Cancelled record season drives Euroleague to increase focus on growth markets
By Simon Ward
Euroleague Basketball, the organiser of continental club competitions, has taken what it described as “one of the more difficult and sad decisions” to terminate the 2019-20 seasons.
The top-tier EuroLeague and supporting EuroCup, plus the organisation's youth tournaments, were yesterday cancelled, with no champions crowned, after all options for finishing them were explored amid the fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic.
The seasons have been suspended since early March, and, although the health situation in most of the participating countries is improving, variances in the development of Covid-19 and travel and quarantine restrictions contributed heavily to the resolution to end play, especially as continuing beyond the end of July had been ruled out to avoid disruption to the 2020-21 campaign.
Euroleague Basketball had considered multiple contingencies for completing its competitions, including Final Eights to be held in single cities, to decide the winners, but these were ultimately dismissed, with modifications involving a reduced number of teams rejected “to protect the integrity of the league,” according to president and chief executive Jordi Bertomeu.
As a result, while assessing the impact of the termination of what was set to be a record breaking one in terms of television and digital viewership, attendance and commercial revenue for the EuroLeague, attention will now turn to the 2020-21 campaign and beyond, and steps to ensure its sporting and economic revival, including an increased focus on key growth markets.
The elite competition had been postponed, after 28 of 34 rounds of the regular season, with Turkey’s Anadolu Efes top of the standings, but with several of the eight playoffs places still to be decided.
With the termination of the season, all 18 clubs have been confirmed in next season’s line-up (11 already have long-term licences), while the eight teams that had reached the quarter-finals of the suspended EuroCup have been guaranteed spots in the 2020-21 edition.
Speaking in an online press conference on Monday, Bertomeu said: “We have taken one of the more difficult and sad decisions in our history, and for some of us in our professional careers. But we did it with a strong conviction that it is the best decision for the good of basketball and for the good of our stakeholders.
“We have exhausted every option and every possibility in trying to resume both the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and the 7DAYS EuroCup. We had every logistic and operational aspect solved - medical protocols, teams' accommodations, arena equipment, TV production, competition calendars with concrete games scheduled for both competitions - but it hasn't been possible.”
Some domestic basketball leagues and the Basketball Champions League, the rival European clubs competition backed by FIBA, the international federation, and 11 of the national leagues, are still committed to finishing their seasons, albeit in the case of the BCL not until a Final Eight scheduled for the autumn.
However, Bertomeu stressed that provisos and deadlines Euroleague Basketball had laid down meant that ultimately there was no chance of a resumption of its tournaments in the 2019-20 campaign.
He stated: “As I have said several times… our top priority is the health and safety of our players, coaches, referees, fans, partners and local communities. And the varied evolution of the pandemic in different EuroLeague and EuroCup territories does not guarantee that all teams will have the same conditions in their training camps and preparations to resume the rest of the season.
“Travel, quarantines, government policies regarding practices for indoor sports and other elements are different in our territories. And, as a consequence of all of these facts, we had two aspects to be considered - the risk for the players' health, including injuries, and the unequal preparation regarding time and conditions for all of our teams would seriously harm the integrity of the competition.”
This had been the first season of an expanded structure in the EuroLeague, with Bayern Munich of Germany and LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne of France securing places under two-year licences.
The addition of these clubs from the competition’s developing markets (Germany already had one guaranteed team) had contributed to a 15 per cent year-on-year increase in both fan interest and television viewership, a 12 per cent rise in attendance and a projected 10.9 per cent growth in revenue compared to the 2018-19 season, according to figures seen by Sportcal.
Commercial implications While Euroleague Basketball has still to determine the exact financial impact of the abandoned season, Bertomeu admitted it will be “significant,” with the organisers and IMG, the renowned international agency, which are partners in a 10-year joint venture that started in 2016-17, facing negotiations with broadcasters and sponsors over possible compensation.
These could entail rebates, additional assets and content or contract extensions, but the league chief stressed that “there are no doubts in terms of commitment” from IMG, and that there was strong co-operation with all other parties.
In recent years, annual commercial revenue for the EuroLeague is estimated to have climbed above €60 million ($66 million) and towards €70 million, and media income accounts for 62 per cent and sponsorship proceeds for 26.4 per cent of the total.
Responding to a question from Sportcal, Bertomeu said: “Of course, in our conversations with partners, we have to consider that the current season was not normal, so we cannot expect them to commit to what was signed and expected at the beginning of the season. Part of our relationship is to see how we can help each other, as we are in trouble, they are in trouble.
“That is the real meaning of partnership – trying to help each other and keep building something that we started with many of our partners years ago. We will have different conversations with our media partners and our corporate partners and we will try to see how we can compensate them but at the same time try to keep part of the fee in order to guarantee what our clubs are expecting to receive.
“But also our clubs understand this season will be a different one regarding the incomes they will receive from the league. I think everybody is aware that this is a difficult season.”
The expansion of the EuroLeague to include additional teams from Germany and France formed part of a strategy to develop the competition outside the core European basketball markets of Spain, Greece, Russia and Turkey, and Bertomeu admitted that, in seeking to revive the fortunes of the league, it is likely to double down on this approach, with Italy, which already has one team, and the UK, which has none, part of the equation.
