By Aris Barkas/ firstname.lastname@example.org
The Kaunas Final Four is on the books, but as the event of a new era – and despite some hiccups related to the size of the city – it opened the door to a tone of new possibilities.
That’s why before leaving Lithuania, Eurohoops had to meet Zalgiris general manager Paulius Motiejunas who hosted the event in the Zalgirio Arena. The Final Four ended up being profitable in every aspect and that topic turned out to be just a start for a long conversation that included the project of Zalgiris, which in some aspects has become bigger than Kaunas, and also the production of young talent in Europe.
However, the most interesting part came to the idea of going to Dubai, an expansion option clearly aligned with Zalgiris’ ambitions, and also the “new normal” of EuroLeague.
Give me your assessment of the Final Four…
Should I take into account that you are Greek?
You should take into account mainly the business aspect…
We are happy with the way it went. We are very happy.
Do you feel that Final Fours are not only bigger and better than ever but they can now be profitable both for the EuroLeague and the organizers?
I know that especially this Final Four is profitable for the league, I know that. For the organizers, it depends on the way you look at it. It’s really important to have a municipality and government on board. Because who makes money? Not the guys who rent their arena. It’s the hotels, the restaurants, transportation, everything around here. So you cannot go to each hotel and ask to share their exact info. You have to look at this as a tax return and as a sports tourism advertisement. So if the government understands that, and in our case the municipality of Kaunas did it, it’s profitable for the city and for the country, I’m sure.
Do you have an assessment in numbers?
The government has paid 1.5 million euros, so we know that they will get a return in taxes of a minimum of 1.1 euros So we’re taking away advertisement, we taking away Vilnius, which also good a boost this weekend, and so on and so on.
From this point for sure you are breaking even and probably there will be a measurable profit…
Yes, EuroLeague does the survey after every Final Four of the people who are here. More than 50% of them will return to Kaunas. That’s what happened with Vitoria and with the other Final Fours. So we are sure that it’s not only something that happened and then everybody just left. We know that people will come back because the weather was great, and everything was good, so I’m pretty sure that you know people will want to come and experience Kaunas and Vilnius again.
In my opinion, the Final Four as an event has outgrown certain cities just because of its size. We have seen it in Vitoria, we had seen it in Kaunas, and outside the arena the logistics were a bit problematic. But do you feel also that Zalgiris itself as an organization has outgrown at least on certain points, has outgrown Kaunas?
We never say we are Kaunas’ team, we always say we are a Lithuanian team. So if you look at us this way I would say no. I want to be polite, I don’t want to sound cocky. We are a small city, we are a small country and we always have to be better than anybody else in order to achieve good results. And we want good results.
It’s theoretical, I don’t know if that would be the case, but always theoretical you think that if we were in a bigger market with the same percentage of fans, we could be much bigger. But again we are what we are and where we are and we understand this. This is something you can’t change.
Do you feel that you are Lithuania’s team?
Of course, we do the surveys, we know our advantages, and we organize shuttles from different cities to come and watch EuroLeague games. This is what we have put on our agenda more than six, seven years ago and this is what we’re working for. So we’re not here to create rivalries inside Lithuania, we are here to compete with European teams.
Do you think that, because you are having record budgets for the last few years, this trend will continue and go upwards?
Again it’s depending on if we have another crisis, if you know everything goes according to the plan but again it should go up, but it’s not going to be significantly different. I think we can expect a 10% increase in a couple of years, step by step, but not a 100% increase, I would not expect that.
Do you think that this is now the new era of the EuroLeague where in order to be competitive your budget floor can’t be less than 8, 9, 10 million euros?
In our case, we say it’s not only about the money. Obviously, we have to have a strong organization in order to be competitive, you have to invest. But I always say it’s not only about the salaries, it’s not only about the money, but it’s also about character.
We have this Lithuanian character or national character that we drive on and we hope to continue on that. Other teams have different mentalities but I think there’s always space for that Cinderella story or always space for that somebody who has a different view because not everybody can win the jackpot and expect to sign anyone no matter how expensive they are.
We have to adjust and we have to go that way.
Were on-court results this season a surprise also for you?
I always expect the maximum as a GM. You have to trust the team, I trust the team, I sign the guys, I put them on the paper, I put the coach there and every season I go, expecting that this year we’re going to work for sure.
I know it sounds stupid but that’s how you look at it and we never talk about it even publicly but we go step by step, each game is the most important one and you don’t expect or dream about something else. I would say again, I kept telling everyone I wanted the team to be competitive till the very end of the playoffs. That’s what happened, we made the playoffs and again I wanted us to be more competitive in the top eight, obviously. I wanted at least one win no matter if the opponent was Barcelona or anybody else.
Losing talents to the NBA and the way to produce more
There’s a lot of talk about young talents in Europe. If they are too good they go straight to the NBA and then the talent pool suddenly strings to a level that was unprecedented in recent years. Do you agree with this approach?
