heinnews’s David Hein this week caught up with Jan Pommer, the CEO of the German basketball BBL league. They discussed the state of the league, the worldwide financial crisis, how German clubs compare to others in Europe, Germany’s effort to improve their youth development, foreigner regulations, a new club in Hamburg, how Dirk Bauermann is handling being only national team coach, and the possibility of superstar Dirk Nowitzki of playing in the BBL.

heinnews: Hello Mr. Pommer, let’s start off with the current state of the BBL.
Pommer: I think the season has been very exciting. The teams are all bulked up together in the standings. To the surprise of a lot of people, we have not seen the march-through of Alba Berlin. Because they have to play a lot more games, they are losing the odd game and it’s made the league much more exciting for the fans.

heinnews: Much of the world has been affected by the still on-going financial crisis. How stable is the BBL and its clubs financially?
Pommer: Well, all the teams were able to put together solid financial budgets at the end of September. It appears as though the worldwide economic crisis has not had a lot of impact on our clubs. But there is still plenty of time to see how the dynamics of the aftermath may affect them. We will be meeting with the managers during the All-Star Day in late January with experts and talk about the impact of the crisis on the league. But as it appears now, it looks like our clubs’ long-term partners seem okay and the fans are really coming out to the games in droves. It remains to be seen if teams can go out and gain new partners or even extend their contracts with current partners. We are definitely taking this crisis very seriously.

heinnews: What has been the biggest surprise of the season so far for you personally?
Pommer: I suppose the biggest surprise is that Bremerhaven is really so far down in the table (in last place with just one victory in 15 games). Looking at that team before the season, I would not have thought that. So, that’s been the biggest surprise. But also that there are so many teams among the leaders – and of course, that’s what we as a league want. Nördlingen (6-9) has been playing very well and have been a positive surprise. Before the season, many said they would be relegated straight away. But I said wait and see what happens. And they’ve been playing well.

heinnews: What about Göttingen being in third place just one victory behind leaders Bonn with two fewer games played?
Pommer: That really doesn’t surprise me that much. They have had a very positive development at the club. John Patrick and management there have been thinking long-term and built a good foundation, which is very positive.

heinnews: The Euroleague will be playing the 2009 Final Four at Berlin’s o2 World arena. What does that mean to the BBL?
Pommer: This is definitely one of the top highlights of the 2008-09 season – along with our own championship and cup. It’s an excellent reward and proof that the Euroleague respects German basketball and values the German market. It’s a nice honor and we are all looking forward to it.

heinnews: Looking outside Germany, Alba Berlin still have chances of reaching the Euroleague Top 16 while Artland Dragons are still alive in the Eurocup, where Bamberg have yet to win. Plus all three teams in the Eurocup Challenge – Skyliners, Oldenburg and Bonn  – can still advance. How do BBL clubs compare to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe?
Pommer: If I compare the BBL to the Euroleague and the other European competitions, and I think that’s the best thing to do since the NBA is a totally different game, I would say we are not one of the best leagues in Europe. Those are Spain, Italy and Russia and Greece. But we have six teams representing the BBL in Europe. And that is a lot. And if you add up the number of fans who come out to the BBL games, that number is second in all of Europe to Spain. And that is important. Also important is that our teams are earning their money on the market and not relying on one private rich individual sponsor. And that is very hard. But because of that, maybe the German basketball clubs will be less impacted by the economic crisis than other teams. What the German basketball is missing is the real success at the top level. Of course money doesn’t score points but it makes it easier for sure. And it’s incredibly difficult to compete against teams who provide entirely different benefits for their players.

heinnews: Let’s go back to 2005 when the BBL and the clubs decided to change the restrictions on foreigners requiring just one German. Looking back, do you think the plan was a good one?
Pommer: I think so. We wanted the best players in the world to be able to come to us and excite our league and our open fans. And we wanted to avoid regulations which would lead to a bunch of legal tricks while making the clubs more responsible for the youth in Germany. If you look at the group of measures which we passed and have since brought into being – the move was correct.

heinnews: For those of our readers who are not familiar with what items were passed back in 2005, walk us through them if you would.
Pommer: Well, we set the player limit at one German. We also said that clubs have to spend 8 percent of the players’ budget on youth development. And we didn’t leave it at one German. We regulated it that the number of Germans would increase over time. Right now teams have to have four on their roster and next season it will be four players on the game list – meaning one-third of the players will be Germans next season. And that is a positive development.

