Will the Euroleague Changes and Issues with FIBA Have a Negative Effect on European Basketball?

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Though the Euroleague season is well over (With CSKA Moscow claiming the trophy in a thrilling overtime win over Fenerbahce Istanbul), there hasn’t been any lack of excitement or headlines surrounding the Euroleague competition as it prepares for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Most of the attention however has been of the controversial variety, especially with the change of the season format, as well as the Euroleague’s issues with FIBA, who is trying to create their own major club competition for the first time since the FIBA Suproleague in 2001.

In terms of the first point, the Euroleague will be making some major changes to their competition, as they will do away with their multi-round format and instead go to a longer, more-traditional regular season model. Traditionally, the Euroleague first round is only 10 games long, with 24 teams split into 4 groups. After the 10 game season, the Top 16 teams (top 4 in each division) advance to the second “Top 16” round while the remaining 8 teams get regulated to the Eurocup (the second-tier league in Europe) for the remainder of the season. In the Top 16 round, the teams are split into two groups and compete in a round-robin format over a 14-game schedule. At the conclusion of this slate of games, the best four teams in each group advance to the playoffs for a Best of 5 series. The winners of those playoff series then advance to the Final Four, where it is single elimination from there.

For those American fans unfamiliar with European basketball, think of this format as the World Cup meets old-school first round of the NBA playoffs with the NCAA Final Four. It’s a bit batshit and it can cause some weird-ass moments like this due to the Euroleague’s controversial “scoring margin” procedure (similar to soccer), but it does provide for some interesting drama with each game’s importance so magnified for advancement.

However, the main issue with this format is that Europe’s most recognizable and lucrative teams may not always make it past the first round, which was mostly evident this year. Due to lackluster performances and some organizational turmoil, A License teams (established clubs who participate in the Euroleague regularly due to their massive status in the club scene) such as EA7 Emporio (from Milan, Italy) and Maccabi Fox (from Tel Aviv, Israel) missed the Top 16, and thus, the Euroleague lost a considerable amount of their fanbase after the first round due to their “off years”. This was a big blow especially since both these teams have popular appeal beyond their home countries (especially in the case of Maccabi), and it’s a lot harder for general Euroleague fans to get excited for teams that don’t necessarily have much Euroleague history not to mention aren’t guaranteed to be back the following season (as was the case with teams such as Cedevita Zagreb from Croatia and Khimki Moscow from Russia, both teams who will not be participating in the Euroleague next year).

Thankfully, the new format will solve some of those “fan” issues listed above. As detailed in the Euroleague’s 10-year agreement with IMG, the “condensed” 16-team format (from 24) and extended regular season schedule (30 rounds instead of the combined 23 rounds from rounds 1 and 2), the Euroleague now will have a more established league that guarantees longtime and well-known clubs will be on the international stage longer for the benefit of European basketball fans (not to mention these clubs’ fans who generate a lot of revenue). This new format also benefits the fans because fans will get to see their clubs play all the top teams, which wasn’t necessarily the case in the past format. If a team got bounced early, fans might not have seen them play a fellow country rival or another big-time European club. But, with the extended schedule, every one of the 16 teams will play one another, which will generate better match ups during the regular season, while still keeping the same competitive spirit that makes the Euroleague so unique.

Of course, one of the drawbacks with the creation of this new format means there will be 8 less teams playing in the Euroleague, which makes it a bit of a bummer for the smaller clubs, as well as basketball fans who appreciate the underdog. The wild card slots have reduced from 4 to 2, which means underdog stories like Lokomotiv Kuban this year, who were playing in the Eurocup a year ago and made it to the Final Four this season despite being a wild card, will be a lot less likely. Also, with A license teams less likely to see changes in its composition (i.e. lose their license and not participate in the Euroleague), it also means that international fans will not be able to see European clubs aside from the usual powerhouses like Barcelona, Real Madrid, CSKA Moscow, and Maccabi. In my case, it was disappointing that after the first round I was not able to follow other Euroleague teams such as CSP Limoges (from France) and Stelmet Zielona Gora (from Poland) after they were bounced from the first round. With this new format, I will be hard pressed to see them at all, let alone 10 games of them.

That being said, while the limited amount of teams hurts the more “under-the-radar” clubs, it does strengthen the Eurocup, the ULEB (Union of European Leagues of Basketball) and second-best competition in Europe (the winner of the Eurocup advances the next year in the Euroleague). The Eurocup will now follow the format of the old Euroleague with the multi-round format, and with the addition of more teams next year who probably were good enough to compete in the Euroleague, the Eurocup will undoubtedly be more competitive, and hopefully this could generate interest in the Eurocup being televised more since the quality of the competition has increased. For international fans like myself, the lack of any television coverage of the Eurocup keeps it from being followed or covered more closely, but an increase of good teams could change that, as better games will make it more exciting and desirable to basketball fans who want to see other competition outside Europe’s main league.

