Too Much Change in Sport: The Case of Basketball

Over the years, Basketball has turned itself into a global phenomenon. Is it time to take it that one step further?

Matteo Portoghese

Over the years, Basketball has turned itself into a global phenomenon. Is it time to take it that one step further?


In modern day sports, federations and authorities do not fear change. Although tradition is still regarded as important, rules and championships formulas are often put under review and adjusted. Reasons are often related to the TV networks’ needs and asks, or they simply want to shape a product, easier to be sold to a wider audience.

But there is always a fine line between flexibility and indifference to history. In the 21st Century, several sports have decided to abolish competitions whose story dated back to the 19th Century, simply because they were considered useless by coaches or too old to the International public. The British Home Championship in football, the Ashes in rugby league, or the FIRA Tournament in rugby union to name a few.

Sports authorities often tend to suppress things instead of adapting them. For example basketball in the past has been very active in changing and modernising tournaments to create a better product. A limited-contact sport played on a rectangular court, it was created by the Canadian physical educator, physician, chaplain, sports coach and innovator James Naismith, who wrote the original rule book and launched its first University program. Originally played with a soccer ball, basketball is currently ranked in the Top 10 List of the World’s Most Popular Sports and is played worldwide, though still struggling in Commonwealth countries.

European basketball ©Matteo Portoghese

Invented and developed in the US, the game expanded to Europe and other continents, with FIBA (International Basketball Federation) being formed in 1932 by eight founding nations: Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland. Things kept evolving and there has always been a gap between how the game was played in America and how it was played in other areas. This gap was was bigger than the one between European and South American football, rugby union and cricket in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. The National Basketball Association (NBA) and the previous professional leagues developed a game whose style and gameplay grew somehow different than the FIBA one. Differentiation included not only gameplay rules (e.g.: Shot clock, game duration, referees’ attitude towards the traveling rule, etc.) but also the way club seasons were organized, and their schedule. Due to amateur and local games mostly depending on High School and College Sports, Northern American sports never appreciated promotion and relegation, while Europe and South America kept the heartland and local teams system, with regional linked to national leagues and teams transferred between multiple divisions based on their performance for the completed season. Rules of the game become unique and coherent in non-USA tournament, while college and professional leagues in the States kept their system closed to innovations from abroad. As they call World Series the series for their National title in professional Major League Baseball, they sometimes chose to call World Champions the NBA Finals winning team as well, regardless of the winner of the European Cup and the Campeonato Sudamericano de Clubes/ FIBA Americas. Championships in Europe kept P/R, and continental cup competitions looked like their football equivalent.

European basketball ©Matteo Portoghese

In addition to this, the similarities between basketball and football in Europe included teams being often linked to multi sports club (PBC CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Maccabi Tel Aviv B.C., Panathinaikos B.C., Olympiacos B.C. dominated European Champions Cup together with proper basketball club like the Italian and Yugoslav giants). A European campaign after a National title become routine for big guns like Olimpia Milano or Ignis Varese, while the basketball played on the other side of the Atlantic remained the most viewed and loved by fans all over the world. American players became used to ending their careers in Europe, with the likes of Bob McAdoo, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin, Darryl Dawkins, Artis Gilmore, etc. all enjoying their basketball in Italy, Greece, etc.

European basketball ©Matteo Portoghese

But relationships and exchanges between the two sides of the Atlantic grew year after year, with a two-way connection made of coaches and players’ movement few sport can claim. This is the scenario that inspired FIBA, National and private authorities in building an NBA-looking basketball league in Europe. The aim was to maintain stability and push the big clubs from big metropolitan areas (Milan, Berlin. Madrid, Barcelona, Athens, Istanbul,, etc.): EuroLeague now operates under a league system. What have these teams become? A cross between a club and a franchise, I would say: they keep on playing in their local (national) championship but are guaranteed a place in a season-long continental championship: the regular season features a single group with a double round-robin, with he maximum number of games per team increased from 31 (old format) to 37. For instance, If you are Real Madrid or Barcelona you could have to add 37 European matches to a total of 32 Liga ACB games and playoff. The result is very similar to the NBA’s 82 games (41 each home and away) regular season.

Despite strategic plans and the sport’s ability to handle change, club and international basketball first-hand experienced how hard developing and flourishing a non P/R model in Europe can be. As a matter of fact, the 2015–17 FIBA–Euroleague controversy over the control of the premier European-wide professional competition, the threats of suspension of 14 national teams, together with the duplication of continental cups (qualification to the Basketball Champions League is based on sporting merits, famous teams like Lietuvos rytas, Košarkaški klub Partizan, Alba Berlin and Bayern Munich competes in the EuroCup, while FIBA Europe Cup is FIBA’s 2nd level competition) and trophies is creating confusions among fans regarding who plays who and why. Partizan currently competes in the Adriatic League (a private venture, founded in 2001), European basketball and the Serbian league. And of course, it goes without saying that P/R and franchise system do not work very well together (see The Rugby Football Union, who opened to the possibility of getting rid of promotion and relegation in the Premiership).

Basketball is a truly global sport trying to achieve the impossible. But suspension of disbelief could help: leaving aside all the above issues, it can be a great entertaining game. Fixtures like San Antonio v Golden State Warriors, or Fenerbahçe v Olympiacos here in Europe highlight this fact. It would be great if we could have the best teams playing each other for a real and meaningful World Club title.

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