heinnews: And what about the future after next season – regarding foreigners regulations?
Pommer: We will talk about that next season and see what the next step will be – an increase or keeping it the same. We will have to see.

heinnews: What kind of impact has the youth NBBL league had – three seasons after its inception?
Pommer: The players and fans have been really excited about the league, which gives the young players a real chance to get playing time. And we’re getting some times 500 or 600 fans at the games.

heinnews: This season the BBL has added the U-24 funds, which are a pot of money which will be given out to the teams based on how much time they give to German players 24 years or younger. What was the main purpose of this measure?
Pommer: The most important aspect was putting a financial element to the youth work. Until now, all the regulations were required or forced upon the clubs. And while we believe there has been a positive effect of the youth work the clubs have done of the past few years, there has not really been a visible economic effect. And this measure offers teams the chance to actually earn money by letting younger German players play. And that was the deciding step. And you can see that some teams are really using this to earn some money.

heinnews: A couple of months ago, headlines were being made in Germany by the visit of two Americans investors who were interested in possibly starting up a club in Hamburg. Things have quieted down since then. What is the latest on a new club in Hamburg?
Pommer: The investors said they would like to decide sometime early in the New Year. I really do not know how things will work out. It’s completely open what will happen. In my talks with the investors, I think they were realistic and very well informed. And they asked the correct questions. And I did not get the feeling like they were some rich uncles from the United States who were coming over and saying “Okay, we’ll show you Germans how to do this.” They had a very good business attitude and did their due diligence. They may see it as a chance to get into Europe before the NBA arrives – as a long-term investment. But I really don’t know what will happen. But I was very happy that some interested people from the U.S. came over and showed their interest. If it works great. If not, we will move on.

heinnews: With BBL headquarters in Cologne, I’m sure you have a chance to talk to the Köln 99ers people quite often. Last season saw the club was saved financially literally in the last second. What is the latest on the club and its financial stability?
Pommer: The club is stable – but at a much lower level than before the collapse. They are no longer supported by just one main financier and that helps things. They are continuing their idea of relying on young, inexperienced players. But they have expanded to other areas of basketball – wheelchair basketball and women’s basketball. So, yeah, the team is much more stable, but not at the same level. From a playing style, they are playing very well – better than their record (4-11). But they are just missing the experience and the coolness to execute in the final stages of games.

heinnews: Looking at Bamberg, this is a team that is going through a major overhaul with the departure of coach Dirk Bauermann. What do you think about the situation at Bamberg?
Pommer: Bamberg is a club which will give the league a lot of joy in the near future. It is totally natural for a club to go through a major change after the departure of a very prominent and successful coach. Dirk Bauermann was a star himself, and that is something very, very rare for a coach. But Chris Fleming is an excellent coach and he and general manager Wolfgang Heyder both think in the long term. So Bamberg will be around when it counts in the end.

heinnews: Now that Bauermann is only the coach of the German national team, how has your working relationship with him changed?
Pommer: It’s very pleasurable to have him in just one capacity. He is such a motivator and has so much competence; it’s great to use his experience in more ways. I am a personal friend of his, and it’s good that he has more time and does not just do the national team work on the side. He can really form concrete plans for going into schools and looking for which schoolchildren to help support. I really wasn’t sure how he would deal without having the adrenaline of having two games a week and doing a desk job. But he seems okay with it until now.

heinnews: So, last question, various German media report occasionally about Dirk Nowitzki mentioning that he could imagine playing in the German BBL one day when his NBA playing days are over. What do you think of all these hopes and maybe, how illusionary is it to think of Dirk playing in the BBL?
Pommer: I have no idea really. I would say we will cross that bridge when we come to it. It’s not really a matter for right now. Of course, Dirk has such a great connection to his home country and his roots and always looks at Germany. And that’s great and not to be taken for granted. And he always plays for the national team even though his body is long overdue for a well-deserved break. But he loves the sport and is totally crazy for the ball. I guess it’s possible that he could play in the BBL one day. But I don’t think we should push him. We should just wish him all the best and hope that he can do things how he wishes. He has already done so much for German basketball. And anything else he does we should be happy about. Taking all that into account, of course, we would be waiting with welcoming arms and the door wide open if he decided to play here.

heinnews: Okay, I will leave it at that. Have a Happy New Year and “Good slide” into 2009.
Pommer: Thanks, you too.

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