By Aris Barkas/ firstname.lastname@example.org
European basketball is preparing itself for a three-week celebration, including the appetizer of the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, which will have a global impact. The Eurobasket tournament has a long tradition, but its prestige and glamour reached an unprecedented level this summer.
This is a truly global event, simply because it includes the top stars of the basketball world. “We have three players from the All-NBA team”, admitted Andreas Zagklis while speaking to Eurohoops in a joint interview with select media.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For one hour, the FIBA secretary general gave answers to issues that remain key debates in the world basketball scene, starting from the upcoming Eurobasket and ending with the EuroLeague.
“The super summer of continental basketball”
In a few days, all eyes will be fixed on Europe as some of the top players in the world will be competing not just in preseason exhibition games, but in contests that will create headlines in their home countries.
And while we have all seen Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic fighting – and getting in Giannis’ case – an NBA ring, playing for the national team hits differently. For Zagklis, there’s even more to this Eurobasket that starts a new era: “The expected participation of so many top players is great news for our sport. I would say that the competitions of this summer are the first of the new cycle of our competition calendar and also the last of the adjusted COVID-19 calendar. The participation of the top players was not a concern. We knew from the previous decades that counting on all the players every summer was not something that could be reasonably expected. That was one of the reasoning behind the new calendar and we knew that we should have one summer dedicated to Eurobasket, one to the FIBA World Cup, one to the Olympics, and one to be free for the players to rest with just two windows.
I am more convinced now and there are facts and also statements from our stakeholders that the four-year rotation of the three competitions, makes them unique, exclusive, and attractive for the players. So this is the super summer of continental basketball with the FIBA World Cup qualifiers combined with the Eurobasket and other continental competitions, we can really say that national team basketball is stronger than ever.
We always had top players, and not only from the NBA but in this Eurobasket we expect a much bigger percentage of NBA top players’ participation. This is not only about the three superstars that you mentioned. Especially on the commercial aspect, this has to do with the top players of each country, which are important for the relevant market. The attractiveness of the event, and we have seen that in the World Cup in China, brings more players. We have seen the numbers before 2019 and after. And we are also in a very good moment where the players who are participating in the international game are now global superstars, which was not the case 10 or 15 years ago”.
Still, it’s very hard at the moment to talk numbers and what the impact of those players will be on the commercial level: “Our partners are happy and I would say today it’s difficult to quantify everything because this is not happening in a normal environment. And the question for us is if you would like to see the glass half-foul or half-empty. This change in the global game and in the global calendar coincided with a global pandemic and a war on European soil, which has tremendous financial consequences.
It’s not easy to include all these parameters and get into a result. What we see definitely is that the fans have come closer to their national teams, thanks to the regularity of the national team games, even if we don’t have all the players who could have been available for the games. The fans have the chance to watch their national teams in their country and that gives them the appetite to follow them even more in the summer, starting from the prep games all the way to the main tournament, either by attending the event or on TV.
And that’s the case not only in Europe but everywhere, in the Asia Cup and in the AmeriCup, in a continent where the basketball tradition compared to Eurobasket is much different. So we do believe in the quality of the continental cups and that the four-year rotation brings more value”.
This “hype” is not just promotion and marketing. With a new generation of stars taking over, spearheaded of course by the All-NBA trio, a new competition cycle in place, a five-year break since the last Eurobasket, and traditional powerhouses like Spain being in a transitional period, there are many medal contenders and everyone expects surprises.
Zagklis agrees and explains his point: “The term stronger is relative, this is probably the most open Eurobasket because the level of the game is getting better everywhere. This was rare until today, but it will not be in the future. I would say it is very hard to remember a more open Eurobasket in terms of results and predictions and all that because of this combination of increased quality and at the same time openness. We have seen it now and we have the evidence that the Qualifiers windows help the “middle class” of Europe get closer to the traditional powerhouses.
The August Window and the NBA agreement
The “FIBA Windows” are considered now a regular part of national team competitions and this week may create a bit of confusion for those who are not following closely the national team competitions or are just casual NBA fans.
Before the Eurobasket tipoff, many competing national teams will play also for the FIBA World Qualifiers this week. So before the Eurobasket, Nikola Jokic will host Giannis Antetokounmpo in a very crucial game for the presence of the Serbian national team in the 2023 FIBA World Cup that has nothing to do with Eurobasket 2022.
