With the Insuremyvan.ie men’s Irish basketball Super League adjusting back to a straight league format over a two year transition, Emmet Ryan addresses the tough choice for Basketball Ireland
What makes a champion? That is the unfortunately vague question that Basketball Ireland has been tasked with answering. There’s no easy solution to getting the right mix in the Insuremyvan.ie men’s Irish basketball Super League but the right one must be found.
The big switch
Ireland moved from a 12 team single ladder in its men’s Super League to a two conference 14 team competition due to the pandemic. Prior to that, the regular season champion was the champion. This was the title above all others in Irish basketball.
Now, as normality settles in, Ireland is switching back to a single ladder over the next two seasons. Two teams will be relegated with one coming up over the next two years. That will result in a 13 team Super League next season and 12 for the 2025/26 season. It will be back to normal.
Normal had its moments. Basketball Ireland could claim the home of the wildest title races in Europe across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 campaigns. In the former, the final week had 5 of 12 teams live for the title going into the last week of games. The latter had 3 still alive heading into the last weekend.
Ireland crowned its champion in March, giving it centre stage in many respects. The 2018 title even went to a single-game playoff. It just wasn’t the norm.
Becoming a convert
The switch to the conference system irked me. I accepted the necessity at the time but I loved the exceptional nature of what Basketball Ireland had. It was the only basketball league in Europe, one of the few anywhere, where the regular season was king.
I was wrong. It really is that simple. The split conference format may have created unbalanced schedules but it kept more teams relevant for longer in the season. It also meant that one-sided campaigns by league leaders didn’t end the championship race by Christmas.
The regular season didn’t suffer. If anything it benefitted as more teams felt the need to find ways to improve and get better. With the title still being decided more than two months before almost anyone else in Europe, it gets its moment in the spotlight.
The women’s Super League never changed. Mimi Clarke of Killester told me at the start of the campaign that she likes the league being a true league. I used to agree with her but I’ve been converted. I’ve made the leap to chaos and embraced it fully.
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Chaos creates narratives
This is the crux of the argument for keeping the conference and playoff format. Right now, Basketball Ireland’s model is an improved version of the British Basketball League (BBL). The BBL still uses a single ladder before moving to single-elimination playoffs.
The conference split in Ireland enables unbalanced schedules before the same knockout format. What Killester might need to make the playoffs or get a better seed while playing Ballincollig, for example, could be very different to their opponent. The game is still vital to both but the variables add a touch of spice.
This season, on a practical level, there’s an obvious case. UCC Blue Demons won the men’s Irish Cup in January. As it stands, they are simultaneously in a battle to avoid relegation and to make the playoffs. It’s just one game separating the two outcomes for them right now. That’s wild.
Had the single ladder been in place, Demons would only be looking down and not up. In a sport desperate to get more people talking about it, stories help. The scenes in Galway last spring when Maree beat Belfast Star to make the title game show that this isn’t just the cup by another name. The value of getting home court mattered. Teams know there is value in what they do over those months preceding the playoffs.
There’s also value in the format
The playoff format creates excitement, it gets media buzz, but is it adequately meritocratic? On the face of things, no but I am coming around to a different line of thinking. The urge from teams across the standings to improve as the season is a huge factor.
More teams have more reasons to improve over the course of the campaign. A bad start does not mean it’s time to focus just on the cup and avoiding the drop. That also means, for the top teams, that while the schedules may be unbalanced the overall level of competition remains relatively even.
Home court seedings for the first two knockout rounds of the playoff rounds make the regular season retain value. It may not decide the outright champion but it retains important value on the whole. This is something that I believe Basketball Ireland can sell to its members.
I still love the regular season and success in it should be recognised. So I’m going to take a leaf out of Major League Soccer. It has a split conference format but recognises the team with the best overall record with the Supporters’ Shield trophy. The name is terrible, I’m sure Basketball Ireland can come up with better branding, but the concept works. If two teams have identical records, base it on head to head or some other tiebreaker.
It won’t hold the same lustre as being the Irish basketball Super League champion but that is kind of the point. It will certainly be more relevant than the old Top Four or Champion’s Trophy formats that concluded the season. These felt like pre-season super cups but played at the end of a campaign. Instead there would be a worthy treble to seek, with the top title coming last.
Basketball Ireland is going back to 12 teams with the league. That is going to happen. I’m suggesting that they then start building back to 14. Go with a playoffs of 1-8 in the ladder before expanding back.
It would re-establish a conference split and also help with travel costs. Local derbies would remain front and centre of the campaign. In the simplest terms, it would be fun. That’s what basketball is meant to be.