One of the new Olympic disciplines, 3x3 basketball (where the U.S. Women's National Team won gold), has emerged as the breakout star among TV viewers. It’s fast-paced, takes up less court space, has its roots in the urban game, has multiple sponsored tours – and people are tuning in. And all those eyeballs are expected to translate into a new demand for half-court action for youth.
Editorial note: It's pronounced "three-ex-three," not three-by-three, three-on-three, three-times-three or any other permutation.
According to Medium.com, the almost meteoric rise of 3x3 is attributable to FIBA’s vision, which latches onto the excitement of the game and harnesses it for use in a street festival format.
“I don’t see us going into traditional arenas. This is more like the AVP Tour. A lively, colorful event that adds fun and youthful energy,” stated league founder Michael Wranovics. “It’s about much more than the game itself. We’re going to create a festival atmosphere with VR 360 activations, selfie walls, food trucks, beer gardens, and high energy music.”
The IOC has repeatedly stressed its wish to bring in a younger viewing demographic. 3x3 may be the answer to its prayers.
From an organizational perspective, 3v3 is easy to implement. The game’s needs are relatively few: a half-court, one net and six players. Each game is capped at 10 minutes or the first team to reach 21 points, making it easy – and less time-consuming – to watch.
It’s also enjoying quite a bit of sponsorship investment. Wilson Sporting Goods, for example, has been a partner of FIBA since 2015. The two groups have recently extended their partnership through 2028, and while the game of basketball is the priority, 3x3 has become Wilson’s focus. Wilson sees the exponential growth of the game and wants in on the action.
“While we’re number one in the U.S., we want to be number one globally,” Wilson President Mike Dowse told Medium reporters. “This relationship with FIBA helps introduce us to the world. There’s not a region in the world [where] FIBA 3×3 isn’t being played.”
Wilson worked with 3x3 players to develop a special ball for the game; it’s so popular that it keeps selling out so get it while you can. The ball is smaller, a bit heavier and has more grip points – something that comes in handy during the rough and tumble action of the game.
The annual FIBA 3X3 World Tour includes a series of Masters and one Final tournament, and awards six-figure prize money. It’s far from the only company to have latched onto the energy, however; in fact, none other than Red Bull offers its own circuit. Oh, and so does Nike. And the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation has also started its own events.
Closer to home than the international tour (or the Olympics, for that matter) is youth action. AAU offered its first 3x3 tournament in 2019 and USA Basketball has an entire section of its website devoted to it. Coaches say the format, which brings more contact with the ball, makes better, more active players.
And it’s already translating into interest in tournaments and leagues at the youth level.
"I do think there is growing interest in that format," says Blake Thompson, owner of Teammate Basketball. "Aside from the Olympics, we're also seeing professional 3x3 leagues now being televised. I do think that will trickle down to the youth level and we could see organization like ours tap in to those type of events. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also saw some organizers doing some 3x3 one-day tournaments to decrease the number of participants/spectators. I thought that was interesting as well."
Hoop It Up, a national competition of weekly tournaments where teams compete toward winning the League championship and an automatic berth to compete in the FIBA 3x3 World Tour, offers youth play (U8-U18). Key Basketball Training (KBT) offers programs for youth from second to eighth grade. Additionally, as basketball leagues start up again, from municipal programs to private clubs, count on 3x3 to become even more popular since it uses less real estate and allows for smaller teams.
John Whitley of the National Travel Basketball Association notes that while he has not yet seen the demand at the youth level, it's really only a matter of time; he definitely sees it becoming popular with older players.
"I do think the Olympics will only help with that; however, 3x3 was very popular about 20 years ago in the adult basketball world and all the major cities across the county had a least one big 3x3 basketball tournament each year. The interest in 3x3 basketball tournaments seemed to die over the past 10 years or so unfortunately, but with the Olympics featuring it, I feel it will make a comeback, especially in the younger adult community."
And, he notes, it's a different game entirely.
"3x3 gives players a chance to play but yet not have to run up and down a full court, plus you don't need as many players to play a game. I think kids still love to play a true 5x5 full-court game so I'm not sure what type of demand over the next several years you will see at the youth level, but I really feel 3x3 will make a comeback with adults over the next couple years and we hope that trickles down to the youth level as well."
While it’s too soon to find out what the impact of 3x3 will be on high school sports as a whole, it is noteworthy that in the most recent National Federation of State High School Associations participation survey, more schools offered basketball programs for boys and girls than they did any other sport.
3x3 has a strong international following; England, for example, announced a new initiative, #GameTime, designed to promote it.
The fact that 3x3 can be played indoors or outdoors (this is, after all, a sport with its roots deep in the urban culture of pick-up games), with a smaller number of players but with no less intensity, translates to a different type of game altogether. And it could mean that event owners could be more lenient when it comes to site selection; in other words, they might be choosing a venue on the basis on ambience and ability to host a street festival, rather than one that adheres to more stringent standards.
“3×3 is a different sport,” stated Kevin Murphy, Wilson general manager of team sports. “It’s not played in controlled conditions, per se. [It could be] playing in the streets. It could be dusty, rainy, windy. We developed a ball that players like to play with in basically any condition.”
And, as USA TODAY notes, “It still will have the classic backyard or pickup game vibes that come with any 3-on-3 basketball game – except that, for a few days, 3x3 will be played on the biggest stage in international sports.”
Some pundits are calling 3x3 “the new beach volleyball.” However it is categorized, event owners need to be ready.