After a lengthy absence, part three of BallinEurope’s look at the civil war in European basketball continues with analysis of what the Champions League actually means for the sport. For past coverage check out Emmet Ryan’s features on the problems with a closed shop Euroleague and the need for a strong Eurocup
FIBA wants back in. That’s the one thing in this whole civil war that nobody disagrees on. FIBA definitely wants back in the running of the second biggest club competition on the planet and it if it can’t take Euroleague it sees creating its own league as the next best option. After 15 years without control of even the secondary club competition in Europe, FIBA wants to jump right to the head of the queue although it has hit a few stumbling blocks along the way.
The name, let’s deal with it
The groans that came when FIBA decided it was going to name its elite competition the Champions League were expected. It’s the name football uses and not just in Europe. It’s already used by cricket, handball, ice hockey, roller hockey, table tennis, volleyball, and water polo. Naturally basketball was going to use it in spite of the groans that “it’s not basketball” from the nerdier corners of social media. If not pleasing the geeks was the problem, there would be pretty much no reason to worry about it. It’s a name people know and a name a whole lot of sports use. There’s just one giant problem: When anyone says or writes the term Champions League they think of the UEFA Champions League. Nobody thinks about the African, Asian, Concacaf, or Oceanic versions in football. It’s not a term that sparks thoughts of handball, volleyball, or water polo. Despite being a pair of generic words that ignore how leagues work or the definition of a champion, UEFA has built one of the strongest brands in all of sports.
That’s the real issue for the sport, every time the Champions League gets mentioned for a sport other than football you simply have to add that qualifier. Even handball goes out of its way to make the hashtag EHFCL when UEFA is happy with just the U for UCL because handball knows it has to look different on Twitter. As the Eurocup column addressed, combat with football on direct terms only ends in defeat.
The term Champions League is really strong but only because of how it belongs to the most dominant midweek sports property on the planet.
The hard to sell part
FIBA’s goal is to make club basketball pan-European again which is rather admirable and, as it is learning, admirable things are quite challenging. A total of 30 nations will be involved in the competition with a rather radical split. There will be 24 automatic qualifiers for the group stage while the other 32 teams get to fight it out for the final 8 spots. The imbalance in allocation is objectively necessary to create any kind of balance in terms of competitive basketball. As was witnessed with the FIBA Europe Cup this season, automatic entry for all can lead to some horrific imbalances on court. This filtering process bears an awful lot in common with some other competition you may be familiar with, it’s got a name that I can’t quite put my name on but you can watch it most Tuesday and Wednesday nights on TV.
Once FIBA gets to the magic number of 32 it splits teams into four groups of eight. In terms of attracting big clubs, this is where it’s time to sit up and take notice. A guarantee of 14 regular season games with the top four in each group progressing plus a pair of two-legged knockout rounds and then a final four means the winners of the competition will likely play 20 games* over the course of the season. The new look Euroleague immediately offers 30 games and the champions will play a minimum of 35. That’s a lot more product to work with and, remember, FIBA are essentially playing the role of challenger here. It needs to be the one offering more to lure sides away, instead it is going in from day one with a product that’s rather attractive to escape if an invite to the big show comes along.
*The winners of Eurocup will play a minimum of 22 games but in terms of guaranteed games it is only 10 versus the 14 of the Champions League.
The Tournament Formerly Known as Eurochallenge
In order for the FIBA Basketball Champions League to become a real player in the market it needs to bring something fresh and strong to the market. Ice hockey’s champions league exists as a result of the IIHF’s repeated stunted efforts at a pan-European competition in the wake of the old European Champions Cup failed and the governing body was faced with the growing influence of the KHL (think of the VTB League for ice hockey only way more people care). The ice hockey version has a lot in common with its prospective basketball sibling as with very few exceptions the richest clubs want no part of it, a bunch of countries are represented, and it’s got far fewer games than the competition the rich kids play.
Looking at the field ahead for the Basketball Champions League and there’s not a whole lot of reasons to expect it to bear that much different a complexion at the top end to the FIBA Europe Cup. That competition, which FIBA labelled as second tier, replaced Eurochallenge which everyone called third tier. So if you are keeping up that means Eurochallenge has jumped from third tier to top tier in the space of a couple of years with minor cosmetic differences.
There have definitely been wins for FIBA so far in this conflict. Getting the Czech Republic’s and Belgium’s top clubs to throw in with the FIBA Europe Cup took away a couple of reliable outposts for Eurocup over the years. The defeats however are piling up. Hapoel Jerusalem, the only logical Israeli target, eschewed the offer, likewise the bigger clubs in Italy (Trento, Reggio Emilia, Dinamo Sassari), and Galatasaray are all-in for Euroleague by whatever means possible and if that means Eurocup then so be it. That’s a huge competitive issue for the Champions League to overcome and before we address how it is doing it, there’s one other logistical factor to bear in mind.
