The withdrawal of the Lithuanian clubs from the VTB United League, following on from the departure of Ukrainian clubs, has left the pan-national league looking essentially like Russia and fodder but this may not be all that bad, writes Emmet Ryan.
From day one money was the main motivation behind the VTB United League and money, or at least one source, has played a key role in its dilution. While the political instability in Ukraine made clubs from their a non-runner for 2014/15, local politics of a far more mundane manner influenced the withdrawal of Lithuania clubs. Vilnius city council threatened to withdraw funding from Lietuvos Rytas if they participated in the league this season, giving the club are rather direct and simple choice. The move effectively left the VTB League with none of the appealing clubs from the LKL on the table, with Zalgiris Kaunas already non-runners and Neptunas following swiftly in the wake of Rytas’ decision. With only lesser lights left, the VTB League opted to contract to a 16 team league, of which 10 sides are Russian.
Simonas Baranauskas, a Lithuanian journalist, said the drop in competition will be noticed by Lithuanian clubs but that, on the whole the move was the right one. “To me, the VTB League seemed like a foreign object in the European basketball map ever since its foundation. It started as an artificial creation and that’s what it remained until this very day, failing to gain any momentum in terms of public significance,” Baranauskas told this site.
Political concerns also played a role in fan apathy to the league. “It was as if the so-called United league was a Russian-led initiative to bring back some sort of common post-Soviet domain. A domain, which all three Baltic countries never felt a part of, and have consciously and very willingly distanced themselves from. The only uniting thing in the league was money. And frankly, speaking the clubs didn’t care about the grim historical context as long as they got to dip their hands in. The fans did, though,” said Baranauskas.
Next season the LKL will be played over four rounds, a welcome change from the haphazard mixed format last year where teams played different numbers of games and playoff qualification was based on the percentage of victories any team had. Baranauskas said that on the whole, fans will be happier with this more easily managed domestic set-up.
“It has to be said, that the level of basketball was a very significant upgrade over the domestic leagues or the Baltic Basketball League, but the VTB League never won a special place in the hearts of Lithuanian fans. Even despite the half-empty gyms, the attendance of Lithuanian teams were quite shockingly among the best in the league. Which probably says quite a lot about the popularity of the league in general, outside of Lithuania as well,” said Baranauskas.
“Although league officials have time and time again repeated that the withdrawal of Lithuanian teams — both Žalgiris last year, and the rest of the Lithuanian teams now — means absolutely nothing and the league will continue to grow, the reality is different, in my opinion. Lithuanian — and Ukrainian to some extent — clubs were the only ones really giving the Russian teams a run for their money — no pun intended — and without them, the VTB League has been basically downgraded to a Russian championship, with a bunch of meaningless teams, who have no shot of competing for success,” he said.
Despite the drop in overall standard of games, Baranauskas is keen to point out that most LKL teams will still play a heavy number of games against high level opposition. “The majority of the teams in the Lithuanian championship will play in multiple leagues: Žalgiris and Neptūnas will play in Euroleague, Lietuvos Rytas will play in Eurocup, Šiauliai will play in the Eurochallenge Cup and the Baltic League, while all others — with the exception of Dzūkija and the newly promoted Mažeikiai — will compete in the Baltic League. I think most of them would be open to playing at a higher level, though. No one’s fixating solely on the domestic championship.”
It’s hardly shocking to see that Lithuanian fans are happier with this set-up. The one team in the Baltic region who may be irked above all other is Latvia’s VEF Riga, who suddenly have far fewer games with nearby opposition. What may come as a surprise is the general welcome from Russian fans to the move.
The general reaction to the withdrawal of LKL clubs from the supporters of Russian clubs I spoke to wasn’t so much a ‘see-ya’ as a ‘woohoo a normal national league again’. As Baranauskas mentioned, the apathy extended to supporters of Russian sides who want something closer to their own national league. While still not quite there, the make-up of the league leaves little doubt that this championship will be utterly dominated by Russian teams. Astana, VEF Riga, Nilan Bisons, Tsmoki-Minsk, CEZ Nymburk, and Kalev/Cramo won’t be in contention when the big honours are up for grabs. Probably of greater importance, Russian fans know that. The non-Russian six are essentially window dressing, casual observers know this. The league was always Russian led, now it will be closer to being actually fully Russian.
The end result is an oddity in professional sport, the fans have won through strength of inaction. Collective apathy and a desire for competitions fans are familiar with drove the contraction and withdrawals. The one true appeal was the Zalgiris vs CSKA rivalry and there was already a good chance of seeing such a match-up in Euroleague, and the Kaunas club was clearly less than pushed about it given it withdrew a year before the other LKL sides.
It may seem odd for some of our older readers but a large number of fans going to games today only knew the national leagues in their formative years, the old Soviet league was a thing that used to exist. If you want to succeed in sports, you’ve got to give the fans what they want. Personally, the VTB League is and was a dream to cover given the easy access to official streams that actually worked. I however am just one basketball junkie on the edge of the continent. The casual fan in Moscow and Vilnius matters far more to the clubs in those cities. That’s who you have to keep happy. This looks like a good divorce for all supporters, we’ll let the money men worry about the rest.