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NBA, Euroleague: Two basketball worlds kept apart

The NBA world appears to be afraid of the influence of European basketball, given that there is a market within the United States that the European game can tap if marketed properly, experienced US broadcaster Alvaro Martin tells Kathimerini English Edition.

The NBA expert and ESPN announcer for two decades suggests that the NBA Commission?s vision of expanding into Europe would hit many a stumbling block, while he stresses that it is unlikely an American investor would want to buy into a European basketball club in the way it is done in soccer, much as Panathinaikos has tried to find a new buyer across the Atlantic.

Martin, who was born in Puerto Rico, says North America has only just started to hear about the European game, mostly through the preseason tours of NBA teams in the old continent.

?It has been fairly unknown over here,? he told Kathimerini English Edition from his office in New York, ?but the US is beginning to know that the Europeans play some very good basketball, as was evident by the loss of the Los Angeles Lakers to Barcelona last year.

?The Lakers may have been missing some players, but on the court Barcelona played some really good basketball and had some really good coaching. People are beginning to realize that there is another world out there.

?It has puzzled me that the television rights to the Euroleague are held by NBA TV, which typically avoids screening any games live. All it does is offer a condensed version of a Thursday game on a Saturday, at around 2 or 3 p.m., when the result is known.

?Maybe the NBA is afraid of the impact that European basketball could have on North America, because it makes no sense to avoid screening games live; given the time difference they would be aired in the afternoon, without clashing with the NBA games that take place in the evening.?

But why would the NBA fear the Euroleague? Surely the European game is inferior to the NBA.

?I think there is definitely a market for European basketball in the States,? responds Martin. ?There is a great number of people who do not follow the NBA except for the finals, but prefer to follow college basketball instead. There is an enormous fan base for college basketball here, and the FIBA style is much closer to that of the NCAA: The college game is more structured than the NBA, just like in Europe, and requires more teamwork.

?The problem is that the teams and the players are unknown, with only the basketball experts and people with origins in Spain, Greece, Italy etc. knowing them. Exposure on a cable channel in the US would help considerably, as there is a significant enough market niche for it that remains untapped,? argues Martin.

The broadcaster adds that the NBA itself wants to tap into the European market instead, with Commissioner David Stern suggesting a few times in the last three years that he envisages a European NBA division with five franchises, but that seems a particularly big challenge.

?It would be very interesting, but it appears logistically daunting. We are talking 10 or 11 different time zones here. In the future we may have supersonic traveling, but it still seems very optimistic. Stern said that US teams can go to Paris, for instance, do their shopping on one day and then play back-to-back games, considered home and away, before flying back to the States.

?We are short on details and there are many questions left unanswered; for instance, will there be enough fans to pay NBA-priced tickets to fill the stadiums 41 times every season? Would we need supplemental draft and budget? We would need to converge on minimum salaries, on the structure of ownership etc. There are so many issues.?

Considered to be the dean of ESPN?s Spanish-language announcers, Martin says he tried to ask Euroleague chief Jordi Bertomeu about an NBA expansion into Europe, but the Spaniard avoided the issue, offering a resounding ?no comment? instead.

What Euroleague officials have stressed to him off the record, though, is that the American plan to create franchises from scratch in Europe – for instance the ?Greek Democrats? in Athens or the ?London Monarchs? (names proposed by Martin himself) – is destined for failure, as fans would only follow their own traditional clubs in Europe.

The best way for the NBA and the Euroleague to converge, he proposes, is not to set a time limit, as that creates expectations and pressure, but to start by integrating the NBA preseason with the European one.

?This way teams and fans will get to know each other,? he says, adding that there could also be a playoff between the European and the NBA champion, but with a significant trophy at stake so the players would take it seriously.

European champion Panathinaikos has recently been trying to find an investor in the US, but that has not been possible to date, although US sports team owners are eager to buy into major soccer teams in Europe.

?Among US entrepreneurs there is a sense that if you are going to invest in Europe, invest in scale,? says Alvaro Martin. ?Get the biggest you can find. With the limited awareness and exposure of European basketball, it is not easy to get a US buyer. Only soccer is seen as the European game, and I have never heard of anyone talking of investing in European basketball,? he notes.

Martin wonders why Greek players are not so keen on going over to the NBA, given their undoubted quality. He does point out, however, that ?they will not be playing the minutes they do now or have the role they have now in their home league. They would have to start from scratch and even take a pay cut.?

Finally, Martin is optimistic that the NBA season will not be wasted by the lockout that started on July 1. ?It is a clash of economic interests. There is no right or wrong. I think that when the players stop getting their checks by end-October, as their contracts provide for, they will authorize their union to cut a deal with the NBA.?