The history of the iconic Outdoor Basketball Initiative

Most of England’s basketball community will have played at an outdoor court that features a basketball hoop with an adidas-branded backboard.  

One would argue that it’s a rite of passage on these isles.

Are you a true British baller if you haven’t chucked up some bricks on those unforgiving rims?  

But why are there so many of them across the country? And did you know that some have been in situ for nearly 30 years? 

This is the story of the Outdoor Basketball Initiative (OBI). 

British Basketball League Hall of Famer Peter Scantlebury (first row, third in from left) launches an OBI basketball court in Sheffield

Pick up and play basketball 

In September 1996, Basketball England – then known as the English Basketball Association or EBBA – implemented a project that would change access to basketball facilities in the country forever.  

After a successful funding bid, the English Sports Council, now Sport England, and the National Lottery provided BE and its subsidiary, the EBBA Outdoor Basketball Initiative Ltd (which was set up to manage the initiative), a grant of £10 million to install 10,000 basketball goals.  

In total, 9,301 goals were fixed into the asphalt at 4,342 sites across 352 English local authorities.

Locations included parks, recreation grounds, youth centres, schools, colleges, universities, housing complexes, community centres, religious buildings and other locations 

And the last, Ravenscourt Park basketball court, was completed in the early noughties.

Indoor facilities were a barrier to basketball

Sue Catton was the OBI’s national director for its near 10-year lifespan and says at the time it was the second biggest grant Sport England had ever issued and aimed to meet a rising interest in basketball amongst young people caused, by in large, the heightened profile of the NBA and the Sky Sports coverage of the British Basketball League (BBL).  

“The actual bid was put in by Montgomery Leisure Services [owned by Gerry Montgomery and Yuri Matischen, founders of British Basketball League franchise, the Sheffield Sharks] on behalf of the EBBA and was in response to the governing body’s strategic plan, which acknowledged indoor facilities as a real barrier to kids being able to play basketball and learn about the game, because they were expensive and you usually had to be part of a team to access them” said Catton, who now sits on the Football Foundation Grants Panel.  

There was a rising demand to be able to just pick up and play street basketball and these casual recreational facilities were what young people wanted.” 

Brighton Beach Basketball Court was part of the OBI

16.5 million visits a year 

Way before Street Games and Park Run, Catton says the OBI was basketball’s way of encouraging young people to take up healthy lifestyles, combating anti-social behaviour and engendering community spirit.  

And at its peak, its courts were receiving 16.5 million visits a year. 

The initiative had five core objectives:  

  • To make basketball available, accessible, and free to all members of the community 
  • To establish a partnership between the sport of basketball and the community at large 
  • To introduce young people to basketball and provide opportunities for them to develop and progress within the sport 
  • To encourage young people in healthy self-development and self-awareness 
  • To provide an alternative purposeful activity for young people by keeping them away from damaging activities 
The original design for the adidas backboard insert

Single biggest sponsorship for grassroots basketball 

Notably, sportswear giant adidas was the main title sponsor and put £1 million into the coffers, which at the time was the single biggest sponsorship deal ever achieved for grassroots basketball development in England.   

And with the 3-Stripes plastered on every single one of those backboards, it brought the company plenty of awareness and good publicity for growing basketball participation.  

What shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is the local authorities’ contribution to the OBI, matching the Sport England and National Lottery funding pound-for-pound to cover installation and maintenance costs.  

In total, the initiative was eventually valued at around £25 million. A steal in today’s money. 

Between adidas, the local authorities, BE development officers, the OBI team, local court activists, and clubs, on-going basketball development activities were organised at every site throughout the OBI’s life cycle, including coached sessions, coach education, fun days, competitions, tournaments and more.  

Additionally, adidas used its clout to assist with court launch events, securing the presence of BBL stars of the time, like Peter Scantlebury, Roger Huggins, Chris Finch and Alton Bird, as well as Boston Celtics’ Antoine Walker, to drum up media interest and inspire the next generation of British ballers.  

We would send out site user manuals and gave out something like 25,000 basketballs,” said Catton.  

“There were a lot of packages that we put out around each court launch that got young people engaged. Local authorities could see the value coming through for their local basketball development plans too. And it was great for the EBBA because its participation development managers could see a participation pathway for talented youngsters to go from playing street basketball to its clubs.” 

Sue Catton (first row, far left) was there when the first OBI goal was erected in Haringey in November, 1996. Sheffield Sharks players Peter Scantlebury (centre left, third row back) and Roger Huggins (centre right, third row back) helped launched the court

Gladiator Units 

The goals themselves were designed specifically for the OBI and were officially known as ‘Gladiator Units’ (which you can still buy).

Made from robust galvanised steel to prevent rust and custom backboard inserts that could easily be replaced, they were built to last. 

In fact, the next time you’re at your local outdoor court, you can check whether your goal is an OBI one by looking at the arm that carries the weight of the backboard and rim.  

If you see a manufacturer code followed by a number, eg RSG/97, you will know a) it’s a Gladiator Unit and b) how old it is (the number denoting the year of production and installation). 

Catton says because the initiative was so big they contracted four multi-sport equipment suppliers – Probe Sport, Carr Sports, Ransome Sporting Goods and Sportserve UK – geographically positioned in the North, South, East and West of the country, to manufacture the goals and work with the local authorities to install them. 

“I think one of the biggest legacies of the OBI is that they are still out there today. I drive past one in Fartown in Huddersfield, and it's been there for 30 odd years! I love to see it and the young people playing pickup games of basketball.” 

The future: #ProjectSwish 

Currently, there are just over 3,330 OBI outdoor courts with 7,055 goals remaining, and despite their advanced years, are still doted on by the basketball community during the warmer spring and summer months.

Since 2019, BE’s #ProjectSwish campaign has been breathing new life into them, funding and supporting stakeholders to upgrade England’s remaining OBI stock.

“The baskets are an institution in their own right.” said Basketball England’s Head of Participation Pete Griffiths.

“You either love them or hate them. People still refer to them as the adidas baskets, they're indestructible.

“As part of #ProjectSwish, we’ve renovated many OBI courts with new backboards and rings since the campaign and the plan is to keep up the momentum, working with local authorities, individuals and partners, where funding allows, to replace parts and paint courts and keep these facilities alive for another 30 years.” 

The OBI in numbers 

  • 270 basketball activists promoting development on OBI courts 
  • 349 Local Authority Co-ordinators 
  • 352 Local authorities with OBI Sites 
  • 3,000 site user manuals distributed 
  • 4,342 OBI sites 
  • 8,000 OBI competition packs distributed 
  • 9,301 basketball goals installed 
  • 15,000 OBI posters distributed 
  • 27,000 basketballs distributed 
  • 31,000 OBI stickers distributed 
  • 16.5 million visits a year