He is one of the most powerful people in the whole of basketball and he spoke to us. FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis sat down with Emmet Ryan to talk about the Olympics, relationships with the NBA & Euroleague, what’s next for Asia and Africa, and his advice for federations
With the FIBA Intercontinental Cup right behind us, it’s only right that we get to the headline news. Andreas Zagklis, FIBA Secretary General, wants to expand the competition and he wants that move to happen next year.
At present, the competition consists of four teams. A host team, the FIBA Americas club champions, the Basketball Champions League (BCL) champions, and the NBA G League champions. From 2021, he wants to expand that to six teams with the FIBA Asia Champions Cup winners and the Basketball Africa League winners joining.
This would bring it in line largely with the format of the FIFA Club World Cup, which sees a play-in round to the semi-finals. In such an event, it is likely the BCL champions would be given one of the two byes to the semi-finals.
“I don’t think we’re there yet. This is the second year of a large version of the Intercontinental Cup. The next step is adding the champions of Asia and the champions of Africa. This is part of the road map and this has been discussed at the executive committee of FIBA,” Zagklis told BallinEurope.
The interview with the FIBA Secretary General took place after the Irish men’s cup final last month, prior to the passing of Kobe Bryant or the announcement by FIBA to move the recent women’s Olympic qualifier from Wuhan, China, to Belgrade, Serbia. It also preceded the judgement by the court in Luxembourg regarding the dispute between FIBA and Euroleague.
A lot of things can happen in two weeks. Looking at matters most recently at hand, Zagklis said FIBA was keen to see growth in the Intercontinental Cup.
“Moving from 4 teams to 6 teams is part of the short-term to mid-term strategy. Then of course, we will see where this takes us,” he said.
“Finding a spot in the calendar for the BCL champion, the FIBA Americas champion, the G League champion [is a challenge] and, hopefully, from 2021, the Basketball Africa League champion and the FIBA Asia Champions Cup champion would be an excellent platform for us. This is a tournament which is the pinnacle for us.”
Zagklis was elevated to the role in the wake of the sudden passing of his predecessor, Patrick Baumann, becoming just the fourth person to hold the position after Baumann, Borisa Stankovic, and William Jones.
“It’s never easy to talk about Patrick, not as his successor but in particular as his former colleague and friend. It was a day we will never forget, a great loss for his family and the world basketball family. His mark on FIBA and the sport is left in a way that can never be forgotten, he was a visionary. Part of what I have to do is build on that great legacy,” said Zagklis.
Part of that legacy is the forthcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo, which sees significant changes to the format of the regular tournaments and the addition of 3×3 competitions.
The conventional basketball tournaments, for want of a better way of describing them, are switching from two groups of six teams to three groups of two with a fresh draw before the quarter finals.
“We studied the competition formats, we have the analysis, and similar to what we applied for the World Cup, we want every game to count. We believe, with the new format, teams will have great interest in every single game,” said Zagklis.
“Of course, it makes it more unpredictable for the second phase which is part of the magic of it.”
The bigger impact, visually, will almost certainly come on the half court. 3×3 has been growing in popularity for years, with Ice Cube leading an alternative version of his own in the United States with the Big3. 3×3 brings in elements of streetball and will naturally find an audience amongst younger viewers.
“This is fascinating for us. We debuted with the men in 1936, the women in 1976, and now 3×3,” said Zagklis.
“There are some new countries entering already, with Romania and Mongolia being directly qualified through the rankings. Ahead of us are some very exciting qualifying tournaments.”
Mongolia is not a country you normally hear about in basketball and it has been a while since anybody consider Romania any sort of power. That’s one of the upsides Zagklis sees in the arrival of 3×3, with countries seeing a way to get to the top in a form of basketball.
“They realised the need to play at the top required specialising. The needs for the athletes, the way they train and play, is very different. It is a sprint.”
The interview with Zagklis occurred just days after the BCL announced it had taken on investors in the form of GCBH.
“The Champions League showed in the first three years that it can deliver at the top level in terms of organising a competition and excitement. The Final Four is a big celebration of basketball,” said Zagklis.
“It is passing into the second phase of its life. It needed further support in order to better deliver. It is a project based on sports merit, it’s important to have a platform of growth for the clubs.”
That platform is why the BCL opted to make the move now to accept investment. Zagklis sees the backing as having a real impact on the ground.
“The addition of prominent investors is important because it is a vote of confidence from people who have knowledge of the entertainment business as well as basketball. They will bring not only their funds but also their expertise and connections. That will allow the BCL to enhance the competition for participating teams,” he said.
