On the occasion of the start of its 20th season managing the continent's top club competitions, Jordi Bertomeu, Euroleague Basketball's President and CEO, talks about the journey that has led to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and the 7DAYS EuroCup gaining worldwide recognition, and the challenges ahead to grow both and reach even more fans.
As the 20th season of the modern EuroLeague begins and you look back, what have been the key turning points to transform the EuroLeague into what it is today?
"It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed already, but it is a reason for satisfaction to see that the clubs managed to transform their vision into reality. After 20 years, there is no question that the EuroLeague is a solid project and has positioned itself within the top sports properties in the world. According to SportsBusiness, we are the second fastest-growing sports property on the market, which also proves the potential this league still has.
"After 20 years, there is no question that the EuroLeague is a solid project."
"The most crucial challenge we had at the beginning was to create a league culture amongst the participating teams, which was something that never existed in European sports at an international level. Understanding that everyone was a small part of a bigger project, that the group was always more important than the individual, and that competition should transform into partnership as soon as players step off the court. Luckily, we succeeded in this and that success has been the cornerstone of the league's growth in these two decades.
"After that, we kept taking steps towards our collective vision, but the most important move we probably did was the creation of the so-called true league three years ago, one in which every team faces every other team in a round robin system which, together with our commercial partnership with IMG, has taken this property to another level.
"Now it is time to build on that, to make it even better, and to bring this amazing product closer to our fans, while making it appealing to new and younger audiences as well.
"And it is also time for a little celebration, to blow out the 20-seasons candle and look back at our history and those that have made it great. We will be seeing some things this season that will recognize and honor this history."
Among the new developments this season are expansion with two new licenses, of course, and the new licensing criteria for 2020-21 and onwards. Can you explain why these changes were applied?
"These two changes, while they coincided in time, respond to different objectives.
"On the one hand, the expansion of two new licenses responds to the need to have a strong and stable presence in two key European markets, France and Germany. LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne and FC Bayern Munich have proven to be two projects that match the EuroLeague philosophy on and off the court, and these two-year licenses should serve as a test for both the league and the clubs before hopefully moving to a long-term license. LDLC ASVEL has an ambitious ownership led by Tony Parker and Olympique Lyonnaise, while FC Bayern Munich, in its relatively short existence, has arguably established itself amongst the best clubs in Europe.
"The allocation of licenses will go through some modifications, as well, highlighted by the widened window for EuroCup teams to qualify. Instead of the champion only, both EuroCup finalists will now qualify to the EuroLeague the next season. Additionally, those EuroCup teams that qualify will be given a chance to stay in the EuroLeague beyond one season, according to their performance, which also corrects a weakness we had over the last years.
"Finally, the substitution of the spots allocated to domestic leagues by annual wild cards will help us ensure that any candidates to join the league meet the necessary standards to do so."
Are there any plans for new expansions or changes in the competition in the near future?
"I believe we have found the right system of play with the round-robin regular season that we deployed three seasons ago. Numbers prove that this is what fans want to see – continuous action and extended rivalries between the top clubs and players. So, this is one element that we are not planning to change and will definitely stay in the future.
"Any changes in the competition will probably come from a territorial expansion, but not necessarily from increasing the number of licenses. It is too early to mention any details, as these have not been agreed amongst the clubs, but there is a general understanding on the fact that to take this league to the next level we need to work hard on strengthening its stability and growing the teams' revenues and value. I have repeatedly stated that my vision is to have a league with 16 stable licenses that allow us to grow the product collectively, plus two additional licenses allocated to the EuroCup through a promotion/relegation system that allow ambitious and solid projects to find their path to the elite."
"Our clubs are continuously working collectively and individually to offer the fans, no matter where they are, an even better experience."
Is the UK still in the plans for Euroleague Basketball?
"Yes, it has always been, and it still is. Back in 2000, the London Towers was part of the league, which shows our ambition to be in the UK was there from the very beginning. At that time neither the league nor the team were ready to marry, but now we are in a much more advanced and mature situation and there are a lot of opportunities that can be unlocked through establishing a team in the UK, both for the league and for any potential team.
