The EuroLeague is comprised of basketball teams with the most talented players from across Europe. The games are broadcast on TV in more than 201 countries and territories across the globe where fans are regularly treated to some of the best matches in the game. The EuroLeague is secure in its position as the leading basketball league outside North America, but can it become as popular as the NBA?
The NBA has scaled incredible heights partly due to its enduring popularity in the United States, where basketball is one of the four major sports. That means it is part of the culture of daily life as children shoot hoops growing up with the dream of becoming an NBA star. In contrast, kids in Europe are still primarily drawn to sports such as soccer due to the popularity of clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, and competitions such as La Liga and the Premier League.
However, there are signs that basketball is making its way into major sports culture, especially in mainland Europe. The league has grown exponentially during the last 20 years and while its star power may be trumped by the NBA, it offers incredibly competitive games and rivalries, which continue to improve in quality year on year. It can be argued that European players such as Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo would not look out of place playing for the Chicago Bulls or any other leading NBA team. But how exactly can the EuroLeague keep these stars and attract talent of all ages in the coming years?
According to the President, Chairman and CEO of the EuroLeague, Jordi Bertomeu, work must be done at grassroots level to increase the prestige of the competition. He says: “We have to grow and make EuroLeague Basketball attractive enough that they don’t go away. Our duty now is to keep on working for our clubs and for our fans. Think about how to improve our product, how to present it better to those who love the sport, and how to engage with new partners.”
NBA star Kobe Bryant has been effusive in his praise of the training he received as a child on the basketball courts in France and Italy, believing it gave him an edge in the NBA as young American players were often taught to rely on strength and athleticism. He added: “I missed all that, and instead I was taught extreme fundamentals: footwork, footwork, footwork, how to create space, how to handle the ball, how to protect the ball, how to shoot the ball. I wasn’t the strongest kid at that camp. I wasn’t the fastest. I wasn’t the most athletic. I was probably the most skillful.”
Bryant’s comments suggest European basketball has the right structures in place to nurture the best young talent, which the EuroLeague should continue to benefit from. However, it needs to get more children aged 14 and under playing basketball on a regular basis. Pro player and France native, Evan Fournier said he began playing the game because the soccer club in his hometown was full. Improving the grassroots and getting more people that are eager to play any form of sport to take up basketball must be a priority for EuroLeague teams.
Bertomeu’s desire to bring in new partners will also increase awareness of the EuroLeague, while major television deals will ensure the biggest games get beamed into people’s homes across the continent. Interacting with fans and keeping them engaged is also an excellent strategy for increasing the popularity of the game, and it is much easier to do so compared to a decade ago due to the rise of social media and live streaming. Basketball fans want to engage with their favorite teams regularly on Facebook and Twitter, and the EuroLeague could promote itself to the millions of people on these platforms with content including clips of great plays and tense finishes to games.
The rise of the EuroLeague is already driving a new wave of fantasy sports markets, which have traditionally been hugely popular in North America. Getting fans more involved in basketball in this way again does wonders for building a culture of fan participation. Punters across Europe are already favoring basketball matches for betting on sports and that is unlikely to chance as the league continues to grow.
NBA remains the primary destination for the world’s biggest stars and viewing audiences but EuroLeague has every chance to increase mindshare and become a dynasty in its own right with a new strategy that amplifies fan engagement and gets more youngsters into the sport at grassroots level.