Professional wheelchair basketball league makes breakthrough for parasport

On a basketball court in Worcester on Saturday, history was made for para-sport. In front of nearly 2,000 fans, the first game of the British Wheelchair Basketball Women’s Premier League kicked off, marking the launch of the UK’s first para-sport professional league. Additionally, it was streamed live on the BBC website.

It was a moment which, according to Siobhan Fitzpatrick, a Loughborough Lightning player who featured in the season opener, was a turning point in the way para-sport was viewed. “Having it on the BBC has really helped me show my friends and family that this isn’t just a hobby – it’s my job,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s why I sacrificed 10 years of my life to do this, and it’s the pinnacle now. The hairs are standing on my arms just thinking about it.

The BBC broadcast deal was only revealed this month, but plans for the league were announced last year, including the decision to launch with a women’s league before a men’s version – which remains in preparation after the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. The four-team league includes Worcester Wolves, Loughborough Lightning, Cardiff Met Archers and East London Phoenix, and will run until May.

Fitzpatrick, who played for Great Britain at the Tokyo Games last summer, is one of 16 players receiving full-time funding from UK Sport. Other WPL players are unpaid, but most benefit from scholarships or paid internships, agreed upon with the universities to which their teams are affiliated.

The WPL differs from existing wheelchair basketball leagues in that it has a £1.6m investment from the four universities involved, which pays for the professional environment players can enjoy, including full-time coaches, physiotherapists and extensive facilities. In addition to compensation plans to eventually become standard for players, there is a three-year goal to expand the league to have two additional teams.

For now, seven regular season games are due to be shown on the BBC website, along with the play-offs and finals, and the rest will be live on YouTube. Lisa Pearce, chief executive of British Wheelchair Basketball, believes the cover will be a game-changer. “We’ve been waiting for this moment,” she said. “We can really bring what is Paralympic visibility of the sport once every four years into people’s homes week after week. It is extremely important to have visibility for inclusive women’s sport, so we are very proud that these women are the pioneers.

The idea of ​​connecting franchises to universities not only provided the necessary funding, but gave the league an integrated fan base. Loughborough Lightning, for example, already has netball, rugby, cricket and cycling teams, while the Cardiff Met Archers basketball team competes in the British Basketball League.

“We went to watch the basketball games in progress and I referee for them,” said Rebecca Ganley, who is one of three Welsh players in the Cardiff Met WPL squad. “There’s this connection, they’re all really excited to come see us in big groups, to get the drums out, to be part of the atmosphere. We have such a buildup and hype around it.

Saturday’s opener, between Loughborough and Worcester, marked a new experience even for the Paralympians involved, as some had never played in front of domestic or international fans (due to the Tokyo Games being held behind closed doors). Usually Paralympians talk about the tough lull that follows the year after the Games, when visibility is at its lowest, but Fitzpatrick said there is now a new momentum behind their sport.

For Pearce, the impact can be much more than sport: “Never has the opportunity been greater to tackle the inequality that exists within society around the impact of Covid on people disabilities, and also the impact on women’s sport. We need a platform and sport is a great way to have a wider discussion about how we are creating a more inclusive society.

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