Euroleague eyes capital gainsAlex Dimond March 9, 2013
Euroleague - basketball's answer to the Champions League - is so confident that Britain has an appetite for the sport that it believes it can crack the market, even without a British team for fans to cheer on.
That is part of the reason why the continent's flagship competition is bringing its closing weekend - the always anticipated, invariably dramatic Euroleague Final Four - to London in May, despite ongoing inertia within British basketball rendering the prospect of a domestic team competing in the event any time soon distinctly unlikely.
Such 'growing of the game' is a strategy that has been employed by the National Basketball Association in recent years, with exhibitions and even regular season games played throughout Europe. So, on May 10 and 12, the O2 Arena - the same venue that the Detroit Pistons lost to the New York Knicks at the start of the year - will welcome four of Europe's best teams to crown this year's continental champion.
Euroleague (or, to give its full title, Turkish Airlines Euroleague Basketball) does not see itself as a direct competitor to the NBA, however - far from it. Indeed, with games being played at different times, the Euroleague sees the interest in the sport generated by its American cousin as only doing good things for its own engagement with television and online audiences.
British fans may be drawn in by the exploits of the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant over in the US but, with certain exceptions, the hope is that it is the Euroleague they will want to turn to if they are keen to watch live basketball at a sociable hour.
Aware of the way that the two organisations can actually complement each other, Euroleague and the NBA have increasingly worked together to implement joint promotional campaigns in territories where their interests align.
Not that any boost is really needed in the Euroleague hotbeds of Spain, Turkey and Russia - where teams are followed with as much fervour, if slightly less uniformly, as their football equivalents. The multi-sport club culture of much of Europe means the big names of basketball will be familiar to many of those more accustomed to watching the ball played to feet - CSKA Moscow, Panathinaikos and Barcelona are all among the strong contenders for this year's title.
The Euroleague's ambition is for that name-recognition to transition across northern Europe, where the sport is viewed with intrigue, but perhaps not accepted with the same passion. The recent signs have been encouraging - Champions League runners-up Bayern Munich have recently revived their basketball subsidiary, hoping to provide competition for established German heavyweights like Alba Berlin.
In France, too, there have been intriguing developments. After the foundation of a handball team at the behest of its Qatari owners, rumours are rife that Paris Saint Germain will soon form a basketball setup of their own. At the time, the club's director general Jean-Claude Blanc remarked stridently: "We will not stop at handball. The idea is to rapidly create a large multi-sport club to promote the global project of PSG."
That would bring some big city glamour to a country whose basketball representatives have tended to hail from more provincial areas. Euroleague is hoping to meet with PSG's hierarchy in the near future to ascertain its ambitions and ways assistance can be given.
If France's capital were to gain a high-profile team, the next step becomes obvious - London.
"If we could have teams in Berlin, Paris and London - that would be ideal for us," Alex Ferrer, Euroleague's director of communications, told ESPN in Istanbul last month.
Euroleague chief executive Jordi Bertomeu subsequently added: "Hopefully we can bring [Euroleague] to London more consistently in the future. In London, or any important city in the UK. This is our hope."
The problem, however, is the structural disarray in which British basketball seems to be. The British Basketball League - which, unfortunately, hardly appears to be of the requisite standard anyway - has been wary of getting involved with the Euroleague for a variety of reasons, while the foundation of the British Basketball Union (that encompasses both the BBL and the various UK governing bodies) has seemingly only obfuscated matters further.
The government's stance - initially they revoked the sport's funding, before restoring some of it - is also concerning.
"Many people are promoting the game in the UK - the NBA are going there, we are going there - but the government are going back," Bertomeu said, somewhat ruefully. "It's a bit of a contradiction. We cannot accept the UK is off the basketball map.
"We want all of Europe involved in Euroleague or Eurocup [the second tier competition]. Just as we believe we need a strong presence in France, the UK has to be part of that too.
"We have been in talks with the British league to co-operate together. [But] the clubs must recognise that they must take risks. The policy of the English clubs in recent years has been to not to take risks. This has to change; otherwise it is impossible to grow."
From the Euroleague to the NBA
Vlade DivacA centre with unusual passing and court awareness - something many top Euro players seem to demonstrate - Divac helped Partizan Belgrade reach the Final Four in 1988, before going on to a title-winning 15-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Hornets and Sacramento Kings.
- Check out the ESPN documentary Once Brothers for more on Divac's story.
Manu GinobiliJust 21 when he joined Bologna from his native Argentina, in two seasons in Italy he helped the team win the Euroleague in 2001 (where he was the final MVP) and return to the final in 2002. 'Obi-wan' Ginobili then starred at the 2004 Olympics after joining the San Antonio Spurs - where he has so far won three NBA titles.
Toni KukocThe highly-rated Croatian helped Split to three successive Euroleague crowns between 1989 and 1991, then reached the final with Benetton Treviso in 1993. He then moved to the NBA - where he was a polarising figure who nevertheless won three titles alongside Michael Jordan.
