Fandom: London Lions
When you think of basketball, chances are you think of the US. We meet London Lions General Manager Vanja Cernivec to discuss growing women’s basketball fandom in the UK
The London Lions women’s basketball team is leaving a remarkable impact on the sport with their unique roster-building approach. They have successfully brought the best British talent back home from the US, providing them with a platform to compete and shine in front of their loved ones. Moreover, their forthcoming plans include launching youth teams, establishing a comprehensive player pathway that leads all the way to the professional level. We had the opportunity to chat with General Manager Vanja Cernivec about how she and her team are reshaping the landscape of women’s basketball fandom in the UK.
Glorious: What are your thoughts on the current state of women’s basketball worldwide?
Vanja Cernivec: Well, the NCAA Collegiate and the WNBA in the States are experiencing a significant surge in viewership and ticket sales, breaking records along the way. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t widely shared in Europe, especially in the UK, although the women’s Euroleague, within the basketball discipline, is also witnessing record-breaking numbers in social media engagement and viewership. If we focus specifically on the UK, the London Lions have been instrumental in fuelling this growth, which is fantastic, but there is a common misconception that our team’s success is detrimental to the sport as a whole. There is a perception that domestic games lose their appeal because it’s assumed that the Lions will always win, while some claim that we prioritise European competitions over domestic ones, but this is simply not true, as both competitions hold great value for us.
Glorious: London Lions has a unique roster-building approach for the women’s team, tell us more about this.
Vanja Cernivec: London Lions: Our primary goal was to bring the best British talent back to their home country. In the past, many players, both male and female, had to leave the UK around the age of 16 or 17 to continue playing basketball during their high school and college years. Unfortunately, there was no established player pathway in the UK, forcing these players to leave their families and friends behind. The London Lions aim to change that by providing a platform for these players to come back and compete in front of their loved ones. It’s an incredible opportunity for them.
Glorious: That’s amazing! So, who have you lined up for the 2023/24 season?
Vanja Cernivec: We haven’t officially announced the complete roster yet, but it’s true that three players of exceptional British talent including Temi Fagbenle, Savannah Wilkinson and Cheridene Green are among them. When we initially set our goal of bringing back the best British players, we realised that they aspire to compete at the highest level, which is the Euroleague. Therefore, our team’s objective this season is to qualify for the Euroleague, which is a significant milestone. The qualifying games are scheduled for mid-September, and they hold utmost importance for us. It has never been achieved in the history of British basketball, especially for a young club like ours.
Glorious: Binging these players back home and aiming for European qualification will undoubtedly have a significant impact. Surely this will likely attract more people to come and watch, leading to a growing fan base and increased interest?
Vanja Cernivec: Bringing these players back home holds immense significance, and our aspiration to qualify for the Euroleague aligns with that objective. When it comes to fans, there is another reason why we opted for the Euroleague. In the previous years, our team competed in the second-tier division of European basketball called EuroCup. By qualifying for the Euroleague, we secure a minimum of seven home games plus the qualifiers, providing an opportunity to build a strong home base and fan following.
Glorious: Who primarily makes up the London Lions fan base?
Vanja Cernivec: We are actively examining whether the men’s and women’s teams have different fan bases, but based on my observations of the audience, I would say that last year for the women’s games, we attracted a dedicated group of hardcore basketball fans who had a deep understanding of the game who were actively engaged, cheering and supporting the team. It was quite different from when we started with the men’s team, as there were instances where people didn’t fully grasp the rules and what was happening on the court. What we’ve seen is a strong presence of families, passionate basketball fans, and former players who have a deep connection to the game from their own experiences.
Glorious: Have you had any personal memorable interactions with fans?
Vanja Cernivec: Particularly on the women’s side, it’s been incredibly heart-warming to see young kids engaging with the team. When our team played away games we would encounter groups of 20, 30, or even hundreds of kids eagerly waiting for autographs and photos. It made me realise what was missing – having young fans who connect with the team. By the end of the season, I witnessed a heart-warming transformation. We had kids waiting at the Copper Box or Crystal Palace during playoffs, excited to high-five players, take photos, and collect signatures. These interactions reaffirm my belief that we are on the right path. Witnessing the joy and enthusiasm of young fans is truly rewarding for me.
Glorious: How would you compare the basketball culture in the US to that in the UK?
Vanja Cernivec: I used to believe that there wasn’t much of a basketball culture here, but I was mistaken. There is indeed a basketball culture in the UK. I’ve come across many hardcore fans who truly love the sport, but they may not have had access to high-level games or a quality basketball product in the past, which could explain their lack of engagement. In contrast, the NBA in the US is widely recognised as the best basketball league in the world and even those who aren’t diehard basketball fans still appreciate the experience because of the high level of play. To address this, we’re investing heavily in enhancing the overall experience. From game production to halftime shows, we want to create an atmosphere similar to an NBA game, so it becomes a cool and exciting experience for fans.
Glorious: Engaging with fans is crucial. How do you connect with them both inside and outside the arena? Do you have fan groups or other initiatives to interact with them?
Vanja Cernivec: Our fan engagement strategy is multifaceted. Social media is a vital tool for connecting with our community. We have a talented content team that produces engaging content targeted at the next generation of fans, which has helped us build a strong following. Additionally, we focus on grassroots efforts such as clinics and community initiatives to familiarise people with the London Lions and our activities. Separately, we collaborate with our sponsors and partners to organise various events and activations.
For example, we had our hoop bus driving around London last season, conducting demos and engaging with the community to raise awareness about the London Lions and basketball as a whole.
One noteworthy development from last season was the emergence of a fan group called The Pride. It started with just three individuals who were highly interested in the London Lions. Over time, their connections grew to around 30 people, and they have become an avid fan community. They have their own group, an Instagram page, and even their own brand-new jerseys. They are passionate supporters who bring energy and excitement to our games and It’s important for us to nurture this organic growth and authenticity. While football may have more collectivism, it’s wonderful to see a dedicated group of people coming together to support our club.
Glorious: Attracting the next generation of young players and fans can be a challenge. How are you addressing this and working towards their engagement?
Vanja Cernivec: Starting this upcoming school year in September, we will be launching our youth teams under the London Lions. These teams will range from under 12 to under 16 for both boys and girls. We are adopting a European structure that is not school-based or academically focused, but rather aligned with our club structure. Our goal is twofold: to provide a platform for youth development and to establish a pathway that breaks the current pattern of players having to seek opportunities in the States or Europe. It’s not just about bringing the best players back home; it’s about keeping young talent within the country. We want to offer them a comprehensive player pathway that leads all the way to the professional level. We also recognise the need for coaching development. At present, there are no established coaching pathways in Britain, and we want to address that gap by developing a structured coaching programme.
Glorious: Looking ahead, what are your main goals for the London Lions and women’s basketball?
Vanja Cernivec: Seeing our player pathway succeed would be a significant achievement, with kids progressing from under 12 to under 18 youth teams. The ultimate success would be developing a few young players who can transition to our professional teams. Currently, our professional teams consist entirely of contracted professional players, without a connection to the youth teams. For the women’s professional team, our major goal is to qualify for the Euroleague, which would be a remarkable achievement. Of course, we want to attract more fans, as you mentioned earlier, and for them to enjoy a vibrant and engaging atmosphere at our games.