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The changes in format however to the Euroleague and Eurocup however has produced a lot of ill will though as of late with FIBA, who is trying to get back into the European club scene with the creation of their own league: the FIBA Champions League (named after the FIFA counterpart). FIBA has been trying to get back into the European club scene ever since FIBA lost the rights to the competition after the 2000 season, when the clubs formed their own league independent of FIBA through the Euroleague Basketball Company. Because FIBA did not have any copyright on the “Euroleague” name, this organization was able to get away with it, and thus FIBA lost its main source of competition revenue outside their international competitions such as the European championship (now called Eurobasket) and World Championship (now called World Cup) just to name a few. However, considering international competitions are limited to a bad time for basketball on the calendar (the summer months after all club competitions have ended) and aren’t annual events, they are definitely far less lucrative then the club competition scene now under the guidance of the EBC.

FIBA over the past couple of years had been looking to lure some top clubs back to FIBA with the creation of the Champions League, but after the 10-year deal with IMG, getting any top clubs was out of the question. So, it appeared that FIBA, to keep some kind of good will with the EBC in order to preserve their own international competitions, was going to settle with being the “second-tier” league, perhaps replacing or competing with the Eurocup. However, while there seemed to be some interest early-on, and even some agreements, it appears FIBA will be on the outside-looking-in when it comes to building this new competition, as many of the teams that FIBA was desiring look to be participating in the ULEB’s Eurocup rather than FIBA’s Champions League.

As expected, FIBA did not take this lying down. They threatened to suspend and not allow countries who will participate in the Eurocup and even Euroleague to participate in their international competitions such as the Eurobasket, which is due in 2017. This included power countries such as Spain, Serbia, Greece, Israel and even Italy, who lost their duties hosting the 2017 Eurobasket due to this controversy over club participation. However, despite FIBA’s power moves, they have not been able to have much impact, as a Munich judge ruled an injunction that prevented FIBA and FIBA Europe from sanctioning these countries and clubs for joining the Eurocup instead of the Champions League. Hence, no suspensions have been given out, though FIBA is working to see if it can reverse the injunction in the near future.

With all these changes lurking for 2016-2017 as well as the ongoing controversy between the EBC/ULEB and FIBA, it will be interesting to see how things will pan out not just going into next year but once the 2016-2017 campaign begins in October as well. It is understandable to see FIBA’s frustration. As a global governing body, the lack of any kind of presence any more in the professional basketball scene beyond international competition has really hurt them from having the kind of impact FIFA enjoys in soccer. It’s bad enough FIBA really has little to no influence in the world’s strongest league (the NBA), but to have no influence in the second-strongest league in the world (the Euroleague) makes it even more painful. FIBA knows that having the Euroleague and Eurocup control would go a long way to strengthening their power as a global sporting federation, especially with online streaming’s ability to reach audiences not just in Europe, but all over the world. The Euroleague brand is greater than ever before on a global scale. Basketball fans want to watch more Euroleague, see possible “prospects” in action that will be making their way to the NBA. Euroleague TV’s launch this last year has proven that the Euroleague doesn’t need to be “lumped in” with FIBA and other club competitions (as was the case when it was with Livebasketball.tv) to be lucratively successful.

Unfortunately, this jockeying for “club basketball” coverage in some people’s minds has done European basketball more harm than good in the long run. Michael Long of Sports Pro Media, remarked this in his post examining the creation of the Champions League and its impact on European basketball:

What is certain, however, is that the creation of a second continental competition would appear a major step back for basketball in Europe. Some would argue that the introduction of a dual system would be disastrous, creating a situation reminiscent of 16 years ago when Fiba’s Suproleague survived just one season competing alongside the Euroleague that would subsequently replace it. Certainly, the European market at that time could not sustain two rival basketball competitions. Many doubt whether it can today

It does feel like in the quest for garnering control, both leagues may do more harm than good for European basketball in general, as Long points out above and in his article. After all, as mentioned in the Sports Pro Media piece, without the participation of 11 of the best European clubs teams, it will be hard to imagine the Champions League be better than a second-tier club competition in Europe, thus making FIBA’s endeavor seem like a waste of time, not to mention resources. At the same time, it would be nice to see if the Euroleague could show more cooperation toward unifying professional basketball in Europe, and perhaps by giving FIBA primary involvement in the “secondary” league, that would lessen tension between the two organizations, and not jeopardize international competition, which is important and special, especially when it comes to the World Cup and Eurobasket.

Of course, who knows what either sides wants. Maybe a “secondary” competition isn’t enough for FIBA. Maybe the Euroleague is not interested in preserving or growing international competition. After all, the NBA, the world’s premiere basketball organization, gets away with little FIBA involvement, and perhaps the Euroleague is trying to follow the same mold of finding success while being independent of its governing body (though to be fair, the NBA doesn’t have the kind of conflicts with FIBA Americas that the Euroleague and FIBA Europe has).

Whatever happens though between the Euroleague and FIBA Europe, the fate of European basketball, not just with clubs, but perhaps overall, will be going through some major changes this upcoming 2016-2017 season. A lot of questions that could have a strong impact on basketball in the continent will be decided: Will FIBA still have the Champions League running? Will the Euroleague’s new format resonate better with fans rather than the traditional method? Will the Eurobasket 2017 be hindered by lack of participation from some Europe’s traditional powers?

It will be interesting to see how fate will unveil itself to European basketball by the 2016-2017 season.

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