Is this confusing? Maybe, but as Zagklis pointed out, it was also a necessity that proved to be the right decision: “I would rewind a little bit back to March 2020 when we were unsure whether the Olympics would be held four months later in Tokyo and then the IOC came and announced that it would be postponed to 2021. FIBA together with its offices around the world and five zones took a decision in just nine days to rearrange the calendar all the way to 2023 and these decisions have been proven so far very successful. Not only because of how we managed the bubbles together with our federations but also because we put the interests of the athletes at the forefront and understood that their availability should be optimized, including playing the July window very close to the Asia Cup and the August window very close to the AmeriCup and the Eurobasket.
I believe that the national teams participating in the August window of the World Cup qualifiers have finished their preparation yesterday. Today started a Window week, it’s showtime and at the same time it’s crunch time for several of them.
They play on 24-25/8 and 27-28/8. I also have seen a statement from the athletes who come now and have seen the additional attractiveness of this period of playing in Europe to help your country go to the World Cup and also in the EuroBasket. I would also say that it is providing us a very interesting combination between the typical tournament where you will travel and you go somewhere else to play and before that, you have at least one official game at home, which I believe will be a magnet of attraction for the local fans and a great push from them to their national team before the Eurobasket”.
On the other hand, with the NBA-FIBA agreement permitting 28 days of preparation to NBA players, many of them decided not to compete in the July Window or tried to split the days into two periods, as Luka Doncic did with the Slovenian national team. He was the only big name who competed in July, together with the stars of the Croatian national team who despite their presence couldn’t save their team which is already out of next year’s FIBA World Cup.
Can this be the start of a re-negotiation of the NBA-FIBA agreement, so we can see even more NBA players in the national team games?
For the moment the 28 days seem to be enough per Zagklis and we may not see another summer with so many national team games, like this one: “I think the arrangements for this summer are exceptional arrangements because of the exceptional amount of competitions we had. In reality, we had three separate competition parts of July and August and the Eurobasket. In reference to the split of the availability days, I think it was a very balanced solution. In the same way that the summer of 2021 showed that there can be such solutions with a shortened NBA calendar under which the season would not overlap with the Olympics and a very small amount of games overlapped with the Olympic qualifiers.
So the special arrangements made in 2021 show the strength of the relationship with the NBA, of our collaboration, and also on the level of the NBA franchises with the national federations and this is the feedback we are receiving not only from the federations but also from the NBA franchises. As I have said many times, it’s a question of strategic alignment and our work is to grow the game. In that respect, there are solutions even in this framework in one summer as challenging as this summer in terms of the number of games.
The 28 days rule will continue to apply, it’s a well-accepted reasonable rule that will also apply next year for the World Cup and therefore we do not think that the success of the arrangements of last summer and this summer should affect us in a negative way in the future. On the contrary, they have strengthened the relationship”.
And it has also to be noted that one of the usual burdens of the past, the insurance that the national federations had to pay for NBA players’ participation in the national teams, is now lifted by FIBA’s general insurance policy.
As Zagklis explained: “My work is to protect the health of the players and you know that we have one of the biggest insurance programs in the world which is a major investment and also during the event we are trying to have better and better conditions. There’s only one case in which an NBA player is not insured, only if he is a free agent. We are trying together with the federations to find a good solution to that issue. And in rare cases where there’s a history of injuries, there are extra fees”.
The naturalized player debate
FIBA decided long ago that each national team is entitled in using one naturalized player. This rule ended up being used by many European teams that needed a specific boost usually by a US player and suddenly there are players getting European passports without having any real tie with the country they are playing for.
This is a reality that FIBA doesn’t necessarily like, but looking from a global perspective it can be considered an “honest” compromise. Zagklis, a lawyer himself, explained: “You can imagine based on my past role in the organization that I spent quite some time thinking arguing, and reviewing hundreds of cases of players. National team means representing your country. The starting point, if you ask any federation, is the following: do you have the passport of that country? Then the role of the International Federation is to ensure what you may understand as competitive balance, the sporting integrity, and at the same time make sure that to some extent there are links between the players and the country they represent.
The problem is that as FIBA we have 212 members and that means 212 different laws for nationality. It’s extremely difficult to obtain a passport in some countries and there are other countries where it’s much easier the process to obtain a passport therefore it is extremely difficult to make a rule that can be the baseline for 212 different nationalities. In some cases, you are a national if you were born in the country, in some cases you are national if you had an ancestor one or two or three generations behind, even if you had never stepped foot in that country”.