“This is not an agreement for the media or marketing drives. Someone decide to invest in co-ownership of the competition. This will allow the Champions League to better market its product. The engine is working on a higher rhythm, this is a change of gear.”
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FIBA, of course, does not exist on an island. It is in a unique position amongst global sports bodies of its scale (IFAF, the American Football body doesn’t really compare) in that it operates in a world where the NBA is a force unto itself. Similarly, there’s the ongoing schism with Euroleague.
Zagklis sees room for cooperation with both.
“The words common ground are extremely important. We, as a non-profit international organisation, have a clear mission and objective of growing the sport. The NBA is the largest men’s league in the world, with a very steady competition format since the mid 1960s. The vision that David Stern had with Borisa Stankovic in the late 1980s and early 1990s had continues to unite,” he said.
“There are two strategies. One is for-profit, growing the revenues of the league, and our side is growing the game, at the end of the day the NBA has the goal of growing the game internationally. This is why you see the number of projects increasing. It’s no longer just a simply agreement of allowing players to play for their national teams and regulating transfers between NBA teams and FIBA clubs, it is much more,”
“There is Basketball Without Borders, jr.NBA, and in the last two years we have started collaborating on the club competition side. The agreement in Africa was the first step and there was the addition of the G League champions to the revamped FIBA Intercontinental Cup.”
Even with Euroleague, he acknowledges the differences that are there but also sees room to work together.
“I see areas where we can talk, it is absolutely appropriate to talk and look to expand the common ground. The clubs that play in that competition are also FIBA clubs, we have an interest that they grow. We just have to find that they grow in a way that isn’t to the detriment of the other clubs,” he said.
“We have a lot of clubs in Europe. At one point the two strategies will have to get better aligned. The more common ground there is, the more possibilities there are.”
At a national federation level, he is confident about the strategy in place to assist governing bodies in growing the sport at local level.
“We have many more national federations participating. We had 80 playing for a spot in the World Cup, now there will be more than 100 playing for a part of their respective continental tournaments. We have identified that live stream is a great way of bringing it closer to people, they consume not only from TV but from mobile devices,” he said.
“This is why we announced, at the FIBA Congress, the agreement with Atrium Sports to introduce the FIBA connected stadium. This is a game changer for our members because, always, one of the highest costs in a league is TV production. This infrastructure is permanent and can be used in a venue as the local owner likes from junior to top teams,”
“This can integrate live stats and even commentary in a cost efficient way so they can better deliver product to fans.”
For Zagklis, it’s about recognising the balance. There are many levels to the basketball pyramid and they need to feed off each other in order for the sport to thrive.
“You have to take of the top but you have to take care of the grass roots as well. It is not an accident that we are trying to provide as many tools as possible. Whether it is through the schools or clubs, you should be able to put a basketball in the hands of a kid. Once they score their first basket, they get the virus, it puts a smile on the face of the kid,” he said.
“That has to lead to the competitive side. That’s why I believe it is important to have strong national leagues.”
The crowd at the Irish Cup final, between Éanna and Templeogue, impressed the Greek. The passion in the stands seemed awfully familiar to him.
“What I saw tonight reminded me of my country, a passionate crowd which is something I am very fond of,” he said.
Ireland will host the men’s edition of the FIBA European Championships for Small Countries this summer, at the University of Limerick. He sees this event as a useful tool in developing the sport.
“Having the competition, maybe it is not the most appropriate title, is very important. It allows a competitive framework which gives the opportunity for success. The success of a national team is the driver of popularity of a sport in a country,” he said.
“When the national team is winning, you have the non core basketball fans coming to the sport. You have people who are curious about basketball. Once the national team plays and succeeds, these people will return to the gym to watch games when the league resumes,”
“We have a working group at the world level for development in sports countries. We believe it is important to pass from this level to the next level.”
Looking to Asia and Africa, Zagklis feels federations in both continents are aware of the challenge ahead and are putting in serious work to grow the game.
“In Africa, the league will offer a new platform. The World Cup in China was a wake up call for both continents, particularly Africa which did quite well in the previous World Cup. The performances of the African and Asian teams in the World Cup sent a message to the FIBA family,” he said.
“Besides the Basketball Africa League, we are starting the system of the qualifiers for Afrobasket. We see great interest from governments in creating new infrastructure, we have some great venues in Africa,”
“In Asia, bringing the zones together is important. Different styles of play bring more challenges to the Asian teams because of what Australia and New Zealand bring. We’re waiting for China to come back [as a force] and we’re happy with the work being done in Japan. The league there is getting stronger every year. What we need there is more international play.”