"We keep on making slow but safe steps to have a team there in the near future, but it is a complex operation that requires the alignment of many factors to ensure its success.
"The UK remains a market ready to welcome a EuroLeague team. Participation levels in basketball rising even higher than in other UK traditional sports. There are large expat communities from big basketball markets. And there are lots of opportunities for a team to succeed on and off the court. But we need to take it step by step; first, identifying the right project and the right investment; and then, setting up a plan to progressively help any potential team to create a project with solid roots in the society while developing a social basis to support a professional team."
Last season was probably the most exciting ever, according to many experts. What do you expect from the season that is about to start?
"I expect it to be even better, from start to finish! The teams are loaded with incredible talent in their rosters, which guarantees a great spectacle on the parquet.
"Beyond that, our clubs are continuously working collectively and individually to offer the fans, no matter where they are, an even better experience to match the high-level quality on the court. "When it comes to the fans, we acknowledge that it is never enough, and we are constantly challenging ourselves in the way we do things and how we could do them better.
"This season we will unveil a number of collective initiatives that will try to improve the experience of the fan well beyond what happens on the court. We want to provide a second-to-none experience to all fans from the moment they leave their homes until they go back to them after the games. One example is the Code of Conduct that will be mandatory for every individual in all EB arenas. That will be followed by other measures, like a new set of arena standards to which the clubs will need to adhere and progressively comply with in the coming years."
We touched on the EuroCup. What should fans expect from that competition this season?
"The EuroCup is a tremendously exciting competition with enormous quality on the court. Year after year, it has proven to be gaining attractiveness amongst the fans, and from the league office we are promoting similar quality standards to those in the EuroLeague.
"This season, with the return of Greek and Israeli clubs to the league, it will be even stronger.
And with the addition of a second spot to qualify to the EuroLeague, I believe that competition will be fiercer than ever!"
Off the court, the league office has put a lot of emphasis in strengthening the stability of the clubs and the competitiveness amongst them. Could you please explain what these efforts consist of?
"Besides the league's regular commercial activity, it is also our duty to establish a framework that guarantees fair competition amongst the teams, while also boosting the group to grow their individual performance. These are the two most important pillars when we talk about keeping competitive fairness and balance while also strengthening the league's sustainability and that of its members.
"During the last season, we worked with both the clubs and external advisors to identify the most important factors that may create unbalanced business opportunities in different territories. The conclusion of this work was that whilst it is evident that there are important differences between the taxation regulations that exist in different markets, the market conditions and the potential opportunities that these create for clubs to generate resources tend to compensate those differences. In a nutshell, markets with high tax levels normally offer better conditions to develop the business and vice-versa. Therefore, it was concluded that the real factor that may affect the balance of the competition was the so-called shareholder contributions, or those revenues that are not directly generated by the market, and it was agreed to take action and establish strict rules in this regard. The clubs decided to progressively decrease the allowed shareholders contribution over the next years with the objective of taking it down from 65% to a maximum of 40% in the 2022-23 season with sanctions, similar to the North American "luxury taxes", that range from 10% to 180% of the overspend. Those sanctions would then be distributed amongst the compliant teams.
"On the other side, we firmly believe it is equally important to proactively work at helping the clubs grow their market revenues. That is why we created EuroLeague BOCS (Business Operations and Club Services), which is a unit that is exclusively devoted to share information amongst the clubs, research best practices in the world of sports and entertainment applicable to the EuroLeague, and develop league-wide and individual plans to grow the business in every vertical. After two years, EuroLeague BOCS is now intensifying its activity and all clubs have embraced it as an opportunity to take their business performance to the next level."
In just one season, we have seen players, coaches and referees form their own unions and start talks with the league. What are, in your view, the reasons for this?
"We celebrate the creation of ELPA, ELHCB and UEBO greatly, as we are certain these bodies will help us build a stronger EuroLeague."
"The league has reached levels of maturity and complexity that require having clear and formal communication channels with all its stakeholders. While this was clearly established with the clubs, a counterpart serving other key pieces of the business was non-existent.
"Over the last years, the league has been very demanding with all its stakeholders to deliver the product that we have today, but to keep on evolving and improving we need to ensure we do that in a unified way and that all actors are aligned in the overall objectives while we ensure the best working conditions for everyone involved.
