FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann spoke to BallinEurope’s Emmet Ryan shortly after the conclusion of the Irish men’s cup final at the end of January in Dublin. The key takeaways from the discussion included support for a global players union, opposing conceding ground on Eurocup with Euroleague, the role of 3×3, and a look at what would be required for the NBA to release players in-season for international games
It’s closing in on 10pm on Saturday night in Tallaght. The Irish men’s cup final has just ended in dramatic fashion in front of FIBA’s top dog. Patrick Baumann, secretary general of FIBA since 2003, has just witnessed one of only two games that will be broadcast nationally in Ireland this year.
Naturally, given the location, the conversation first turned to what nations where basketball is a developing sport can do to help themselves.
“The key is to do a little bit like Ireland has done. You go through tough times, you learn from those, you put in place people you trust, you let them do their job, and then you start creating a wave,” Baumann told BallinEurope.
“If things are done properly, and this is a sports nation, and you start getting results on the court then you start having people create more clubs and get results internationally. That growth comes. The best way to grow is to play as much as possible internationally. Domestically you can create excitement but getting to the next level comes from challenges abroad.”
Baumann had a chance to meet the Irish Under 18 women’s side that took silver at the European B Championships last summer. It was a signature moment for the sport here, the first time any Irish side had earned promotion to an A division.
For Baumann, the size of a nation like Ireland shouldn’t be a hindrance in growing basketball.
“This is the beauty of the game and of the sport. I don’t think basketball is particularly dominated by large countries, especially in Europe. Of course we have Spain and France which are big countries but Slovenia won EuroBasket, Lithuania is there as well, Iceland is playing in the A division [EuroBasket] quite some years. Finland is not a huge country but is doing well,” he said.
“Ireland is on an excellent way, obviously they have to develop the domestic league, but the pathway is right. It is good when you see young players coming up and having the chance to measure themselves against the best of Europe at the next level. These players have 10 years in front of them and, if they play well, Ireland won’t be playing in the Small Nations but in the A division [ie women’s EuroBasket].”
International play has naturally been at the heart of the debate raging in basketball of late. While the bulk of the focus has been on the FIBA/Euroleague dispute, there’s one key factor often left unexamined when it comes to FIBA’s goal of growing interest in international games in-season. With the NBA not releasing players except in off-season windows, the players from the biggest league on the planet are limited in terms of availability.
Baumann sees a roadmap, albeit a difficult one, where the NBA could eventually make the decision on its own to consider adapting fully to the new international window format.
“The NBA is a league that is around 70 years. Since the 1960s they play exclusively as a domestic league, it’s a closed league and they live in their space which fits the US sports scenario. We have an excellent relationship with the NBA since the end of the 1980s. The relationship is clear, the NBA will release players as long as it’s outside their season. We respect the history, my predecessor [Borislav Stankovic] made that deal with David Stern, and the NBA respects us. Today, the G League frees the players,” said Baumann.
“In terms of ambition, things only change when you start losing on the court. If the game is global and the NBA wants to dominate globally, then who knows whether they will have to think of a different schedule,”
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The more immediate issue relates to the dispute between Euroleague and FIBA. As it stands, players from Euroleague clubs are not participating in games during the in-season windows. This led to several teams in Europe looking notably different in terms of their rosters from the sides that played at EuroBasket this past autumn.
Baumann was resolute in his view that FIBA is making the right call for developing the sport.
“We have to go down our way and provide opportunities for countries to play more often on a regular basis. We don’t want to touch the club business in a way that is disrespectful or takes away from the club season but we need a space for the national teams. The national teams are what drive larger crowds to the game and basketball generally, this we have seen worldwide,” he said.
“The first window was extremely successful across the globe, including in Europe where there are difficulties in getting players. Fortunately there are many more players than just the Euroleague teams.”
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Recent data released by FIBA, after this interview was conducted, pointed to the commercial scenario supporting Baumann’s view. Video views on FIBA’s social media platforms quadrupled in 2017, gaining 643 million views, with social media follower numbers growing from 5 million to 13 million. Four apps released by FIBA in 2017 garnered 335,000 downloads. This was also driven by an increase of the number of games broadcast on social channels, from 1,200 in 2016 to 1,700 in 2017.
It’s numbers like these that make Baumann confident the approach his organisation is taking is the right one.
“What you sell is the name. Whoever wears that shirt immediately has a brand and that is the key. Of course, with all the big stars, we want to see them but we also need to make new ones. It’s not just about those here or there. You see big players going away, [Luis] Scola’s playing in China, others are playing in the G League and hoping to get into the NBA. It’s not so golden what we have in Europe,” he said.
“At the end of the day it’s the choice of the players, clubs, and national federations.”
During the course of the conflict, this site has suggested a settlement between Euroleague and FIBA built around a peace deal over Eurocup. Baumann rejected the concept although he did acknowledge that the current number of pan-European club competitions, four, is too high.
“If something were to come up on the table saying we needed two European club competitions or three, rather than four, and in exchange they would release the players, I’m not sure I would like that sort of argument or blackmail situation. It would be I give you this, you give me that. We’re talking about national teams, they are boycotting the pride of a country, and that’s just beyond how many club competitions there are,” he said.
“I agree there are too many, four is a lot. Everybody wants to play in Europe because Europe is getting smaller, you can travel very easily. Clearly, four club competitions are too many.”