He said: “This current crisis situation can convince us that we have to speed up our process for the future. Definitely this is one of the things we have learned from this crisis. We believe that the gap between our clubs and the domestic leagues is getting bigger and bigger and at a certain point it really is difficult to combine both. Now we are seeing that the Israeli league wants to play in July and our clubs from Israel are in a difficult position to play in this league.
“I think that not only because we now believe that it is time to proceed with our project, it is because if we see the environment of this product, it is absolutely necessary to present something new.”
Given the already congested calendar, the EuroLeague will not necessarily be expanded to 20 or 22 teams in the coming years, but there could be a greater representation from the perceived growth markets.
Bertomeu said: “Regarding the future, we will have expansion at a certain point but it is still something that we have to work on more. We want to see how this could be compatible with the domestic leagues, and we have to take the right decision at the particular moment.
“As you can imagine, we are not in this discussion now but we definitely have a plan to expand the league in some markets. That does not mean we will increase the number of teams but we want to have teams in key markets for us that clearly are Germany, France, Italy, UK. They are markets that will be strategic for the future growth of the league.”
In line with this, discussions have continued with the German city of Cologne, which was to have hosted this season’s climactic EuroLeague Final Four, about staging the 2021 edition.
As things stand, next season’s competition is due to tip off on 1 October, a day after the start of the EuroCup. Given that countries are at different stages with coronavirus, Bertomeu said it was entirely possible that some games would be played with spectators, some in front of reduced crowds and others with no fans at all.
Growth curves The termination of the 2019-20 EuroLeague season is the all the more bittersweet for the organisers given that it was on track to deliver all-time records across various measurables.
The 15-per-cent increase in fan interest for October to March was driven by growth of 41 per cent in France, 38 per cent in Israel, 28 per cent in Turkey and 16 per cent in Germany, according to Nielsen Sports.
The equivalent climb in TV viewership was due in large part to the introduction of ASVEL, which prompted an upsurge of 6,634 per cent in France, and rises of 184 per cent in Italy, 144 per cent in Israel and 64 per cent in Germany. Audiences were stable in established markets such as Turkey and Spain although the live audience was up 81 per cent in the latter as a result of more broadcasts on OTT platform DAZN and higher per-game averages than the 2018-19 season.
It is estimated that if the season had concluded as scheduled the overall increase in viewership would have been in the order of 25 per cent.
There had also been significant growth in the digital audience in the unfinished 2019-20 campaign with social media followers up 11 per cent, reach up 21 per cent, video views up 25 per cent and engagement up 46 per cent, according to Blinkfire Analytics. Similarly, the Euroleague.net website saw rises of 9 per cent in unique users, 22 per cent in page views and 13 per cent in sessions.
The growing value of branded content is shown by the fact that engagement in that served up by partners rose by 94 per cent year on year, and was up 41 per cent in the latest incomplete season compared with the full 2018-19 campaign.
In the games played to March, over 1.94 million spectators had attended EuroLeague games, with an average of 8,676, an increase of 12 per cent, and a record average arena occupancy to that point of 75 per cent.
Taking into account the average rise in attendance from March to May of an additional 3 per cent, the competition was on course for an all-time high of almost 9,000 fans per game.
Explaining the growth in TV, online and arena audiences, Roser Queralto, the chief business officer of Euroleague Basketball, said: “We have made lots of progress in improving our on-court, broadcast and digital product. These efforts, added to the excellent work of our broadcast and marketing partners in promoting the league, have shown an impressive impact this season. And obviously we cannot forget about the talent that we see on the court. We see better rosters every season while the highly competitive soul of the league stays the same, which is a perfect combination.”
These factors have also enabled Euroleague Basketball to attract and retain sponsors, and, in the face of the pandemic in Europe, the organisation claims to have advanced conversations with two brands to join the premium tier of partners for next season.
Meanwhile, four existing partners whose contracts were due to expire at the end of this campaign have confirmed their desire to continue, and 16 partners have paid their full fee for the season, including five in the latter part impacted by the pandemic.
Despite the disruption to its business as the travel industry has been brought to its knees by Covid-19, long-time partner Turkish Airlines is fully expected to confirm the extension of its title sponsorship of the EuroLeague for 2020-21 onwards.
Hailing the loyalty of sponsors, Jose Luis Rosa-Medina, senior director corporate partnerships and licensing at Euroleague Basketball, said: “We have successful, committed and long-term partnerships in place – an average of seven years in our current partnerships – accompanied by a deep understanding of each other’s business objectives which has proven to be key to be truly relevant for our current partners and potential new partners.
“The EuroLeague has been growing for many years, even registering record-breaking figures this season, so, in sum, even during the pandemic, we see by the conversations we are having with many brands that we remain an attractive property in the marketplace because of our attractive and growing fanbase.”
In the absence of live basketball in the past few months, EuroLeague broadcasters have been offered a variety of alternative programming, including archive games and long-form and short-form content, while sponsors have been able to maintain a presence via digital content, with over 46 million impressions for commercial partners on EuroLeague channels alone, and presenting partnerships for podcasts.
In addition, the #EUROLEAGUEUNITED campaign launched in late March to support the global fight against coronavirus and involving clubs, players, coaches, referees, ambassadors and other stakeholders had achieved a reach of over 70 million and video views of almost 24 million as of 23 May.Sportcal