There is still going to be a FIBA Europe Cup
Those 24 teams that don’t get through the qualifying rounds of the Champions League will join another 24 in the second season of the FIBA Europe Cup and this is the point where we get our calculators out. Add 16 teams in Euroleague to 24 in Eurocup to 32 in the Champions League to 48 in FIBA Europe Cup and the number of sides playing ‘regular’ season pan-European hoops this autumn will be…120. We are beyond NIT levels people and there is no way our continent, beautiful and diverse as it is, needs four teams to celebrate being champions men’s club basketball in Europe for a given year.
As what is basically the fourth tier of basketball in Europe, the competition holds no value outside of local broadcasters, and even then it’s severely limited, as there’s a glut of content above it.
As long as the competition remains at this level, it is an expense. Whether that is absorbed by FIBA, the federations, the clubs, or a mixture of all three isn’t what matters. It is a tournament that is going to cost more than it can possibly hope to generate.
This isn’t ignoring politics, of course FIBA’s goal is to run the only first and second tier competitions and keeping the FIBA Europe Cup ensures it can keep the small nations happy. More leagues getting more routes to access pan European basketball is good but there has to be a reasonable choke point and having triple digits in clubs racking up air miles into late November isn’t the way to do it. Do you know what else isn’t the way to do it? Threatening people, ooh, I smell a segue…
How to make enemies and anger people
Governing bodies are important, no really they are. For the overall growth of the sport, there needs to be a body that is there to represent the interest of all and not just the rich and powerful. In order for the sport as a whole to grow, that holistic viewpoint is necessary with folk pondering the philosophical issues that shape basketball’s place in the world. A whole bunch of forehead and chin stroking gets done. How that view is propagated is generally where things tend to go south in a hurry as we have seen with the flame war being played out.
BiE has taken a editorialy neutral stand throughout this war, mainly because this corner thinks both sides are acting like spoiled children, and it isn’t moving from that but the sheer amount of snark in this piece hints that FIBA’s latest actions have given the governing body an extra special place in the doghouse in the past couple of weeks.
The mass suspension of national federations over Eurocup is madness. For those not up to speed (hi America) the following countries are currently ineligible for EuroBasket 2017: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, and Turkey. That number includes Europe’s two automatic qualifiers for the Olympics (Spain and Lithuania) whose places in Rio appear to be up in the air. Those nations have until tomorrow to get their leagues back in line in FIBA’s eyes which officially means withdrawing support for Euroleague, Eurocup, and the ABA Liga. That latter, for Adriatic nations, is basically in this mess because of the former two and given FIBA has already tried to avoid a direct war regarding Euroleague itself the fight is basically over Eurocup. Essentially FIBA thinks it can’t stop the biggest clubs doing their own thing right now but the governing body is desperate to avoid the buffer of Eurocup forming. It’s safe to say nothing is going to happen by tomorrow except for a few strongly worded statements.
A quick note on branding
EuroBasket participation is under threat because of teams supporting Eurocup and Euroleague. Do you know what all of those competitions have in common? They are basically identified directly with basketball, at least by anyone who has actually heard the term before. I mean, Eurocup isn’t even that good and comes across a little lazy but it’s not like a whole bunch of other people are using it and it is certainly less clunky than FIBA Europe Cup. EuroBasket, that’s so good somebody else used it for their business name yet people still first think of the FIBA competition when they hear it. Branding is hard work but it’s not actually that complicated. At its most raw, you think of a bunch of names that seem relevant and make sure not to use the terrible ones (most of the names you think of will be terrible). The more refined you get the closer you get to the purpose of a brand which is, essentially, what people identify about you as an entity. That’s why when people hear Champions League the raw thought is ‘football’ and the identity part is ‘the biggest of big shows’ or something to that effect. It’s about building something over time which can have that impact and literally sells itself on name.
So what now?
Medical research has found we blink far less than ever due to the amount of time spent looking at screens. That’s not healthy as it dries out eyes and that’s basically a bad thing. Having the two most powerful bodies with respect to European basketball fighting is also a bad thing and it’s essentially because neither seems capable of blinking in this game of gunboat diplomacy. Wow, the analogies just flow so easily when dealing with something so stupid and, yes, it really is stupid. Nobody gains from this long-term especially not the fans. The first three parts of this series have tried to illustrate how European basketball has essentially tried to break itself and the cost this has for all concerned. We now live in an era where nobody with power is willing to be the grown up in the situation.
We’re now faced with EuroBasket being at worst heavily, France, Czech Republic, and Latvia would have been your podium is you remove the suspended nations from last year’s competition, and at best tarnished by the in-fighting that preceded it. We have two bodies presenting four competitions across the continent, one focusing on quality of teams and the other focusing on breadth of reach. Most concerning, not only is neither side treating the other as an equal they have both backed themselves into corners where they can’t feasibly treat the others as equal without a massive loss of face.
The fourth part of this series, essentially the final part although even I don’t believe it’s the real end, will shift the view to what collaboration could look like. Everyone knows that actually working together is a good thing but nobody with authority seems willing to do it. It’s time to change that way of thinking. Don’t get hopeful, like the contestants on Bullseye there’s little chance we get the big prize.