What complicates things furthermore is the fact that there’s a huge production of players from the US that may have ties to several countries and get more than one passport: “We have the country that invented our sport, producing every year if not thousands, at least hundreds of players and some of them can make a difference at some levels of national team basketball. And also this country has, because of its culture and the way the society was built, very big immigration rights and big communities from a number of countries around the world. And due to their heritage, some of them have more than one passport. So it is an extremely challenging task, I can tell you, to bring a balance”.
That’s why FIBA has a very strict approach on the 11 players of each roster and accepts national laws for the 12th: “The answer of FIBA has always been to be very strict with the 11 players. Our standard rule is one of the strictest around and we get a lot of complaints because that rule is built with a requirement to present a passport before the age of 16, or to present real links with the basketball of a specific country, or its society.
That is seen by many of our countries as a protection mechanism for the bigger ones that have established development systems of players. The worst case is when a player acquires the nationality after the age of 16 and that is where I can tell you there are cases of players, who expressed the desire to play for a national team and through the mechanisms of the county obtain the passport.
For an average fan, it may look like we have given too much room in the rule for this 12th player, but we are having this conversation before the Men’s Eurobasket and it has a much bigger impact on the Women’s competition.
The central board has discussed this many times and has concluded that this balance between a strict rule of 11 and a rule that allows one naturalized player is the correct balance and we have no intention to change this rule. I think it is the right of any federation to make good use of that rule and then at the end of the day, it’s also a debate within every team and every federation to decide how far they can go.
And I would like you to understand these are decisions that can change the dynamics of the basketball world map overnight and in a very artificial manner. This is a discussion I often have with our assembly members and on our boards and especially if you go to the Caribbean or to Oceania, we could have there in one-night global basketball powerhouses if the rule of 11 players would be relaxed”.
No more than a 12-player roster
Greek national team coach Dimitris Itoudis recently said that it’s time for the national teams to get 14-player rosters. This is not on the table for FIBA, as Zagklis said: “It’s not a new idea, it was floated also almost 10 years ago. We have no intention to change that rule. It’s seen as a rule with an administrative role but it is also a rule that can change the dynamics and have a serious impact on competitiveness. It may look natural for a top-level coach that is used to a roster of 16 or 18 and selecting for a given game just 12 but in a given tournament of two weeks, you have made your selection of 12 and it is also part of the beauty of the tournament.
Our tremendously gifted and qualified coaches can manage these rosters. At the same time, it’s something that we reject not because we don’t like it, but also because there are no facts that support that you should have 14 players. The usage time of the 13th or the 14th potential player will be minimal having seen in our tournaments the usage of ninth, 10th, 11th, or 12th player in Eurobaskets between 2001 and 2017. The 12th player never played more than 3-4 minutes in total and the 11th player no more than five minutes.
So we don’t see any reason of having an extended roster during the competition. Unfortunately, coach Itoudis and the other coaches will have to take some harsh decisions in the next few days. And let’s not forget that what we are doing in the men’s sport has an impact on every level”.
And also, it’s a logistics issue, especially for the Olympics, as Zagklis clarified.
The most interesting part of the story is that there have been requests for reduced rosters: “We did have requests for shorter rosters and we have examined the possibility of lowering the number of players. This has also come in the context of the Olympics after the addition of 3X3 basketball. The approach of the IOC is not to increase the number of athletes. However, this is not something that we are planning to implement in the near future. I used this example in order to tell you that the data have encouraged us also to go in the other direction. However, we believe that the 12-man roster is a good rule and we are sticking to that rule”.
Host or hosts
Back in 2013, Slovenia was the last country that hosted alone a Eurobasket. Since then the host countries of the event are four for each tournament.
The advantages of having multiple hosts are obvious, but still, FIBA and Zagklis are open to every proposal: “I think it is a successful model but we didn’t close the door for a country that would want to host a full continental competition or even a FIBA World Cup. It comes down to the size of the country. After all, if you remember during the FIBA World Cup in China the smallest of the eight host cities had a population of 7.5 million.
