In part four of our long-form series on the civil war in European basketball, Emmet Ryan looks at the benefits real collaboration between FIBA and Euroleague would bring and examines the obstacles the war has created
It turns out 2 June was THE day in European basketball. Everything was solved by one court in Munich and both sides won. At least that’s how it came across in my inbox. No worries if you missed it, Euroleague took 3 days to declare total victory before FIBA followed suit with their own declaration of absolute triumph a day late. “Munich Regional Court rules against FIBA and FIBA Europe sanctions” was the proclamation from Euroleague. Victory for the lads in Barcelona. Shut up shop. Then a day later, apparently we had gotten the story all wrong. “Munich Regional Court dismisses Euroleague’s request to declare clubs and leagues free to register with Eurocup” so apparently FIBA has won.
It really is a pity that our podcast with Kamil Novak and Turgay Demirel was recorded before this (still fascinating by the way, I took the approach that we wouldn’t have clear answers by the time it aired and I’m feeling pretty fucking smug on that front right about now) as at least then we could ask them how two organisations can read such different answers from this document.
It’s all a right mess and one that keeps getting increasingly tangled so to get an idea of what life would be like without all these knots, we need to go back before the current game of brinkmanship really picked up steam.
I need you to imagine a situation. Patrick Baumann has just stepped into his gig at FIBA, it’s literally his first day, and he calls Jordi Bertomeu first thing. He tells Bertomeu that he wants to examine ways FIBA and Euroleague can work together. He wants to see what common ground they can find. He wants to grab a beer. Baumann makes no threats, no ultimatums, not even a hint of passive aggression. He’s just someone who is a position of power and cares about European basketball who wants to talk to another person in a position of power who cares about European basketball. Bertomeu would be an idiot to say no to that beer. In this hypothetical, even if he completely distrusts FIBA he knows that saying no to a discussion on common ground would make him look paranoid and intransigent. So let’s say that beer happened, what could happen if FIBA and Euroleague had decided to go out of their way to work together?
Resource efficiency and I don’t mean synergies
There are oodles of good people working for both FIBA and Euroleague both in staff and contract roles. Both organisations however are pretty stretched as it is and the civil war is only increasing the stress associated with their workloads. Managing events, content, and tournaments, all require an immense amount of work. Every point where the two organisations can work together not only reduces the strain on existing staff, because there are more people working on a task, it also increases the overall potential output. Collaboration isn’t about finding ways to cut staff, it’s about combining those resources to deliver far more than is currently possible.
Cross-collaboration between companies happens all the time, it’s only when sports happen that people immediately assume working together somehow means a merger is necessary. Look at the marketing, promotion, content creation, and every other aspect of what Euroleague and FIBA both do. There’s an awful lot the two sides have in common here and anyone with media or communications experience will tell you that it’s a lock that there are lots of people involved in these areas on both sides who see massive potential with a relatively minor boost in resources.
This is the most boring upside to collaboration but it’s the most basic and obvious. If over-worked staff are more focused on serving the end customer, that would be the fans, than out-performing other people working in basketball then it’s hardly a logical leap to suggest both companies would operate better.
It’s about the product
Right now, for broadcasters and sponsors, basketball is divided and cannibalising itself. We are staring down a season where potential 120 clubs could play regular season pan-European basketball. That’s a level of dilution the sport simply can’t justify. The rights issue for Euroleague hasn’t exactly been fantastic but FIBA’s performance on this front doesn’t win it too many marks. It also may surprise you but it’s also only an increase of 4 from the 2015/16 season, where 24 (Euroleague), 36 (Eurocup), and 56 (FIBA Europe Cup) teams suited up in the full autumn phases.
As far as both sides are concerned only Eurocup and only the Champions League are going to happen which, given the way things are playing out so far, both probably will happen meaning the 120 clubs idea may be stupid but will proceed due to bullheadedness.
Divided, FIBA and Euroleague are delivering diluted products. The top tier for Euroleague is going to stay protected but the growth potential is going to come from the next step down and even discounting that, having more than grudging acceptance of Euroleague’s top tier from FIBA would be useful to Jordi and pals. A second tier can do what the past columns have expanded on at length, focus on packaging the cluster of cities and demographics where basketball is strong into something that when aligned with the strength of the top tier product is something that really will appeal to sponsors and advertisers alike.
As it stands neither can go with a package of content and market appeal anywhere near that diversified. What both have is scatterings, scatterings with strengths for sure but in each case a combination of forces could fill in the cracks that keep away investment.
