The neverending chronicles of the FIBA vs. EuroLeague War seem to have slowed down at the exact moment the tension should have been at its highest. The November FIBA window is now in the rearview, and games have been played mostly without EuroLeague players (not to mention those playing in the NBA). There’s been some talking, obviously — some players felt disrespected having to choose between their club (and employer) and their country and … well, nothing has really been decided at all. The FIBA position is a clear one — they had gone way too far to cancel anything in regards to those international windows, so Baumann dealt with the lack of star power, and declared it was an absolute success anyway. The EuroLeague position may seem more tricky to the eyes of the neutral observer. Having made propositions for the sake of having something to say, Bertomeu simply managed to stand in the way and play a waiting game. What is more interesting to note is that there may be a strategy EuroLeague is in fact following, one with a mostly passive posture.
The ISU Case: EuroLeague Silently Moving Forward
One of the main arguments EuroLeague could have in the near future lies in a ruling from the European Commission, which they already highlighted on their website, having measured how important it could prove to be. The ruling itself condemns any sanction taken by the International Skating Union regarding athletes participating in competitions put together by independent organizers. This type of regulation is considered disproportionate by the European Commission — an international federation is in charge of the integrity of competitions, but cannot deprive athletes or other parties of their commercial interests. Even if this ruling will probably be appealed in front of the European Court of Justice, the context of competition policy makes it interesting. The discussion isn’t about who’s the legitimate sports decision maker — it’s about free market and economic freedom, founding principles of the European Union.
While this case has no direct impact on the EuroLeague vs. FIBA question, the main information to be taken from the European Commission approach is that there is no real clear hierarchy in terms of the administer of the sport (ISU for ice skating; FIBA for basketball) and independent organizers, when it comes to pursuing “legitimate sport objectives.” Still, FIBA can argue the fact that they are pursuing these objectives (and has already explained that they consider EuroLeague as the one condemning the players in their own conflict), but they hold no particular advantage compared to EuroLeague. They cannot make decisions that would prevent the EuroLeague from doing business in the field of basketball competitions. This could also mean that, in the near future, FIBA has to prove its point — explaining how their decisions are pursuing the best interest of the sport while complying with the idea of “proportionality.” It’s quite a usual situation to witness two opponents in a conflict drawing an analogy to another case to prove a point but, this time, the bad faith surely originates from the FIBA side, since they are taking a clear step backwards.
From One Case to Another
If we, as neutral observers, can offer a more realist transposition from the ISU case to a FIBA vs. Euroleague case to come, what could the results be? One thing to mention is that FIBA has not gone as far as condemning players or teams directly under the circumstances of international windows. They certainly will never try to, given what has just been said by the EU commission — as a side effect, annual talks about ABA Liga could be a little more calm in 2018. Anyway, the main question now revolves around the so-called “legitimate sports objectives” and if they are pursued with a sense of proportionality. It’s an argument FIBA always had: acting in the best interests of the sport, making (at least a little) money flow to the bottom of the sports pyramid, raising kids, giving exposure to the sport itself by organizing annual meetings of national teams around the globe, etc. Well, that’s their point of view, and to be honest, that’s what an international sports federation should be about when it’s not as corrupt as FIFA (still everyone’s best example in terms of total and absolute globalization of a sport, yet a nightmare in terms of transparency).
But is it also how the European Union understands the situation? It’s impossible for us to predict how it will end up resolving this conflict (nor is it possible to anticipate what the ECJ will say about the European Commission rulings, though the ECJ has a taste for free competition). An element has to be taken into consideration: how EuroLeague can work on social dialogue, while FIBA will have trouble. If the best interest of the sport is related to raising kids and exposing a sport worldwide (let’s call that the “social role” of the sport), the European Commission may be more focused on the idea of organizing an economic activity. In this regard, EuroLeague clearly has an advantage as it is, after all, in the form of EuroLeague Commercial Assets, a group of employers capable of sitting around a table with their group of (tall) employees. This is an option the European Commission could choose to follow: a better organization of the top-level competition, obtained by forcing clubs and players to reach an agreement regarding schedule, in exchange for the framing of FIBA interests (in which players’ voices in the form of unions are not especially well-represented — the BCL didn’t prove to be more economically efficient nor especially welcoming to workers’ representatives). In other words, saying EuroLeague has a voice on scheduling European basketball if (and only if) they are able to do things the right way, in a dialogue that would assemble most of the stakeholders (in particular those who can shoot a basketball, provide entertainment — and get paid on-time, if possible). FIBA would obviously be a very important stakeholder too, with some guarantees (such as a number of weeks reserved for its competitions), but without any monopoly on the general organization of the sport. A proportionate approach for all parties could be a compromise around one National Teams window each season.
Domestic Leagues and Federations: Another Waiting Game
If this analysis is the one that EuroLeague has made internally, then it’s understandable that Bertomeu is waiting and hoping for the best, and could very soon act in the players’ interest by initiating some sort of structured dialogue about their working conditions. But what about the federations or domestic leagues, natural and historical allies of FIBA? The last elements we gathered underline the fact that they seem, at this very moment, to be waiting for what’s to come — but more carefully than the last few years. A letter sent this month by French professional teams seems the perfect example of once-convinced organizations (they were the first ones to gather behind the idea of BCL) now thinking they made a mistake and seeing themselves at an impasse. They certainly are not alone in conceiving things this way, but if they are the most vocal about it, it’s also that they were the ones with the bigger hopes when they went the FIBA way. Time will tell if this a sign of things to come, but at this very moment, FIBA should at the very least be questioning its own approach — the unavoidable outcome is that they will have to deal with EuroLeague by reaching a common solution.
Text edited by: Nick Flynt