Luis ScolaAt one point considered one of the best power forwards in the NBA, Scola dominated the Euroleague for a period - helping Baskonia to the Final Four three straight times between 2005 and 2007.
Ricky RubioNow at the Minnesota Timberwolves, the pass-first point guard was something of a phenomenon in the Euroleague at Barcelona, helping the team win the whole thing in 2010 before, somewhat belatedly, moving to the NBA. Was beginning to become a star in the US before injury derailed him in 2012.
The Euroleague has persistently described the UK as an "important market" and is keen to pursue a British team - not necessarily in London; Birmingham and Manchester have also been identified - while title sponsor Turkish Airlines has pledged to get heavily involved in the project where possible. But, with Arsenal and Chelsea unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Bayern, avenues are limited unless the BBL steps up - or the plans afoot of the British Basketball Association (BBA) to start up an NBA-style league (an initial eight franchises, with greater central controls and a salary cap) actually progress from courting investors (the idea was first raised in 2007) to scheduling games.
"This idea is raised more-or-less whenever the NBA comes to London," Bertomeu cautioned, when asked about the BBA's plans. "And then it disappears. Theoretically it is possible, but we have to work to see what is realistic. It's just a nice idea. My view is if it has been postponed one year, or another, then the message is that it is not easy to implement this idea.
"It is a more-NBA orientated style. I have my concerns this works in Europe."
The Euroleague's licensing arrangement - certain core teams are essentially guaranteed entry into the tournament each year, regardless of domestic performance - means a suitable UK team could be given an interesting incentive to sign up, but any franchise would still need a strong domestic league in which to play.
With the BBL seemingly not the answer, and the BBA still in the planning stages, the options thin considerably. Combining the German and French domestic leagues - and adding a token English team to create some sort of 'north European league' - is a possibility that has been discussed in only the vaguest terms, especially as it is something Euroleague can only advise on - rather than orchestrate.
"Some leagues have talked about [unifying]," Ferrer acknowledged, suggesting northern European leagues are more open to the idea. "Not Germany and France, but it could be an option."
Proof of a genuine hunger for the sport in Britain is the best way of breaking the deadlock that currently exists among governing bodies and the government itself, and bringing the Final Four to London certainly weighs into the equation. But for Euroleague such a move came with risk, as eschewing 'safer' host cities like Istanbul and Madrid meant potentially turning its back on greater revenues.
So far, however, the move appears to be paying off. Perhaps helped by the multicultural make-up of the city, ticket sales for the London Final Four have so far proven to be on a par with previous finales in more traditional basketball hotbeds. That has been a source of encouragement to Euroleague, who negotiated an option to bring the event straight back to the O2 for 2014 when this year's deal was finalised.
"We expect to sell out," Ferrer confirmed. "Initially we worried, but our sales are tracking at the same level as Madrid, Berlin, Istanbul.
"We expect to sell out even before the teams are decided."
The wider aim is to bring more interest to the tournament, however, and little is being left to chance in that regard. Having worked closely with Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the Greater London Authority to bring the event to the O2, Euroleague will use that positive relationship to occupy much of Trafalgar Square for the May weekend - putting on a variety of exhibitions and events designed to draw in intrigued city residents.
Then, during the Final Four itself - which, at the time of writing, could feature both Real Madrid and Barcelona - an England men's team will make history by competing in the Under-18 tournament that will go on around the senior contests. It will be a small but significant moment.
"[It] will bring a breath of fresh air to the tournament," Bertomeu said at the time. "This is one more step in our strategy of improving the awareness of basketball in such an important market."
A senior participant is the next aim. Even if it may be many years from fruition, it would be foolish to dismiss the Euroleague's chances in this regard. If a country like Germany can embrace the sport, Bertomeu is confident Britain will too, given the right push.
"We can compare the UK a little bit to Germany," he noted. "Germany has always had difficulties for us, but since the end of the 1990s they have started growing - and the growth of the German league in the last few years has been very consistent. It is now the second country in Europe in terms of attendance of the national league."
But he also warns: "It is obvious that a lot depends on money. The UK in general has a lot of bodies working on the same thing. You need a structure that can work, with common aims and objectives. It is something that happens in football and other sports, but not in basketball."
Money and organisation is not a problem for Euroleague, which is confident it has most of the pieces in place to sustain growth. It believes it has the product and, with commercial partners of the likes of Turkish Airlines, Nike and AEG (the global stadium operator that manages the O2, along with the likes of Brooklyn's Barclays Center and Istanbul's Ulker Arena) all heavily involved in various aspects of the competition for the long-term, it certainly has the heavyweight backing to get where it needs to be.
Could we see Turkish Airlines and Nike ambassador Kobe Bryant, or a homegrown star like Luol Deng, end their illustrious careers as the poster boy for a new London basketball franchise? A dream scenario, but not necessarily an impossible one.
Despite the obstacles, Bertomeu remains optimistic the Final Four can be just the start of England's renewed involvement with Euroleague:
"We hope that the feeling we have, that people in this country love basketball, will be confirmed at the end of this process."
The Euroleague Final Four takes place at the O2 Arena on May 10-12.
Some tickets are still available.