In this exclusive interview for CorD, the top man of basketball’s EuroLeague – Jordi Bertomeu, president, chairman, and CEO of the EuroLeague Basketball Company – talks about the Final Four tournament, which is to be held in Belgrade in May, the 18th birthday of the organization he heads, expansion plans, the Euro Cup, relations with FIBA, the World Basketball Federation, and much more
Serbia was, and remains, a force in world basketball. It owes that to the incredible number of personalities it has given the world of basketball, from executives and referees, via coaches to players. Borislav Stanković was a unique and inimitable manager. He envisaged the future and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude for the fact that basketball is today one of the world’s leading sports. The fact that he is no longer on the front line is a loss for FIBA and for basketball.
The ‘Final Four’ tournament, which will be played in Belgrade from 18th to 20th May, represents a red-letter event in the basketball calendar. How did Belgrade receive the honour of staging this event and what do you expect from the competition in the Serbian capital?
– The ‘Final Four’ is evidently an event on the panorama of the world. And when it comes to basketball, it is inevitable to think about the Balkan region and Serbia. Many great players in basketball history have come from there, and even today it is the biggest cradle of talent. There has long been mutual interest in the “Final Four” being held in Belgrade, and the conditions have now been met for that to happen. The city, along with the president of the state, showed absolute competence with the organisation of events of this scope at the highest level, and I’m sure this will be shown in practise. What will make this “Final Four” different from the others is basketball’s past. It is enough to visit Kalemegdan to understand that basketball is not an ordinary sport here.
What kind of relationship do you have with Serbian basketball, through clubs or personalities that you’ve met, especially Mr Borislav Stanković. Was it easier to negotiate with him while he headed FIBA?
– Serbia was, and remains, a force in world basketball. It owes that to the incredible number of personalities it has given the world of basketball, from executives and referees, via coaches to players. Borislav Stanković was undoubtedly a unique and inimitable manager. I see that in the function of the global effect caused by his vision of the development of our sport, and in that sense I don’t see anyone in Europe who can compare with him. He envisaged the future and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude for the fact that basketball is today one of the world’s leading sports. Modern basketball has changed, but I don’t doubt that he would adapt it even today, and even predict and encourage changes. The respect and admiration I have towards him is not in conflict with the fact that we had different opinions or different visions in some situations. There were conflicts, but that’s at an anecdotal level if we assess the scope. The fact that he is no longer on the front line is a loss for FIBA and for basketball.
The EuroLeague is 18 years old. Are you satisfied with what has been achieved in that period? What are the greatest achievements; what wasn’t achieved or didn’t succeed?
– Yes, we are satisfied with what we’ve achieved so far, though we can’t say that it’s enough. Our obligation is to continue working to ensure that we lead our competition, and basketball in general, to the highest possible heights. It was 18 years ago that the EuroLeague was created with a clear idea: to create an authentic European league in which the best European clubs regularly compete against each other. If at that moment the environment wasn’t mature enough for that, throughout the years the model developed with the idea of the changes bringing more games and higher quality. It was with this goal that we created a five-game playoff, then later a “Top 16” with two groups of eight teams each. A definitive change came in 2016, with the formation of a league of 16 clubs. This sparked the interest of spectators as never before in Europe, which only confirmed the theory we have always believed: you always need to work with fans at the centre of interest, offering them the highest possible quality of product. On the other hand, the EuroCup and the junior “Next Generation Tournament” have also grown and today enjoy great respect. We are satisfied with all of this, but we do not enjoy complacency. Ever since the creation of the EuroLeague in 2000, every time we’ve decided on a change we’ve simultaneously begun thinking about the next step. We cannot “sleep” in such a changeable environment, and that’s also how it will be in the future.
Nobody questions the sporting level of the competition, but there are many voices talking about “financial failure”, noting that the planned goals have not been achieved and that clubs receive less money than expected. What is the scope of EuroLeague’s operations and how much revenue is generated from TV rights?
– It is inevitable that there are always ill-intentioned people, especially when EuroLeague continues to grow and no important. What matters is what the clubs value. Last year we signed the most important contract in the history of European basketball, with giant company IMG. This is a company that believes in us and guarantees a great investment in the League for the next 10 years. Club revenues have increased by almost 50 per cent in just a year. On the other side, the value of television contracts has also increased a lot, in some cases two or even threefold, and that has happened on some of our most important markets. There are more and more leading top-level companies that believe in us and invest in the League as sponsors. It should be clarified that leagues don’t exist to bring money to clubs, or at least not only for that reason. They are there to launch joint projects, to increase the value of the “brand” of the clubs and the league itself, to create an adequate environment so that a club can increase its revenues. From this point, clubs are responsible for activating the value of their own “brand” and creating conditions for new sponsorships, increasing ticket sales, licenses etc. In any case, one cannot expect any club to be satisfied with what they get, that would be negative. It is good that clubs help to make the league better, while that it is also our job that we are working on.
There are still occasional references to “EuroLeague ULEB”. What is the relationship with ULEB and who are the owners of the EuroLeague?
– Yes, this is a common point of confusion in many countries. ULEB is the union of European professional leagues (and EuroLeague is an association of clubs). ULEB is a shareholder in EuroLeague, as are some national leagues, but the major shareholders are our clubs.
