It turns out the Turkish Airlines Euroleague wants to get bigger, having just got smaller, but while expansion offers financial opportunities it’s going to prove a logistical nightmare according to Emmet Ryan
The most unsurprising detail in Euroleague’s long term plans was confirmed by Jordi Bertomeu on Zalgiris TV. Euroleague wants to expand, first to 18 teams and then to 20, and the first stage seems likely to happen the season after next (2018/19).
With France openly rejoining the broader Euroleague fold and Italy, Turkey, et al realising that having secondary teams in EuroCup seems better than the Basketball Champions League, the case to get bigger is obvious.
Money and eyeballs
As ever with these long looks, always assume that the actual basketball is the last thing on the agenda here although it’s slot isn’t as bad as usual in terms of priorities. Euroleague and IMG, who so far look to really know what they are doing, will see the underdeveloped French market as one it can do an awful lot with. Overall, French ratings aren’t stunning but that gives the partnership ample room to develop and a win here doesn’t even have to be that big. It’s an affluent market, every increase in ratings and marketing reach makes the Euroleague product more valuable to advertisers.
Throw in the non Istanbul, non Athens, and non Milan markets in Turkey, Greece, and Italy and you have a lot to work with here if you look at expansion. The product can expand without devaluing itself, that’s crucial to any look at growth. The original contraction was heavily based around improving the core value. Any expansion can’t dilute that.
IMG have shown some swagger
There are quite a few issues with the Basketball Champions League. Aside from the name being a touch too derivative, the format was confusing and the bottom end of it is a factory of sadness compared to the better sides. Despite that, it managed to get far more attention than Eurochallenge ever did or last year’s FIBA Europe Cup (not to be confused with this year’s FIBA Europe Cup which has everyone wondering how is this still a thing). Part of that was FIBA’s ability to win over governing bodies to row in behind it and essentially force sides to go the FIBA route instead of Euroleague or EuroCup.
That left Euroleague/IMG scrambling at the start of the year as replacement sides were dragged in and EuroCup was reduced to a 20 team competition with only 4 being eliminated in the first round. This was a pretty weak position for the secondary competition yet it doesn’t appear to matter in the slightest. The return of the big leagues and the one outlier market points to a clear win for the partnership. The influence of IMG is obvious, making Euroleague matter particularly through its playoff stages. The competition feels not only important but more visible.
Keep these three cities in mind
While most of the growth talk will be around markets where there is zero representation in Euroleague at present, expect the powers that be in Barcelona to have three other cities in the centre of their throughts. Berlin, Jerusalem, and Munich all hold a heap of opportunity. The weakest of these, both in terms of basketball side and actually business case, right now is Berlin but a strong Alba would change matters really fast due to the sheer size of the Berlin market. The big two right now are Bayern Munich and Hapoel Jerusalem. While Maccabi has a big say in the Israeli market, getting the Tel Aviv club and the Jerusalem side both in the top iter is essentially market ownership and that would appeal mightily to Bertomeu and co. The case with Bayern is obvious, an affluent sports club with a solid fanbase in a large market. Of course Euroleague wants a piece of that.
How would it work…18 team version
We’re not going to try and guess who would make it into the league with expansion, not because we are trying to be fair but because it’s actually quite difficult. There are lots of cases to be made purely on a commercial basis and including basketball factors makes it more complicated. An 18 team league would mean a straight up addition, 18 teams playing each other twice home and away with the top 8 progressing to the playoffs. That’s 34 games instead of the existing 30 and already the problem is obvious.
As it stands there are 4 double round weeks in Euroleague. An expansion would have to take one of three options, or a combination of two or three:
1. Start the season earlier
2. Finish the season later
3. Add more double round weeks
In terms of product quality, Option 1 is just off the table as the last thing Euroleague needs is the season to begin so early that teams haven’t gelled yet. The old qualifying tournament was fun but it had a lot of bad basketball precisely because of this.
Option 2 basically squeezes into the national playoff season too much and that’s not going to sit well with anyone, be it clubs, players, fans, or federations.
That essentially means it has to be Option 3. That means twice as many double round weeks, jumping from 4 to 8. That’s a lot and the squeeze is going to be tight. Right now it’s not all that cosy but with the FIBA international windows on the way, it’s going to get even sillier. You’ve also got to think about fan engagement too here. Right now there’s a touch of novelty with double round weeks but that could wear off and not all fans are hardcore. Life does not revolve around basketball for everyone who watches Euroleague.
There are a couple of options here that could make life easier. Making some of the double round weeks, I’d actually argue for 4 of the 8, be double home and double away is a starting point. Right now there is some regionalisation with these weeks but making an event twice a season for teams out of two straight home games in three days is a product that can definitely be sold. There’s also the how can I miss you if you don’t go away part for when those sides are on double road weeks.
