Following news of Ireland’s decision to enter FIBA’s new European club competition, Emmet Ryan reacts to a busy summer for one of Europe’s lower profile federations
The news this morning was a shock to most following Irish basketball and to basketball fans who know next to nothing about Ireland. A country that hasn’t had a national team for five years is suddenly going back into a club competition in Europe, with a combined team. There are a few key things to take on board here.
It’s no accident it’s FIBA
With the ongoing war between FIBA and ULEB, the former is consolidating its position with the smaller federations in Europe. Ireland will never and I mean ever be on the map for ULEB. The absolute best case scenario is that somehow a Eurocup team comes from Dublin when I’m in my 90s. Rowing in with FIBA in this fight makes too much sense for Basketball Ireland to ignore and the special derogation they have received to put in a combined team is almost certainly only the start.
There is simply no way I see Basketball Ireland agreeing to this without some guarantees regarding financing the team competing. Travel costs and the like will almost certainly be covered via prize money or some other format. While the Irish federation is in far better health than it was at the turn of the decade, this is still an organisation that is hardly flush with cash. I have literally zero concrete information to back this up but I am also 100 per cent confident based on the cautious yet creative approach adopted by the federation in recent years (crowdfunding has helped send teams to youth tournaments) that a situation where it absorbs any kind of loss in four digit territory never mind five is on the cards.
The TV factor
For Basketball Ireland this gives them a chance to get more mainstream exposure. Heck, our news story alone this morning has generated more traffic from Ireland than any other piece we have done since the Irish Cup Finals and that’s just since this morning. TG4*, a broadcaster with which the federation has a strong relationship already, would certainly find midweek sport with a European element appealing. With zero Champions League or Europa League rights and a tendency to promote under the radar aspects of society, it’s a natural fit.
As it stands the two qualifying games are on Wednesday nights and that’s going to jump out to them when delivering the product to an audience that largely won’t know the difference between this competition and Euroleague. That also opens up some better sponsorship opportunities. We’re not talking crazy money but Basketball Ireland will certainly be thinking it can get a title sponsor or jersey sponsor at worst for this side. Having secured deals with Subway (schools competitions) and Hula Hoops (national cups), the natural fit is a soft drink to complete an unhealthy lunch.
*Full disclosure, I have worked as a basketball analyst for TG4 and fit that tiny cross-section of the media that both speaks Irish and knows basketball so I probably will again if they show these games.
What kind of a team?
That is the really big one to take into account. The Irish league select side that played in China last week, recording a win over a Russian selection, is almost exclusively amateur. Most teams have one pro, a couple have two, and none of these pros are making bank. They all have other gigs or some kind of benefit in kind situation (free accommodation etc) to make up the difference. The vast majority of imports, who are also the vast majority of pros, won’t arrive in Ireland until extremely close to the start of this tournament. Most of these are players fresh out of college who simply aren’t used to the European style. Established imports like Lehmon Colbert are likely to make the cut but this team will almost certainly pay a strong resemblance to the squad that went to China (save for Paul Dick, pictured at the top of this post, who plays outside of the Irish league). That means it will mostly be made up of players who have 9-to-5 or worse day jobs.
There’s also the how and where these players train. Weekend camps will be fine ahead of the qualification round, with Cork, Limerick, and Dublin all likely to be used. It’s pre-season in the Irish league and still will be when the opening games take place. That’s manageable. It’s the unlikely event of an Irish side getting past the first round that presents an issue. The format is wildly unclear as of yet so we don’t know if it’s even possible for Hibernia Basketball (it’s groanworthy but I have two degrees so I should really approve of Latin) to draw a Cantu or if it’s likely the get a legitimately weak team early. In the case of a Cantu, the debate is done because they will just mill any Irish team but a winnable game presents logistical challenges. For my money the dream for Basketball Ireland is to get a big team, look decent, lose with dignity intact, and get it’s season underway. That’s because…
This is really about the national team
The summer on an international level has been stunning for Ireland. Admittedly the bar isn’t set very high but the warm-up tournament performances by Ireland’s youth teams have been the best for years. The women’s 3×3 team looked really good in Baku and the men got that win over Russia where nobody really cares that it was a team of amateurs from Russia, it was still a team called Russia and Ireland beat it. That’s massive for the profile of the sport over here. It’s something that can be sold. The big thing to sell however is the green jersey, In Ireland nothing sells like that. It’s been seen with cricket, women’s rugby, and a bunch of other minority sports. Hibernia Basketball, as a name, sells that idea without saying it’s the national side. That’s the real goal and the smart money now is on Ireland targeting a return at small nations level, the old European C competition, before trying to get back into the proper qualification cycle after EuroBasket 2017.
At the men’s level Ireland is at least 8 years away from even troubling the qualification pool (and a whole lot longer from actually qualifying) but the development side of the game shows it’s not unthinkable. On the women’s side, that road looks a whole lot shorter. Don’t let the performance of these select sides fool you. The slow road back to getting a national team back up and running is also with an eye of finding every quality baller with a drop of green blood. While Ireland doesn’t throw out passports willy-nilly to athletes it wants to naturalise, an awful lot of athletes seek out Irish ancestry and get those passports because of the easier route to employment in the EU. That will raise the quality of any side that comes through on the back of the ascent of the youth teams. It’s not going to turn Ireland into a force, that will never happen, but should lead to a more credible national side which is the easiest product to sell to the sporting public over here. There’s just one massive issue to reconcile…
This does zero for the women’s game
Like I said, the road to relevance is a lot shorter for Ireland’s women than men but this arrangement with FIBA is just for the men. FIBA already controls women’s club basketball in Europe and doesn’t need to shore that up. Likewise, and it’s sad but true, if Basketball Ireland has to make a call with one or the other in the short-term then the men’s team makes more commercial sense. The short-term is the crucial aspect here as the long-term development prospects for the women’s game are far more promising given the competitive landscape of participation in sport in Ireland. Zero may be a little harsh, it does at least get more people talking about basketball in Ireland, but there definitely needs to be a plan to ensure the women’s side of the game and it’s massive upside to the federation gets the boost it needs.