|The best club competition played under international rules returns to the global stage on Monday, October 17, in the shining new Zalgirio Arena in Kaunas, Lithuania, one of the most devoted cities in the world to the sport of basketball. The latest edition of a 65-year-old rivalry between Zalgiris and visiting CSKA Moscow will light a spark that guarantees seven months' worth of fireworks until a continental champion is crowned to great fanfare next May in Istanbul, Turkey. As the 2011-12 Turkish Airlines Euroleague gets ready to tip off, Euroleague.net spoke with Jordi Bertomeu, the President and CEO of Euroleague Basketball, about the challenges facing the competition now and in the future. "Fans new and old can expect to see great basketball, first and foremost," Bertomeu said. "The way our competition is structured, with almost no games that do not impact the standings in some way, the teams are playing for survival from opening night. That competition structure, along with the skills of our players and the singular devotion of the fans themselves, generates the kind of intensity that we think makes the Turkish Airlines Euroleague unique."
Hello, Jordi. First of all, what can basketball fans around the world can expect here at the start of a new Turkish Airlines Euroleague season?
"Fans new and old can expect to see great basketball, first and foremost. The way our competition is structured, with almost no games that do not impact the standings in some way, the teams are playing for survival from opening night. That competition structure, along with the skills of our players and the singular devotion of the fans themselves, generates the kind of intensity that we think makes the Turkish Airlines Euroleague unique. At the same time, the international rules we play by make these games very interesting, strategically, at all times. I personally think that when you have zones and helping defenses challenging them, the offensive players have to become more creative, pass better and use their teammates more. That makes for spectacular team basketball, especially when you are talking about players with the very high talent and skill levels our players have."
The growth of this competition continues in several ways. You've mentioned the sporting ways, but what about in terms of global exposure and acceptance?
"Well, we can start by saying that every year more and more countries around the world want to watch Euroleague games. That number has reached to nearly 200 countries when we are talking about the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four, which is great for one special weekend. But we also saw nearly that many countries receive the Game of the Week last season when we debuted it. It goes without saying that our webpage, social media and traditional media coverage are now reaching everywhere, most recently getting big audiences in China. Technology helps this trend, of course, but to us what is most gratifying is that when traditional basketball fans as well as new fans get a look at us, they like what they see. We plan to make sure they continue to do so."
How does Euroleague Basketball plan to do that?
"First, we are working on enhancing the viewer experience for all those people who are either curious or already becoming devoted to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague, but live too far away to attend games. This season, we will be improving our internet TV platform by offering a higher quality product both in size and clarity, as well as English-language announcing that we hope to expand to other languages in the future. I mentioned the Game of the Week, and that returns for a second season with a consolidated production quality that showcases our clubs and players as well as possible. In the near future, we also hope to be able to say that our competition will guarantee more and more frequent games between the biggest clubs. So in these ways, we are always thinking about what our fans and potential fans will enjoy, while always taking into consideration the basketball integrity of the competition."
Despite the worldwide financial crisis, Euroleague Basketball has signed two major sponsors in back-to-back seasons. What do those partnerships mean for the growth of the competition?
"Euroleague Basketball has always followed the philosophy that the brands affiliated with us are more than sponsors; they are partners who are as committed to the sport as we are. With each agreement that we reach we try to incorporate our partners' brands at all levels of the competition. That has allowed us to maintain strong and faithful partners and has allowed the stability that the competition needed in order to grow. This is the fundamental mission that we have at Euroleague Basketball."
Looking at the imminent start of the new season, what is behind the instruction given recently to teams that referees will be more ready this season to penalize excessive complaining on the court?
"Our sport has always been about sportsmanship and respect on and off the court. We have noticed in recent seasons that some players are arguing clear calls made by referees time and time again. Do our referees make mistakes? Of course they do, just like players, coaches, managers, scouts and any other collective that exists in our sport. As a high-speed game with lots of people in a small space a small push or hold can make a huge difference at any moment. If you look at replays - which our regulations only permit the referees to do in very few situations - they are right the majority of the time, even on the most controversial plays. The very demonstrative complaints we see from some players is quite simply not warranted. Their actions create a distorted image for the fans that the referees are often wrong. On the court, there has to be respect between all participants. Just as we would not allow our referees to laugh at a player who misses an open shot, we do not want players constantly complaining to the referees as we have seen lately. The NBA did something very similar last season to improve the behavior towards the referees and a couple of weeks into the season everyone adjusted, and their game has improved as a result. All of our fans come to the arena and tune in to watch basketball, not to see players or coaches complain."
Speaking of the NBA, what is your opinion of NBA players coming to play in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague during the lockout?
"First, it is important to say that not having the NBA active is bad for basketball overall. When a major force in the basketball market player is not active, it affects the whole industry. We hope that the NBA is able to resolve the situation as soon as possible so that the whole market goes back to normal. I would add that we have always had players who sign temporary contracts with teams, whether as short-term tryouts or to fill in for injured players. In other words, players who are more likely to leave than stay. In this case, there are some well-known players who in some cases are sure to leave eventually: we just don't know when. Teams that have decided to sign players knowing they are likely to leave understand the risks, both good and bad. The good one is that such a player will help win games while he's here. The bad one is that team chemistry will be difficult to maintain when a player leaves. I would also add that a number of these players became stars in Europe and played before on the same Euroleague teams they have joined now. Their readiness to rejoin those teams and compete in our league is a clear sign of respect for the quality of our clubs and of the brand of basketball played in the Euroleague."
What challenges do you see on the horizon for Euroleague Basketball?
"We are never satisfied with the status quo. We are always seeking to improve and offer our fans a better Euroleague experience. This means that we will always face challenges, but we will only take those steps needed when we feel that the clubs and our partners are ready to take them. I don't want to get too far ahead of the news, but I can say that we are looking into new possibilities of making the competition more accessible for fans, offering more games with interesting matchups. This is going to be a fundamental key to the growth of the competition in the near future."