Yes, the NBA is doing it now, the NCAA is doing all those things to get young guys, and so on and so on. There are so many things there. They have good conditions and they don’t care about the sporting result. Here in Europe, I always have this problem and we say “ok, we want young players”, but then you go to the coach and you say “Why are you not using this player”. I understand the coach, because people, and even me, we can fire him if there are no sporting results. As a coach and as a manager you don’t get this two or three-year “lifespan”, saying” Okay, no matter how you could play, you will bring up the young talents”. So I think that’s where we are different a lot from the US.
They also have good financial resources for young players, even better than we can get, so it’s a huge, huge competition and I would say it’s a big threat for us in the EuroLeague.
Do you feel there can be a solution to that? A junior league that’s stronger? Maybe using more young players in the domestic leagues and having a second different roster? Can there be a compromise that can really help or this is a losing battle because of the assets that the NBA and the NCAA have?
For me, if you look from the NBA side, I understand them but we still had so many good talents that they took from us. So I don’t see a problem letting us do the job that we were doing as Europeans, growing players like Luca Doncic.
I think that there could be a solution but we need to sit down and talk about the product of the game. Not see who does it better, because I think we value talent more as Europeans simply because we don’t have so many players of that level.
In the US, they have a lot of players and if you have one out of 100, it’s ok. Here, we have to have one out of the five who can play, so we care about them more. As for solutions, obviously, second teams can be used. I think we don’t have in Europe the teams who would say we will just grow young players, no matter the results. Misko (ed. note: Raznatovic, agent of Nikola Jokic) has a team where he’s developing players, Mega, and that’s one. Tell me another one… maybe in Italy, “Stella Azzurra” on a different level.
However, where are the teams which will play in the EuroCup and constantly be competing with young guys? We don’t have this mentality and I think that’s something that could be valuable. But in that case, what I’m saying is that we have to have some kind of deal, there has to be some financial income after the players go. Because right now we can have a player for three years and he leaves and that’s it, you don’t have anything.
Do you believe that this can be a key for a potential between the EuroLeague, FIBA, and the NBA?
This is what we talked about many times. I was never in the discussions room, but for me, it looks logical and we always say this. We care about basketball and we need to make basketball better worldwide not just in Europe. So we should all sit down and discuss.
Ok, we know who’s the driver, who has the most revenues and most potential but we all have a role to play and the duty to do it and if we can agree on who does what and collaborate together I think would be better for basketball.
Expansion and Dubai
What’s your view on the potential expansion of the Euroleague?
Again I think it’s inevitable. I think we will get there, the problem is now the calendar which we keep talking about, and also the national competition which we also are talking about.
Right now we are playing 90 games during the season. This is not the first season this happens, the coaching staff and everybody else is adjusting to having these different practices, to prevent injuries but still, we see that there are a lot of games.
We have to find balance. Business-wise I’ll say “Hey, let’s go expand” but if you look at the players, at the coaches, even at the fans… You have so many games, one day it’s the EuroLeague, then the next day it’s a local league, so we need to expand because we have a great great product. but we need to also see how not to hurt each other and help the players and the fans, cause we are doing it for them.
It has to be something that you don’t see four times a week because that will be not interesting.
We have seen Grand Canaria having second thoughts about competing with the EuroLeaague due to its geographical position. Taking into account this aspect, do you feel that the expansion should be centered in Western Europe or the opportunity of Dubai is something that can’t be overlooked?
Like I said many times, I liked it when we had the trip to Dubai. They showed the arena, and we saw who is behind the project and it looks normal, stable, and looks like it has potential. So we have to analyze it and we are analyzing it.
If you fly charter for us is just a couple of extra couple hours so I don’t see a problem going to Dubai because they have a great facility, they have great accommodations, they will take great care of the teams, so there are many advantages and to say no to them because you have to spend two extra hours back and forth on the plane, it doesn’t sound like a reasonable argument for me.
The “new normal”
Do you feel better after two years of turbulence inside the EuroLeague because of the change of management now things are back to normal?
They are not back to normal and they will never be and I want a new normal!
I want us to improve and we need to improve. What I really feel is that we as clubs are getting more involved and what is better now is that we are communicating much better between ourselves and this is key.
All 13 of us need to stay united and we need to understand what kind of product we have and we all agree that we have a great product. We need to improve so I keep we’ve been improving but there’s still so much we can do and and so many things we can do better.
So I think this new normal is coming and we should focus on that.
You said that clubs should communicate better. Do you think that until recently the main problem of the EuroLeague was that the clubs themselves didn’t communicate a lot?
It’s a sports team’s business, we are still competitors with each other, we all want to win and we all want to show that we are better. I don’t know the NBA from the inside from what I see, they are more business structured, helping each other, and then when you have those rules that you’re helping each other, it’s easier.
In EuroLeague, we are still working on that and this competitiveness comes out. So I wouldn’t say we don’t communicate, I would say we do communicate but we can have more open discussions and sometimes like I say agree to disagree but be able to sacrifice something for the common goals of the league. I love this league, I think we have a great, great product and I really care for us to grow we all have to have the same mentality but sometimes we mostly focus on winning.
It’s completely normal to have this mentality, so I think winning plus making the league so much better and everybody’s stronger. it creates a better product for the fans and this is the key.