In a soccer-mad continent, Lithuania is an outlier. Whereas its neighbors regularly tune in to watch the English Premier League, Lithuania isn’t interested. Instead, the locals prefer to stay up for NBA games. This is because basketball is the national sport of the country and has been ever since it was first imported in the 1930s.
Still, being located in Europe means that the nation’s citizens are never too far away from a top-class game of soccer. So, there’s always a niggling feeling that the EPL could one day be as popular as basketball’s premier competition. For that to happen, the following would need to occur.
Stand-out Lithuanian Players in the EPL
If you look at the biggest squads in England, none of them contain a Lithuanian player who’s recognized in the “Northern Italy of the Baltic”. The club with the closest link is Leicester City after the Foxes signed Simonas Stankevicius when the team was still in the Championship. Sadly, Stankevicius never appeared for the club and missed out on what would surely have been a life-changing experience and a first for Lithuania.
In 2015, Leicester shocked fans and pundits alike when they delivered a historic win, despite being at odds of 5000/1 in the English Premier League betting markets at the start of the season. In the years since, Leicester have further proven to the world their ability as a top-tier team. They’re currently sixth-favourites with odds of 109/1, but we’ve seen this side achieve the impossible before and it’s all yet to play for this season.
It’s highly probable that Lithuanian representation, had Stankevicius miraculously found a place on the first team, would have led to higher viewership and general interest in soccer. However, this wasn’t to be and there are hardly any other examples of Lithuanian soccer players who have transcended geo-politics.
Basketball, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether because the National Basketball Association is packed with ballers, from Domantas Sabonis of the Indiana Pacers to Ignas Brazdeikis of Orlando Magic. Of course, New Orleans Pelicans’ Jonas Valančiūnas is the main draw for Lithuanians as he was the fifth pick in the 2011 draft. When England starts producing soccer players who can compete with these guys, that’s when the EPL brand will begin gaining traction.
Extra Money for Soccer
Soccer can’t often complain that it doesn’t get the lion’s share of a country’s sporting budget, especially in Europe. Even the US spends a large chunk of cash on the sport, with US Soccer reported having $162 million in the bank. However, the status quo is different in Lithuania.
Basketball is the leader: the Lithuanian Basketball Federation funds over 130 legal members, 18 thousand licensed players, and 400 trainers. As a result, around 100,000 Lithuanians are projected to play basketball for fun throughout the country.
Unfortunately for soccer, and the EPL brand in Lithuania, this imbalance means that the sport falls down the cultural pecking order. If the money was distributed more evenly, a change would be likely. Until that point, the NBA will continue to dominate the landscape.
An Evolution of Styles
To put it into perspective, the Netherlands ranks at number one, and the average height for a man in Holland is 5 feet 11.86 inches. For a sport like basketball, where the basket is some way off the ground, this is perfect since Lithuanians can reach it more easily.
For football, the trait isn’t as in-demand, especially after the Barcelona style took over the game. Currently, small technical players are sought after as they can pass and move. This is the case even in England. Of course, if the sport goes back around to big, powerful players running from deep, then Lithuanians will be perfectly placed to exploit the evolution.
The English Premier League could be as big as the NBA in terms of popularity and viewing figures. However, it will take a lot for soccer to overtake basketball as the main sport in Lithuania.