"We celebrate the creation of ELPA, ELHCB and UEBO greatly, as we are certain these bodies will help us build a stronger EuroLeague."
Off the court again, there is strong world-wide trend of people being much more demanding with organizations in terms of their contributions to society. What are the EuroLeague plans in this regard?
"We acknowledge that with our growth in popularity comes a greater responsibility in inspiring others. Our clubs acknowledge that, and they are in closer touch with the challenges of their communities. Our players and coaches definitely acknowledge it, too, and are more and more demanding with us, the clubs and the leagues, to make use of them to make an impact in their communities.
"We have our firm beliefs with regards to a number of topics that in our view are important to make social progress, and we will continue to use our voice to express that, but we are focused on understanding where we are strong and well positioned to make an impact.
"When it comes to community, we are mainly focusing our efforts in two areas. First, our One Team program, founded in 2012, where we use one common methodology across the board, by all 40 clubs, applied to the particular needs of every community. The One Team program is directed to people at risk of exclusion and teaches life values through the sport of basketball, values that can be applied in their lives and hopefully improve them. With the help of the clubs and the players, the program has already reached more than 16,000 participants.
"Second, last year we launched the EuroLeague Academy. Starting in four countries (Spain, Israel, Turkey and Greece), the EuroLeague Academy promotes participation amongst the youngest, creating healthy competition and instilling in the kinds the values of the sport in general and basketball in particular. After a successful first season, now we are looking at expanding the program to another three or four markets, with more than 7,000 children participating."
You mentioned wanting to attract new and younger audiences. How do you plan to do that in such a crowded marketplace?
"This fan-first culture is very much imprinted in our way of doing things."
"I don't think we have a secret recipe for that, or that anyone else has one. In my view, it is just a matter of the effort you put into that, of how hard you try to understand what the fans want, truly putting yourself in their shoes, experiencing what they experience, listening and, of course, being agile enough to adapt yourself to that demand, which many times is the toughest part.
"This fan-first culture is very much imprinted in our way of doing things.
"We are in a very lucky position because our fans have a younger profile that in most other sports, and have higher education levels, as well. But it is now our duty to find the best ways to talk to them, present them with content that is engaging, and attract them to the sport.
"Obviously, technology plays a key role here and that's why we are strengthening our efforts in identifying the most advanced technologies that allow us to do so. On the league side, two years ago we launched the EB Tech Challenge to identify emerging and cutting-edge technology that could be applied to professional basketball, and to boost the company's culture around tech. On the clubs' side, we are also developing several initiatives to promote a digital transformation process that allows clubs to be able to give answers to the current and future changing environment, mainly focused on investing in technology, knowledge and human resources.
"Beyond the technology, which obviously is important, it is crucial to have a digital culture and the appropriate structure and knowledge to address the future challenges in sport."
The Final Four is heading to Cologne in 2020. The third one in Germany, which ranks second in the number of Final Fours awarded per country. What do you expect?
"We have always said that Germany is a strategic market for us, and it is also a growing market, especially in recent years. The Final Four is the giant showcase of our league, and it creates lots of impact in the territory where it is hosted. This is why we have already been to Germany two times, in Berlin, and are now going back for a third, although in a different city this time.
"But besides that, Germany is a very attractive country for our commercial partners, and the arena and the city of Cologne offer great possibilities.
"Also, it will be our first time in Cologne, and many of the Final Four attendees are very loyal and follow the event every year, wherever it goes, so offering these loyal fans a new destination was also an important factor for us when talking the decision.
"When you put all these ingredients together, the questions shouldn't be 'Why?', but rather, 'Why not?'"
What are the biggest challenges moving ahead?
"We are at a very interesting time at Euroleague Basketball, where we need to shape the future of the league. We are currently working on building our strategic plan for the next years.
"I believe that the most important challenges are to further reinforce the stability and sustainability of the league and to grow its value at all levels, also to grow our territorial footprint in key markets and expand our fan base, both amongst traditional audiences and new. All these objectives are very much interconnected, and I believe that we have already put very solid foundations to ensure we are ready to take on these challenges."