Incidentally, if Hapoel Jerusalem gets a slot it would also help with the Israeli TV scheduling. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, Friday night games in Israel aren’t going to be a thing. Forcing Hapoel and Maccabi to straight up alternate is a touch limiting. Double home/away round weeks enables a bit more flexibility into that and flexibility is always welcome.
Just to be clear, this is a logistical nightmare but it’s the best that can be hoped for. Just guess how much fun it’s going to be if things get even bigger.
How it would work…20 team version
This is a little less clear because there’s a broad assumption in some pretty knowledgeable quarters that 20 teams is the point at which the split to an East and West conference would happen. Logistically and commercially, this doesn’t seem as appetising. On the logistics front, a 20 team conference format would likely mean you play in-conference teams 3 times (27 games) and out of conference opponents once (10 games).
That total of 37 games would be just one less than a straight up league format, which would mean 38, and would also mean half of the teams involved would play 1 less home game than than the other half. I really can’t see this appealing.
We’re looking at a bloody awful level of fixture pile-up. Assuming all the issues with the 18 team version, we’re jumping from 4 to either 11 or 12 double weeks. That’s a LOT of basketball and this is before we look at an inevitable adjustment that comes with reaching that size.
The playoffs have to adjust
Remember, marketing matters here. Way too many teams would be dead, done, kaput, too early in the season if 8 teams of 20 make the post-season and hope is a product that is vital to selling the product. The likely jump would be to 12 which, to those of you who can do maths, means a tweak is inevitable because you can’t do a straight knockout format that way.
Again, with commercially sensible hat on, this would likely mean the top four teams get byes and some short-form is used to get teams 5-12 down to 4. In terms of fairness, best of 3 playoffs make the most sense but there’s just something about seeded one-off play-in games that screams of being the more likely option. There’s drama, hope, and less of a drain on scheduling going this way while also not leaving the seeded sides hanging too long.
Conferences are a goal but…
…the magic number is more likely to be 24 for that or, as you may recall, the number of teams that used to be in Euroleague. That’s a long-term goal and I don’t mean 2022, I mean the end of the current 10 year deal at the absolute earliest. Getting to that point would enable Euroleague and its member sides to look at the realistic potential of a closed shop league or a quasi closed shop (with some route to making it in for sides on the outside but just really hard). At that point, you are looking at two 12 team conferences and an utterly ludicrous number of games with the 8 from each conference making the post-season.
This would be the point where member sides simply have to exit national leagues because there is absolutely not way it could function alongside. It goes from a logistical nightmare to a logistical impossibility. On the upside, this would actually make for a more even calendar. In theory onference opponents would play each other 4 times (44 games) and opposite conference teams twice (24 games) for a whopping 68 game season…or exactly the number of games Brose Bamberg will play this season between Bundesliga and Euroleague regular seasons.
While 18 or 20 team approaches seem not only plausible but likely, the big jump is nowhere near that in terms of likelihood.
National leagues matter
Folks like real local rivals. Folks like to win local titles. Those can be rich folks or poor folks but they all love it. Having that local approach matters a huge deal, not just in terms of prestige but gameday revenue. There are a lot of lower level Turkish Superleague opponents of more value to Fenerbahce than their effective equivalents would be in a closed Euroleague and there are plenty of other money clubs right now who would view things the same way.
The whopping jump would be only feasible if everything and a lot more goes to plan over the next 9 and a bit seasons for Euroleague. Lots of things can happen between now and then. Even a closed league has to think about what happens on the outside.
The NBA is not going away
Euroleague has held up pretty well considering the past couple of summer raids of some top talent to go Stateside. There’s no reason to expect things to get any easier, especially if the NBA actually makes the most of its wildly under-utilised D-League (or soon to be G-League because some marketing influenced names are all the terrible). That’s going to mean more young Euros going over early and more Americans who could be getting used to the game over here coming over later or just plain not coming at all. That’s a pity because…
The depth situation is actually improving
Finally, an actual basketball bit. The higher end sides of EuroCup have shown they can hang with the lower half of Euroleague this year. A move to 18 would have a negligible impact in terms of basketball quality and 20 wouldn’t be all that bad. Even if we remove the long-term commercially fuelled goal of 24, an 18/20 team top tier is still going to be a pretty good product for at least a few seasons. Maintaining that is not going to be easy but there are at least signs that clubs outside those who can be relied on to buy their way out of trouble are getting smarter at front office level. That’s important because, that’s not getting easier anytime soon.
We’ve got through a lot here so to conclude. A move to 18 seems certain. Who makes up the extra spots isn’t. It being a fixture headache is guaranteed. A move to 20 has issues but still seems on the agenda. Those issues are going to really mess with fixtures. Any further increase requires the Rubicon being crossed and is really far away. I’m not taking any sides, I’m just trying to spell out what we should expect.