The role of the players in the future organisation of the sport became prevalent in the summer with Nikola Kalinic and Aaron Jackson leading a charge of players making their voices clear. Baumann said he was happy with what FIBA had done to help on the international side but that Euroleague’s growth was crowding he calendar.
“We’ve been reducing the workload on the national teams by almost a quarter over a four year cycle, this includes reducing the preparation time down from five to four weeks. From a national team perspective, we’ve done a lot,” he said.
“I understand how national leagues are thinking. At the same time there’s one side that’s taking everything away, moving to 37 games, then it will go to 18 teams and 41* games. One competition is increasing in size and pushing everyone else to reduce.”
*These numbers would include playoff games
Outside of Euroleague however there are leagues that have extended seasons. Pro A in France is a notable example, where no sides took part in Euroleague or Eurocup last season but it was still the last European domestic league to conclude.
“It is a French peculiarity. The reality in France, I don’t know what’s best for France, they argue that if they don’t have their full season, the space that don’t give to basketball is taken over by handball and rugby. They’re fighting desperately to keep their level and their space,” said Baumann.
“The number of teams is directly correlated to being able to be present in every region including in regions that are strongholds for handball and rugby. If they were to reduce the number of teams, they would give up geographical space. If they reduce the calendar, they would again give space to the other sports, which for them is a challenge,”
“If you look from a global perspective, of course we would think 18 teams in a first division sounds like a lot and it could be reasonably decreased but it is very specific. France is generating over €10 million in television rights for the Pro A, which has no club in Euroleague, while Italy has teams in Eurocup and Euroleague but is generating less than €1 million,”
“It’s hard to go to the French, tell them to give up €10 million, and give more space to handball and rugby.”
On a broader level with player rights, Baumann said he would be open to global union akin to FIFPro in football being created. A FIBPro of sorts is something he sees developing, with FIBA having already spoken with the Union Basketeurs Europeen (UBE).
“Basketball is not yet where football is but I’m almost sure that will happen. [We are seeing] more countries are getting organised, the more players unions are getting better and some of them are already helping players a lot. Maybe we’re not there yet at European level or world level, because FIFPro is obviously more than just Europe,” said Baumann.
“UBE is already doing a good job, we met with them a few times. They came to Geneva at the beginning of the seasons. They explained their points, we had some discussions with them, and certainly we would not be against it. Quite the contrary we think that’s quite an important piece of the equation in the stakeholder family.”
Looking beyond Europe, Baumann spoke about FIBA’s goals for growth in Africa and Asia. Neither continent has ever produced a medalist at the Olympics at men’s level and the lone World Cup medal was a bronze for the Philippines in 1954. History smiles a little better at women’s level but the two continents are still well behind Europe and the Americas. Baumann wants these continents to get stronger by thinking more internationally.
“One of the reasons we have been pushing for these qualifiers is to get them out of their cocoon of playing domestically. They need to play against other teams abroad as often as possible,” he said.
“Equally, their club competitions at a regional level are relatively weak. Today, if you go to Asia, China is probably the second best league commercially worldwide. There’s no league in Europe that can match it. Technically, there’s a long way to go to be equal to some of the good leagues that we have in Europe,”
“To get better, that requires a lot of challenges. They need to have better coaches and they need to have players who play abroad. We need to see Chinese players in Europe, the US, and South America. That is something that will take some time,”
“We have a World Cup in 2019 in China, that’s part of our attempts to stimulate basketball in that country. We will have Tokyo just behind it, the Olympic games, and then we will have the World Cup again in the region in Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines, which gives us six years working with them,”
“Then hopefully it’s Africa’s time. I’m not saying they will have the World Cup, hopefully they will. Whether it’s a piece or the whole tournament, we’ll see. The talent, there’s so much talent that teams there could easily be at the top of the rankings. It’s about structure. It’s an extremely young continent [in terms of age profile], they love the game, but the structures aren’t there. Obviously there are factors outside sport but it’s hard work to get them up to the next level,”
“With the likes of China, the Philippines, Korea, and Japan, they will do fine. Now they are playing Australia and New Zealand, we’ve seen Japan and Australia beat each other [at the FIBA women’s Asia Cup last year], in the first qualifying round Korea beat New Zealand in New Zealand.”
A key win for FIBA’s growth strategy came last June when 3×3 was confirmed as an Olympic sport from 2020. This addition is seen as crucial by Baumann for the sport’s growth into the future.
“3×3 has a lot of particularities and it depends where you are practicing but it allows us to spread the game well beyond typical basketball countries that have been at the top of the rankings for the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.
“All of those other countries have the chance to climb the international rankings quickly. In a couple of years you could really qualify from the streets to the Olympics. Size doesn’t matter really, in both ways, it’s really about skills. There are four skilled players in every single island or small country. Bigger countries will use it to promote the sport and small countries will have an easier way to grow instead of investing in clubs with 12 players and long seasons,”
“We’re doubling the number of medals which, we hope, means we will be able to get medals to more countries than just the usual ones. If new countries come up, win a medal, the sports system appreciates it a lot when a country wins an Olympic medal. The ability to win an Olympic medal in 3×3 will draw resources for that country to invest in 3×3 and also in basketball, therefore these countries will grow.”
Top picture: FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann with Bernard O’Byrne, chief executive of Basketball Ireland
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