European Basketball Conflicts: The 2000 Split

«Every war takes place for the ownership of material goods»

Plato, 427-347 BC

Expanding Plato’s aphorism outside the narrow limits of armed conflict, it can easily be adjusted in a war which took place in basketball courts, referee locker rooms and most of all between headquarters of Europe’s greatest clubs and International Basketball Federation. Two opposite sides serving their own interests, both engaged in the hunt of authority above European Basketball – an authority followed by great financial benefits.

The two poles seeking for dominance resembled a lot of the David and Goliath legend. On the one hand there was the mighty FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, an organization deeply empowered, publicly supported from the European Union itself and in alliance with the football parallel of governance over Europe, UEFA. Its authority existence was impersonated in the strict, bureaucratic face of the Serbian Borislav Stankovic. On the other, the freshly founded ULEB, a Union consisting of the main European Leagues, aiming to their development through a high-level cooperation, ready to doubt FIBA’s absolute authority on the road to financial independence.

The first rub-a-dubs of an upcoming war were not expressed by headquarters announcements and private meetings, but they came as a result of derogated fan base feelings. It is the July of 1995, the Eurobasket final between Lithuania and Serbia takes place in Athens, and the Serbians are pronounced European Champions largely thanks to a series of mistaken referee decisions. The furious crowd cheers for the underprivileged Lithuanians declaring them as the real champions, while infuriation against FIBA is expressed with invective cues· this was meant to be the beginning of a long lasting basketball rivalry between Serbia and Greece. In addition to the crowd’s furiousness, the bronze medalists Croatians walk off the court just before the gold medals are awarded to Serbians as an act of protest against the ongoing war between the two.

The Athens events are fresh wounds on the body of FIBA, when another round of fireworks takes place in the 1996 European League Final 4. The games are held in Paris, Panathinaikos faces Aito Reneses’ Barcelona in the final and the game has come to the details with a score of 67-66 for the Athenians just thirty seconds before the finish. Panagiotis Giannakis has the ball, he slips down, the stopwatch remains stuck for a few seconds without the referees noticing it, and the ball reaches the other side of the court with Montero ready to lay it up when Stojan Vrankovic makes the run of his life, managing to get high and commit one of the most controversial blocks in Euroball history. Panathinaikos is the new European Champion but the most important thing is FIBA’s the heavily hurt credibility.

The fan base’s, players’ and club administrations’ openly expressed disagreement for FIBA administration was the start of a 3-year period with a lot of underground processes and consultations between the main European club owners. Seeking for greater participation in every financial aspect of the European League, the owners approached Stankovic for a re-negotiation of the relationship, after coming to the conclusion that the income of taking part into the FIBA organized tournament was considerably low compared to their investments.

The main factor which led to this conclusion was the television rights deal negotiated between FIBA and the marketing group ISL worldwide. A deal which appeared to be beneficial for the established authority, strengthening its concentrating character when taking into consideration that FIBA would be the one and only income distributor, handling every organizational aspect by the Euroleague Office in Munich, while the teams would just crop some standard performance bonuses regardless of their investment.

The club owners reacted and Stankovic, unable to instantly reject a demand coming from brand names such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Olympiakos and Benetton, replied by throwing back the ball of responsibility naming the owners’ return with a written form of their suggestions as an expectation. Meetings were held, terms agreed and a common line of policy was to be followed but everything was collapsed by the Serbian wall named Borislav Stankovic. He abandoned any diplomatic handle of the subject, immediately rejecting any re-negotiation project and openly declaring his total power.

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta

“Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock”.

Will Rogers, American actor, 1879 – 1935

But in Stankovic’s case, the rock was not as solid as it appeared to be. And this lack of solidness was made crystal clear during the summer of 2000 in Sitges, a Catalan village located forty kilometers southwest of Barcelona.

Despite the 2000-01 SuproLeague held by FIBA was already announced, team and National Leagues representatives were gathered in Catalonia, making their own declaration of independence from FIBA’s authority. Major role was played by ULEB’s CEO Eduardo Portella, who managed to overcome any last minute doubts among many of the clubs, convincing them for the necessity of the action taken. Nothing would be achieved without giving answer to the two most vital questions for the new League: how the broadcasting rights would be managed and how the necessary amount of referees willing to be expelled from FIBA tournaments and take part in Euroleague was to be found.

Telefonica Media gave the first answer, providing a total prize pool of $35 million ($47 million – 42€ million, in today’s money) for each year until 2004. Moreover, the decisions for the proper distribution of the money were taken by the clubs themselves, overcoming the middleman-role of FIBA in its contract with ISL Worldwide for SuproLeague. With the media rights matter settled, a proper amount of referees remained to be found in order to crush the last obstacle towards Euroleague. The key man who gave the second answer was Costas Rigas, a Greek referee and Technical Commissions Chairman of the new foundation. He secured the necessary amount of referees, finding 54 men who ignored Stankovic’s expel threats, getting the new competition ready to launch. The split was official.

The official Euroleague launch was symbolically presentated in Thessaloniki, the city where the last FIBA European League Final 4 took place, with a news conference of Jordi Bertomeu, Euroleague Chief Executive. Bertomeu analyzed the Euroleague-Telefonica partnership and explained the procedure followed for the body of referees creation, while the Euroleague draw was settled by Giannakis, Stoijkovic and San Epifanio who lend their support to the new competition.

The procedures were over, Europe entered the 2000-01 season with FIBA SuproLeague and ULEB Euroleague, fans were confused and dissatisfied having to follow top clubs in two separate competitions and as May 2001 came European Basketball was found to be in the honourless situation of having two active Champions. Maccabi Elite has won the SuproLeague title by beating Panathinaikos in the sinful Palais de Paris-Bercy, while Kinder Bologna was the Euroleague champion having overcome TAU Ceramica in a best-of-five series. The two champions inconvenience was not the only theoretical misspell of the situation. The problem had come down to actual numbers.

Nate Hufmann, SuproLeague Regular Season MVP celebrating the title
Nate Hufmann, SuproLeague Regular Season MVP celebrating the title

A coldened fan base, decreased TV income when compared to the expectations, and a rivalry alienating possible sponsorships and marketing expansions. Euroleague was the more successful of the two competitions convincing SuproLeague clubs such as Panathinaikos, CSKA Moscow, Maccabi and Efes Pilsen join the rebels and this was the crucial point which made FIBA throw the towel in accepting the loss, in addition to admitting to the necessity of a unique competition existence. Euroleague negotiated from a position of strength, setting the terms on its favor, with FIBA having no choice but to agree.

As a result, European club competition was fully integrated under Euroleague Basketball’s umbrella, with FIBA being in charge of national team competitions. Moreover, the FIBA organised Korac (third-tier) and Saporta (second-tier consisting of the National Cup Winners) Cups lasted one more season (2001-02) before folding, which was when Euroleague Basketball launched the ULEB Cup, now known as the Eurocup, finalizing European Basketball restructure and putting an end to the conflict.

Fifteen years later, market expansion created new material goods to be owned. As Plato stated, this is a reason for war. In March 2015, FIBA confuted the ceased fire by announcing its will to remodel the European club competitions.

The war was on again.

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