Basketball’s ruling body FIBA changed the format for which national teams will qualify for future FIBA Basketball World Cups starting with the 2019 spectacle and Olympics, introducing football-like qualifying periods over the course of two years while at the same time cutting continental championships such as EuroBasket to every four years instead of every two summers and making them non-qualifying events. And will the moves eventually lead to changes in the NBA and Euroleague and other leagues’ schedules?
The massive changes were announced at FIBA’s Central Board meeting in Kuala Kumpur, Malaysia and are a clear attempt to change the world basketball calendar and increase the importance of the FIBA Basketball World Cup. But the moves also leave many questions unexplained – the biggest of which how will the world’s biggest leagues such as the NBA and Euroleague/ULEB respond to international players asking their clubs for time off to play for their national teams. But more on that in a minute.
Here a rundown of the basics, as outlined by FIBA’s press release:
The key principles agreed for the new competition format and calendar for men from 2017 are the following:
• After the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, the next edition will be moved to 2019 (instead of 2018) and will be played every four years from then on. A total of 32 teams (increased from 24) will participate in FIBA’s flagship event.
• The qualification period for the FIBA Basketball World Cup will be held over the course of two years and consist of six windows which will be in November 2017, February 2018, June 2018, September 2018, November 2018 and February 2019. The exact period and length of these windows will be defined in the coming months in collaboration with all stakeholders. The national teams will be divided into two divisions – Division A and Division B – with groups of three or four teams in an open system with promotion and relegation. Games in the qualification period will be played in a home-and-away format.
• Asia and Oceania will play in a combined Asia-Pacific region to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, but universality will remain in place for the qualifying process to the Olympic Games.
• As of 2017, the continental championships will take place every four years (2017, 2021, 2025) with a similar system of qualification as for the FIBA Basketball World Cup and which will come into action after FIBA’s flagship event in 2019. The windows will follow the same principle as the qualifying process to the FIBA Basketball World Cup but will be adapted in the Olympic years (2020, 2024).
• The qualification for the 2020 Olympics will be through the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup and four Olympic Qualifying Tournaments to be held in four zones.
“Basketball needs to expand its reach and generate a new, dynamic stimulus for its growth. This can only happen if each country grows the game and plays regularly in front of its own fans,” said FIBA President Yvan Mainini.
“National teams are the locomotive of basketball in each country. We need to protect and enhance their role. At the same time, clubs invest daily into our sport and their investment also needs respect and protection,” added FIBA Secretary General and International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Patrick Baumann.
“Therefore, in each country, it is the joint responsibility of clubs, leagues and National Federations to cooperate for the success of the national championships and the national team in this new integrated system.”
First off, an easy one. Moving FIBA Oceania teams (in essence Australia and New Zealand) into Asia qualifiers only makes sense. It has been very successful in football and is an entirely acceptable move. New Zealanders can be happy as well since they now have a chance of reaching these championships since they have struggled for decades to overcome Australia’s dominance.
Moving the FIBA Basketball World Cup from 2018 to 2019 may be an inconvenience for fans looking for basketball during the summer. But it will undoubtedly increase the importance of the World Cup as it will serve more as a direct qualifier for the Olympics.
While the release did not say how many teams from the World Cup would qualify for the Olympics, the USA TODAY reported the following : “In an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports, FIBA communications director Patrick Koller said eight teams– seven from the 2019 World Cup plus the 2020 Olympic host nation – will qualify automatically for the 2020 Summer Games. Previously, only the world champion qualified for the Olympics at worlds, and the rest of Olympic participants (not including the Olympics host nation) qualified at continental championships and at an Olympic qualifying tournament just before the Games.”
The press release mentions fans being able to follow their teams on a “Road to the FIBA Basketball World Cup” over two years as they play home-and-away games against the other teams in their groups. The idea is to increase the growth and visibility of basketball around the world as more than 1,200 games will be played over the four-year cycle. These measures will very likely also achieve their goals of increasing the exposure to the game.
But of course there are huge questions left yet unanswered.
First of all, tens and tens of millions of basketball fans will be disappointed that the continental championships will only take place every four years instead of biennially. And even more importantly, the competitions – EuroBasket, AfroBasket, FIBA Asia Championship, FIBA Americas Championship, FIBA Oceania Championship – lose hugely in meaning as those tournaments at the moment no longer serve as qualifiers for either the FIBA Basketball World Cup or the Olympics – EuroBasket (and other continental championships) 2017, World Cup 2019, Olympics 2020, EuroBasket 2021, World Cup 2023, Olympics 2025, EuroBasket 2025, World Cup 2027, Olympics 2028 etc. Those continental tournaments were the qualifiers for both the World Championship and Olympics until now.
This most likely will change. It would seem that at least the continental champion would be given an automatic berth in the World Cup – to give at least some meaning to those events. But there is no word on any such qualification at the moment.
The biggest championship hit by the reform will be EuroBasket – just because of the number of NBA players from Europe who add to the prestige of the European Championship and the high quality of play there. It’s widely assumed within the game that FIBA Europe fired its secretary general Nar Zanolin in May 2012 due to the Canadian’s resistance to FIBA’s plan to push the World Cup and lessen the importance of the EuroBasket.
The biggest obstacle at the moment appears to be FIBA’s idea of having qualifying take place over numerous windows over the course of two years. For those fans of football, this concept is nothing new as leagues throughout the world shut down for a week to 10 days to even occasionally two weeks for continental or World Cup qualification matches. Clubs reluctantly allow their international players go to their respective national teams and play matches for their country. But it’s a common idea built up over decades.
However, translating this concept one-for-one directly to basketball basically overnight is a very tough sell. Clubs outside of the United States may be more receptive to it since they are aware of the system from football. Not that that would be easy, especially when you consider the Euroleague will be in the middle of its Regular Season in November and its Top 16 in February.
But it seems like a lot more convincing must be done to get the NBA, D-League and the U.S. colleges – yes, many international players are playing in colleges in the United States – on board for this plan.
Will this lead the NBA to trimming its 82-game regular season? After all, there are games in November, February and for two teams in June. The U.S. collegiate system in February is going through its crucial conference tournament season, which qualifies teams for the beloved NCAA tournament in March.
It’s very hard to imagine these leagues/institutions will just cave in and accept the moves and shut down their leagues for 7-14 days at a time. So will second or even third-tier players be playing for their countries?
Another issue is how the insurance for the players’ health will be handled. While the new format reduces the load the players have in the summer, the players still must go through the qualification campaign.
All these concerns do not mean the idea is bad. FIBA definitely has the game and its prosperity and growth and acceptance in mind. The moves are very ambitious – some could say groundbreaking, especially with the idea of national team windows entering into an NBA schedule. And it will be fascinating to see how FIBA sells these concepts to their member federations and their respective leagues and clubs. The world will be watching.