Many believe that Jordi Bertomeu decides everything, and that everything depends on him. What kind of decision-making system does the EuroLeague have?
– That’s another very common mistake. “Euro- League Basketball” and “EuroLeague Properties” are two companies that run the competition and the commercial rights of the clubs. We only execute the decisions of the owners, or clubs. It is very important to clarify this. All decisions, from the first to the last, are made by the clubs, and we are just their extended arm that implements those decisions and responds to clubs. On the other hand, I understand that my presence in the basketball public influences the opinion that I decide, but that’s not the case.
What are EuroLeague’s plans for the shorter and longer term? It is considered that increasing the number of clubs to 18 is already a done deal, with 20 mentioned in the future. Will there be room in the schedule for so many matches?
– We have many plans for the future, all of which were determined a year ago at the meetings meeting of the owners of the clubs and of the shareholders. There is lots of talk about a possible expansion of the league, but that’s just a piece of cake. The main goal is to offer viewers the highest possible quality of games, which will bring new opportunities to the clubs. We have started, with the help of IMG, many projects aimed at attracting even more spectators, especially among young people, and at offering a high-quality product to TVs, sponsors and all partners. If a league of 18 clubs allows us to achieve this, that’s what it will be, but only if we are certain that our product will be (even) better. Logically, increasing the number of clubs requires an increase in the number of matches, but that will only impact on the clubs that will decide on this, i.e. EuroLeague clubs. I would like to point out that, contrary to the claims of many, we don’t plan to play our games on weekends, because that would mean “invading” the territory of national leagues. That should be very clear to everyone.
This season saw more players experience more severe injuries. Does that have anything to do with the calendar, the number of games and, consequently, fatigue among the players?
– That might be related, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. None of the data we have indicates an alarming increase in the number of injuries compared to the previous seasons. There is no doubt that the players are at the centre of attention, and if they are injured or not fit enough that’s no good for anyone. We’ve had several discussions with clubs on the topic of preparation conditions, travel and player recovery, and we expect these conditions to be improved constantly. On the other hand, we believe it is very important that players have five or six weeks of guaranteed rest. We’ve proposed this many times, but cooperation of other organisations, such as FIBA or national leagues, are necessary for something like this. Unfortunately, our proposals have not been accepted to date, but we continue to insist, because we consider this issue as being very important.
An unavoidable question is the one regarding your relations with FIBA and the conflict over the calendar. Is there a solution?
– Of course there is, but it should be activated by FIBA, which launched the new calendar despite the opposition of clubs, leagues, players and coaches in Europe. It is a system that results in the world’s best players in the world’s most important leagues not being able to play for their national teams. If we again place the spectators at the centre of our attention, it is clear that the expected quality is not being offered. All the proposals we have made, and to date there have been five, they been along the lines of ensuring that all players are available to national team selectors. The latest proposal includes six further changes that we believe are important for the further development of basketball in Europe, both at the national and international levels. Here I’m referring to the structure of international league, players’ holidays, conditions for participation in the national team, insurance as a guarantee for clubs etc. None of this has even been evaluated to date, let alone accepted. In representing clubs, we have done everything that is in our hands, but FIBA should address this issue with the seriousness it deserves and make decisions.
Will EuroLeague play its matches in the “FIBA” windows next season?
– We don’t believe it’s acceptable to punish clubs and players because of FIBA’s decision to organise matches in dates that it knew would collide with the main European leagues. Even if we had accepted the calendar, the problem would not be solved, because a large number of players (from the NBA) are left unavailable to national teams. We are ready to talk and accept every option that allows all players to participate, but not a solution that obliges some and not others. That would be a patchwork that would leave the main problem without a solution. I don’t believe anybody can imagine Spain’s national team without Pau Gasol, or France without Tony Parker, just as nobody imagines the Argentina football team without Lionel Messi. It doesn’t make sense; in that way we cheat the fans.
The Balkan region, represented through the Adriatic League, has over the past 18 years fallen from three guaranteed teams to one – the champion of the regional league. Is there a possibility for the region to gain another team in the EuroLeague?
– Reducing the EuroLeague to 16 clubs has made it difficult to get a place, not only for clubs from the Balkans, but for all of them. I don’t believe that, in the short term, it will be possible for the clubs of the Adriatic League to get a second place. In the future, everything will go through the EuroCup, which will provide a greater number of clubs with the chance to qualify for the EuroLeague.
How satisfied are you with the EuroCup?
– Yes, we are satisfied, but we are still a long way from what we want. The EuroCup is a high-quality competition, comparable in the final stages to the EuroLeague. As is often the case with many poorly ranked “other competitions”, it is much more difficult to unify all conditions like is done for competition in the EuroLeague, but we’ve been working for several years on raising the level and applying some things in the EuroCup that have proved useful in the EuroLeague. We last year decided to centralise the TV rights, which is now being led by IMG, and we see a very positive evolution and higher revenue for clubs.
In the future, as I said, the EuroCup will give a larger number of clubs the right to qualify for the EuroLeague, but I cannot discuss specific details, as no decision has been made as yet on specific details.