But I do believe that our sport, except in cases when it comes to investing in a new facility, does not require major infrastructure investments. Of course, we are proud of Georgia and the legacy of Eurobasket 22 with a new arena, but this is rarely required. The main investment into a European Championship is the investment in the event itself which is affordable for a number of countries.
The economy of today speaks more in favor of sharing the responsibility and at the same time, the basketball spread and the level of popularity of our sport speak in favor of spreading the promotion of our sport.
I think it’s a beautiful distribution of the impact that we have now from Georgia to the Czech Republic, to Italy, and to Germany, and in the next competition from Latvia to Finland and to Cyprus. And the same applies to the FIBA World Cup in Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This is almost a combined 500 million population. In any case, we want a competition that will create a great experience for the players and an even greater for the fans”.
The relationship with the NBA and the rules
You can argue that Giannis, Doncic, and Jokic are if not the faces of the NBA, then some of the top attractions of the US league. The NBA is a partner with FIBA in BAL, so maybe is it time for the NBA to also be part of any capacity to the FIBA competitions that involve national teams.
While any help would be appreciated, the answer is no. “You know that the partnership between the NBA and FIBA has become wider and deeper over the last few years”, explained Zagklis since the talks with the NBA are mainly focused on club competitions, but don’t extend to national team tournaments.
“We have a very good balance on how we operate in the national team competitions. In the last years, while we continuously discuss improving the terms of participation of the players for the national federations and also for the NBA franchises at a time where the salaries are increasing at an impressive rate, it’s not a secret that most of our conversations centered around the club competitions. FIBA has a strategic objective to shape international club competitions.
The BAL has been at the forefront of these discussions, in the Intercontinental Cup we have the G-League champion competing and more partnerships are happening around the BCL and the federations with NBA Europe. All this is a solid foundation and we can build more projects. I think this is now more part of the discussion than the national team competition commercial models. Let’s not forget also that the promotion of all those competitions also benefited from the positive attitude of the NBA”.
And speaking strictly on the court, don’t expect any time soon a full unification of the rulebook. FIBA and NBA rules have reached a level in which there are only a few major differences and some of them, like the size of the court of the three-point line distance, may never be fully identical.
Zagklis elaborated on this issue: “The rule gap has been really narrowed down in the last few years. Besides the size of the court and the three-point line, there are very few extremely important rules that are different. What we cannot forget is that we regulate one rule book for all the world from the final of the World Cup to the junior leagues, while the NBA regulates just 30 arenas.
And we have to take into account also the NCAA, which decided to come closer to the FIBA rules. We’re getting closer, we’re working to get closer, as close as possible. But ultimately, it may not be logistically possible. I guess you could go to one of the courts in your neighborhood and you will still see is 6,25m. three-point line and you would understand that this line must be changed in tenths of million courts around the global basketball community”.
The EuroLeague rule
When you are talking with the FIBA secretary general on European basketball issues, sooner or later the EuroLeague debate will be mentioned. EuroLeague, a private league like the NBA, and FIBA are talking after a long period of the cold war, but so far a gesture of goodwill in the schedule that FIBA expected never happened.
On the other hand, with EuroLeague still not having officially turned the page in the management with Dejan Bodiroga expected to be named president, has more pressing issues to solve, while there’s still uncertainty about the heir of CEO Jordi Bertomeu.
Zagklis eloquently repeated once more that he would like to bury the hatchet but for this to happen there are specific terms, no matter who is the EuroLeague president: “You know that we have been very open to discussion and we have been very clear on what the global basketball family, not just FIBA, the clubs that do not participate in the EuroLeague, the national leagues, and the national federations want from this discussions.
We need respect for the national team calendar, we need, what you just asked me about the rules, to have a unified set of rules and not have the clubs play under different variations on Thursday and on Sunday. And there’s no doubt that we want a better structure of the club competitions in Europe.
I think this last point is a point that we’re ready to sit down and probably negotiate, but the first two points are fundamental elements for the entire ecosystem. It’s not my position to comment on internal discussions in another organization and we have to be very careful not to be disrespectful against any person or organization. That has always been the position of FIBA. I can tell you what you describe as uncertainty has not helped, has further delayed the efforts to further evolve the initiative that FIBA took last year and bring everyone to the same table.
Once the clubs point to me the person or persons with who we can discuss and I have someone on the other side of the table with who we can have a solid and strong handshake, FIBA, myself, and my colleagues at the world and European level we will be the first to take part in such a discussion”.