Fluctuations of a Dogfight, or a Schism in the Making

Back in 2000, when Europe’s top basketball clubs distanced themselves from FIBA’s guardianship and formed their own league – Euroleague Basketball – it was unclear what exactly that meant for the future of the sport on the continent. In the 15 years that followed, after a necessary period of adjustment, the move translated into gradual growth, expansion, opening of new markets, closer ties with the NBA –even if the positive content of the terms applies only to some limited extent. However, it also meant 15 years during which FIBA was on the sidelines or the blurred background of clubs’ continental competition, which is the single most profitable aspect of the game (for everyone involved).

“What we once lost,” Patrick Baumann, highest FIBA executive, might have recently thought, “we want back”, he would have added in a louder voice. “What we have gained stays with us”, Jordi Bertomeu, Euroleague’s CEO, would have calmly responded.

The saga between the two contains a multiplicity of narratives, and each side has attempted to establish some of their own, but – sadly – there is no story. Here lies only a shadowy imitation of some archetypical business conflict -a battle between two potential kings too weak to kill one another, while both want to rule a land that can only –hardly– sustain one of them.

In Bertomeu’s words: “This conflict is about control, it’s about power. It’s not about how to grow basketball, it’s not about how to make basketball more popular, it’s not about how can we produce better players, or better coaches. It’s not about any of this. It’s just about power”.

Patrick Baumann
Patrick Baumann, Secretary General of FIBA

The first indication of the re-emergence of the old conflict was subtly given in an official FIBA announcement where, among some paragraphs dedicated to the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, under the tag Other information and decisions shared included, at the very last bullet, the following was written: “The Executive Committee was given a progress report on the remodelling of the European club competitions; it gave the green light to continue with the work, and if required by the project, to invest significant funds together with FIBA Europe.”

The press release, published in March 2015, raised a series of questions: What does a “remodelling” actually mean? Why was “competitions” written in plural (FIBA, for all of the last 15 years, controlled only one minor European club competition)? Did it include Euroleague too? What kind of a project would require the investment of significant funds? All the answers require a close look at FIBA’s actions and decisions that took place the months before the above announcement.

In March of 2014, FIBA’s board set in motion another remodelling, one that included all of the tournaments between national teams (Continental Championships, World Championship, Olympic Games). The qualification system for every one of those was turned upside down -all the old regulations (qualification based on last performance, wild cards) were abolished and replaced by preliminary rounds which, after the introduction of the new system in the upcoming season, will be the only way for a national team to participate in a major tournament (unless it’s hosting the event). More importantly, the extra games that occurred were decided to be held in mid-season (rather than before or after, as Bertomeu and some national federations suggested). Euroleague, then, tried to oppose the reform on the grounds that there were no available dates, but to no avail. That was the first major point of controversy between the two sides in years, but at the time no one could have guessed what was about to follow.

If the decision for mid-season national games was only a mild demonstration of power, FIBA’s next move was a much stronger one: it abruptly decided to suspend the recognition of the ABA League, also known as Adriatic League, a federation of clubs mainly from the former Yugoslavia region and one of the biggest leagues in Europe (since then, FIBA has repeatedly flip-flopped on the issue). It was a reminder that FIBA, outside of the NBA, is in absolute control of the game, its highest bureaucratic power fully capable of abolishing a league after only a board meeting.
FIBA’s thinking, impossible to be decoded at the time, went somewhat like this: abolish the ABA League and all the teams would have to return to their national championships. Since the ABA League provides three slots to the Euroleague, the latter would be minus three teams –three teams that the Euroleague would now have to re-negotiate with. Every re-negotiation, of course, means that either side can approach or be approached by a third party, either to put some pressure on its potential partner or to find a better deal. Could FIBA then be that third party and make its own move? And how hard could it be since FIBA is in charge of all the national federations?

Soon enough FIBA unveiled its intentions: it declared itself ready to take over every European club competition, not only the Euroleague but the Eurocup too. Everything would be under its own influence, but Bertomeu, Bauman suggested, could keep the management –Bertomeu immediately declined. FIBA pushed harder; it threatened to disqualify from every national team’s tournament every country whose teams (even a single team) would choose one of Bertomeu’s competitions. What happened to the Adriatic League, FIBA executives emphasized, could happen to every other league too, on the national or the continental level. In the meantime, FIBA had already started negotiations with the top clubs. Details of its plan soon emerged: the new competition was to be named Basketball Champions League (UEFA happily provided the license for the brand-name), featured 16 teams and eight guaranteed contracts. The clubs themselves maintained a neutral stance, waiting for the proposal that would better fit their own interests –their answer, as FIBA had anticipated, was up for sale.

(The top European clubs are widely considered to be the following eight: Anadolu Efes Istanbul and Fenerbahce Istanbul from Turkey; FC Barcelona Lassa and Real Madrid from Spain; Olympiacos Piraeus and Panathinaikos SuperFoods Athens from Greece; Russia’s CSKA Moscow and Israel’s Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv.)

Jord Beromeu
Jordi Beromeu, CEO of Euroleague Basketball

Euroleague, being on the defensive end for far too long, finally reacted. In November 2015, it announced a new ten-year deal with IMG -which now, in retrospect, appears to have changed the course of the controversy. While FIBA had been building remarkable momentum as a result of the quick succession of its carefully organized moves, Euroleague’s announcement put any further ambitions to rest. The new agreement provided the top clubs what they had long been asking for: a significant increase in revenues (40EUR million per year, on top of FIBA’s proposal of 32EUR million), a new round-robin format, and a reduction in the number of participating teams (down to 16 from 24) [see here for more numbers and details]. After unanimously rejecting FIBA’s initial proposal (which wasn’t all that different), the clubs had finally chosen a side, expanding their contracts with the Euroleague under new, more beneficial terms. To prevent any second thoughts the clubs might have had in the future, the deal included a clause stating that any club wishing to withdraw from the competition required to pay an exit fee of 10EUR million.

So, since the elite clubs had once again teamed up with Bertomeu, what was left for FIBA to do? Well, not much, but not nothing either. The global committee couldn’t go against the –particular– clubs, or their players, or the national teams of their respective countries -as in various points had threatened to do- because, if it did, the clubs would have been alienated to the point that no future negotiations would be likely to take place (and without these specific clubs no major competition can be sustained). Instead, FIBA went after smaller time clubs, especially those with stronger brand names that were about to commit to Bertomeu’s Eurocup. This achieved FIBA’s goal of shifting the clubs’ choices, by applying the same kind of threats listed above, thus having them registered for FIBA’s own competition (clubs from Spain, Italy, and Greece are primary examples). FIBA’s Champions League (the name was maintained despite that only a few actual champions are featured in the competition’s lineup) is set to be, at least for the following year, Europe’s 2nd tier club competition. Compared to FIBA’s initial ambitions, its plan has arguably failed.

To understand the controversy one has to suspend any naïve notions surrounding the intentions of both sides, such as the inclusion of basketball’s improvement into their motives, or anything along those lines. This isn’t about the well-being of European basketball, it never was. This is primarily a political conflict. This is about power, about influence, and about money. FIBA wants to take back everything. Is it too late? Euroleague wants to give back nothing. Is it strong enough not to? To be continued.

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