By Aris Barkas/ firstname.lastname@example.org
With the first 32-team FIBA World Cup completed and a massive tournament delivered to fans all over the world, FIBA has already made a bold step into the future. Basketball is growing at a fast pace, and the gigantic World Cup was just a preview of things to come.
Yes, the logistics of the tournament were hard to achieve, and since for the first time FIBA had to operate such an event, many hiccups – to put it mildly – appeared during the tournament. Most of them had to do simply with the fact of being in China, where speaking English is a rare commodity, and local habits (using smartphone apps to pay, call a taxi, or even order at a restaurant, while most western internet is blocked) are a constant headache for any visitor. Still, the bottom line is expected to be positive, especially on the commercial front.
While the US audience never really got involved in the World Cup, the rest of the basketball world was watching. The final has become the most-watched basketball game ever in Spain. The first numbers from all over the globe are ranging from encouraging to excellent, either in ratings or digital growth. The revenues were the ones expected and the result, a competition that can rival in popularity and interest the Olympic basketball tournament and even the FIFA World Cup, can be considered achievable in the not so far future.
That’s why a vast country like China was chosen for this biggest ever event organized by FIBA. China has the state of the art arenas that were ideal for the World Cup; it has the population to have full gyms – even if surprisingly that was not the case in the quarterfinals at Dongguan – and also the desire to host the event. Even with the Chinese national team not making it past the first round, the local fans embraced the competition. Both the ticket sales and also the television ratings of the games not featuring China were great. Basketball is big in China, and FIBA has already established a regional office in Beijing.
It’s an essential part of the FIBA’s mission. It’s not easy for other continents to accept, but FIBA has the chance to grow the sport in countries and markets which are emerging, mainly in Asia and Africa. That’s the point of a 32-team tournament, that’s why the format will not change, and that’s why everyone was disappointed by the performance of African and Asian teams in the competition. FIBA provided the field, but all Asian and African teams couldn’t even make it to the second round. The “real” tournament started in the second round, and FIBA hopes that at least one or two teams from those two continents will be able to make it there in the next World Cup edition.
However, as FIBA secretary Andreas Zagklis said in his press conference, adjustments will be made.
Having the tournament stretched to eight venues with the teams which made it to the final round playing at least one game in four different cities, proved to be a big issue. Distances in China are vast, and traveling from one city to another can take up to eight hours while using a plane. Pretty much those are the hours spend by France which had to leave Dongguan the next morning after beating the USA by a bus and drive almost two hours to make it to the nearest airport for their designated flight. Then they had to fly for three hours to Beijing and finally spend another two hours from the Beijing airport to the team hotel, due to the city’s traffic. And in the next day, France had to face Argentina in the semifinals, which had extra 24 hours of rest due to their schedule and a more manageable trip from Shanghai.
Teams didn’t have the time for any real practice during the World Cup since the recovery, and the rest of the players was much more critical. That’s not unusual in FIBA tournaments, but this time even shootarounds were canceled.
That’s why it’s already decided that things will be different in the next World Cup edition. In 2023, four first-round groups will be hosted in Manilla, Philippines, and their teams will never have to travel until the end of the tournament. Two first-round groups will also be held in Okinawa, Japan, and two more first-round groups in Jakarta, Indonesia. Using the same schedule with 2019, those teams will move only once, traveling to Manilla for the quarterfinals and having an extra day of rest. To be exact, the current FIBA World Cup schedule can be applied to just four cities with two groups using the same venue during the first and the second round.
The referees’ performance was another issue that FIBA faced. The fact that EuroLeague referees were banned from the tournament certainly didn’t help, but that’s a different story, and at least both FIBA secretary-general Andreas Zagklis and EuroLeague CEO Jordi Bertomeu said that talks between them might start sooner than later. In general, the referees raised many eyebrows; there were questionable decisions and strange selection of calls towards NBA players. The ejection of Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the faces of the tournament, in what ended being his last game in the World Cup with a debatable offensive foul was the prime example of that. At least FIBA in the case of Lithuania vs. France game took action. That didn’t change anything for Lithuania, but it’s the first time that FIBA made such a public move during a tournament. It’s an indication that things have changed and FIBA now listens and acts differently compared to the recent past.
And that brings us to the elephant in the room, the missing NBA players. David Stern said that the problem was putting the Word Cup practically on the same season with the Olympics and of course he understands the mentality of the NBA players. Zagklis stated that except for Canada and the USA, pretty much every NBA player called by other national federations was present in the World Cup. You can argue that Australia also missed some big names who withdrew without being injured – mainly Ben Simmons – but in general, he was right. And that’s a big challenge not only for national federations, as Zagklis said, but also for FIBA. How can FIBA tournaments become a priority for players and countries where is not that fashionable to play for the national team?
The schedule, the rest days, and the referees are comparably easy issues to tackle. Making the FIBA World Cup – or even the qualifying “windows” with the right changes – an event that NBA players don’t want to miss should be the next bet for FIBA and a valid pathway to make the World Cup as big as possible.
It’s easier said than done, and there’s no easy way to achieve it.
Still, things can change. The 2019 World Cup edition proved to be already the biggest and most successful FIBA tournament ever. When the reform plan of the global calendar was presented back in 2015 during the Eurobasket, and when the qualifiers started in 2017, everyone had high expectations and many questions. Ultimately, despite missing top NBA names from Team USA, the rest of the participants made things interesting, and as Kobe Bryant put it, they showcased that the “1992 days are over”.
There’s no going back after this World Cup in size, expectations, growth, and popularity. And things in global scale can only get better for basketball.