness.

The next step is to go international: the Big3 plans to make an announcement this year with regards to taking the league overseas.

And while ultimately unsuccessful, the Big3’s attempts to purchase the regional sports networks that Disney had to divest as part of its $71.3bn (€63bn) acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets – ultimately secured by Sinclair Broadcast Group – represented a statement of intent about the company’s ambitions in the US sports and media landscape.

“There are other things that we potentially have our eyes on, and you shouldn’t count us out because we’ve got a compelling product and some great partners,” adds Bajaj. “And as Cube and Jeff have shown in the past, they can get almost anything done.”

Big3 co-founder Ice Cube poses ahead of the BIG3 Draft at the Luxor Hotel & Casino on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (David Becker/Getty Images)

Bumps in the road

The path to stability has been far from straightforward. “Everything with a new league is hard,” Kwatinetz tells SportBusiness. “It was difficult because a new league hasn’t succeeded in 20 years or so since UFC, so you have to get people to buy into it.

“No one thinks a first-year league is going to succeed. In the second year they think, ‘maybe the first year was a fluke’ and by the third year they start to think, ‘wow, this thing is really going to work’.

“The most important thing was the play was great and the players would give 100 per cent. Establishing the league as a real, credible, professional league rather than a novelty play, that was the most crucial thing.”

One of the biggest issues the league had was finding a broadcast partner for the first season. According to the LA Times, every network but ESPN passed on meeting Ice Cube and Kwatinetz when they were first pitching the league.

Eventually Fox agreed to televise the league, in a deal in which the Big3 would share in TV ad revenue for the games. The other terms of the deal have not been made public. “We were lucky that we got Fox to believe in it. It’s hard to get a first-year broadcast deal of any type. That was essential,” says Kwatinetz.

Unsure of the quality of games and how long they would take, Fox decided to broadcast the games on tape delay on cable channel Fox Sports 1 on Monday evenings. Looking back, Kwatinetz says the decision “saved the league”.

He explains: “The first event took five-and-a-half hours and to be on a three-hour window that would not have been good. We were able to cut that down after the first week, making [games the first to] 50 points instead of 60 and the way we handled time-outs and various other things. It gave us the opportunity to make mistakes that we could correct without impeding on the competitiveness of the game.

“By the end of the season, we were ready to go live. When we did the championship game live, people said it looked like we had been on the air for 30 years. I have no question that that was the right choice for the first year.”

Fox aired games live in the second season – while one game a week was also streamed on Facebook – but the network decided not to renew its contract. Neither party has said why, though in a conference call to reporters in January 2019, Kwatinetz said it might have been because Big3 had been trying to secure the Fox RSNs. “We’re both competing for a similar asset, potentially,” he said.

The Big3 has since moved to CBS, which will broadcast the 2019 season opener and title game on its main channel, while cable channel CBS Sports Network will carry up to 25 hours of live action over the course of the 11-week season.

A general view of a basketball game between Power and Tri-State during week nine of the BIG3 three-on-three basketball league at the American Airlines Center on August 17, 2018 in Dallas, Texas. (Ron Jenkins/Big3/Getty Images)

Funding the future

The search for investment has caused the Big3 some major problems. “We do have a good group of investors who have been very supportive, additive and strategic, we don’t just take money from anyone. The league is well-financed,” says Kwatinetz, without adding any details. “We’re smart about how we went into it and you’ve seen other leagues obviously struggle with that.”

However, in April 2018 Ice Cube and Kwatinetz sued a group of Qatari investors in the league for $1.2bn, claiming they broke their promises to fund the Big3 and then tried to push out the founders. The group, called Sports Trinity, pledged to invest $11.5m for a 15-per-cent stake, with $9m more in sponsorship money over three years, but only $7.5m was paid by the group.

The lawsuit reportedly cost the league millions of dollars and its initial commissioner, Roger Mason Jr., was sacked in part because of his relationship with the investment group. Former NBA player Clyde Drexler has since taken over as commissioner.

To take the next step, the Big3 will most likely have to land a superstar player and organisers have long courted LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. But fitness and a willingness to compete are as valuable as name recognition. The league seemingly secured a coup in landing Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson to be a player-coach in 2017, however he barely played and pulled out of appearing in Philadelphia, where he starred for the 76ers for most of his career, at extremely short notice, much to the anger of the attending fans. He was also suspended for a no-show in Dallas.

Interest from players to participate has grown, with 132 players competing for 31 roster spots at this year’s Big3 Combine. Players are believed to earn $100,000 a season while there is a reported revenue-share based on final team standings.

“If you look at the data around the players who participated in the combine despite not having a great chance of being drafted, that speaks to itself,” says Bajaj. “I think we’ve realised that the ceiling for this league is quite high and we’ve had to meet that interest.”

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