The elephant and the opportunity
If everything was sunshine and rose for Euroleague as it currently stands, FIBA wouldn’t have the opening it has now to at least threaten the status quo. That’s the easy part to understand and it rings just as true for when Uleb made its move at the turn of the century as the old European Champions Cup wasn’t near optimal and the breakaway began with the infamous SuproLeague and Euroleague season of 2000/2001. It’s at this point that everyone should be reminded that somehow FIBA hadn’t put a copyright on the term Euroleague and the clubs were free to just yoink it openly. That isn’t only ridiculous or all the lolz as the kids might say, it points to just how haphazard the underlying situation was. If you aren’t even protecting the most basic parts of your intellectual property, you aren’t going to convince many people that you are maximising product value.
This is where Euroleague’s success in attracting IMG as a partner, and with it a big chunk of money, is interesting. IMG is anything but a charity, it isn’t always right but the company has a long history of being smart with long term approaches to sport. It also knows a bargain when it sees it and for a relatively small investment on its part the group has got a big chunk of one of the most recognisable brands in European sport for an extended period. That’s the type of backing that will helping Euroleague substantially at a pretty good price for the investor.
FIBA for its part hasn’t done too badly in terms of attracting interest in the Champions League, albeit not being as clear in terms of numbers which would really help in terms of understanding the market value of the product. It has however managed to show that there definitely is market interest in a product that is below the premium level.
You combine the details available publicly on both situations and it paints a picture of one where under selling has been the norm for decades across this sport.
Let’s stop kicking ourselves
The one upside to all of this mess is that there are no referees to blame for the failings of the competitors. Luigi Lamonica may have an abstract expressionist interpretation of what constitutes a foul but he isn’t the guy missing shots and making defensive errors despite what half the coaches in Europe seem to think at the end of every game.
In this battle it’s the two combatants that have been delivering a clunker but they have a clear opportunity to turn things around. Euroleague wants to protect the top tier and build a buffer, FIBA wants a bigger piece of action, and everybody wants to get richer.
Give and take
The second tier competition is the battle ground and it’s one that absolutely requires compromise. Euroleague as a 16 team entity holds some value but it needs to build in value, the body naturally wants to control the continental action of top 40 teams in Europe and it has access to most of them. France and Italy however are already proving less than ideal for it and division is not going to help it. The geographic footprint is already limited and for a league looking to grow its fanbase across the continent that isn’t what it needs.
FIBA, for its part, really needs to get that the carrot always works more than the stick. Having threatening power might feel nice but wouldn’t it be better if the other folks actually wanted to work with you? FIBA’s goal is to expand basketball across the continent. Access to a real second tier, because the dual existence of Eurocup and Champions League is always going to favour Euroleague’s baby more. Withdrawing the block on Eurocup and proposing a co-managed competition where, and y’all are going to have to swallow this, Euroleague has more influence is the most logical step forward. That’s more not total.
Remember kids, the only people that get rich during war are arms dealers
FIBA wants back in but it needs to offer something to Euroleague because brinkmanship has, so far, proven just a good way of ensuring more fighting.
What FIBA can offer is that geographic stability Euroleague’s growth plans require. In return, FIBA needs guarantees in place not just for how teams access tournaments but also how the next tier plays in.
No league left behind
Democracy, meritocracy, whatever, let’s just not be a confederacy of dunces. Absolute closure, or anything in that realm, of access to the top tier is going to prevent growth in certain territories. A free for all is going to make it hard for higher value territories to maximise investment. Something in between makes the most sense, it’s a little bit more complicated but it really need not be. A road map to the elite shouldn’t require all that much effort to draw up.
Great and all as it was to see Fraport Skyliners lift a European trophy this year, the long-term goal of a third tier competition shouldn’t be about the leagues that are already doing pretty well. It needs to be focused on making developmental something other than a euphemism for bad. Give teams and league the opportunity to taste continental basketball with a regional focus early, and make it way more defined than the FIBA Europe Cup’s first season of mere West-East split. Bring them along on the journey and get them to play the likes of Skyliners for sure, the big leagues still need a role in this level, so that the step up to the second tier for those leagues and not just teams that earn it isn’t shocking. Basically don’t make these developing projects into the Czech athletics team, and more like the University of Utah’s athletics program.
The more sustainable and strong leagues and teams developed across the continent, the greater the value of the overall product. In order to get the big guns to play their part however the total value has to grow, that’s the same with real life too folks. Trickle down economics may be bunk but trickle up on the back of public private investment partnerships usually does (for those lost, FIBA are essentially the public sector here and Euroleague the private sector).
Where do we go from here?
The European project has never been perfect but it has, for all of its sores and bruises, generally been about progress. Right now we have two organisations that need to both try and be the bigger person. Olive branches don’t just need to be extended, Jordi and Patrick both need to go full “I need a hug brah” to one another because way more shade has been thrown than is ever called for.
Much as Europe remains the strongest hub for basketball outside of the NBA, and Europe is a distant second, the fractious nature of the sport here is not good for progress and that gulf can get a lot wider. Part five, yes we all knew there was going to be a fifth part, will look just at how Europe is benefiting inadvertently from the NBA’s inaction.