Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

As the new, all-embracing version of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Cup begins in China this weekend, the organisation's secretary general Andreas Zagklis has hailed the success of what he describes as "the biggest project our federation has had in its almost 90-year history".

In 2017 the competition that has run every four years since 1950 was radically reformed, with qualification earned through two rounds of continental tournaments over two years rather than through continental championships.

"A total of 420 games, to organise in 15 months – this was delivered by you, the national federations, hand-in-hand with us," said Zagklis to the FIBA Congress in Beijing.

"Because this biggest project came with the biggest-ever investment of FIBA in an event involving its national federations.

"FIBA took over a number of costs off your shoulders because we wanted to give you the opportunity to create a year-long product, where your national team is present not only every summer for two weeks on the TV of your audiences and followers.

"We have new stars. Based on rosters given out here, every single team of the 32 participating in the World Cup has a player who participated in the qualifiers. Not just of summer, but of the winter.

"We saw 2,000 players involved. Normally national federations would have a smaller squad, but we have discovered players that were not on the radar before."

The Greek took up his position last October following the untimely death of previous FIBA secretary general, Patrick Baumann.

He acknowledged the denser competition schedule that has produced 32 teams for the World Cup has also caused friction with EuroLeague, the top-tier European professional club competition that signed a 10-year deal with US marketing giants IMG in 2015 worth a reported €630 million (£57 million/$69 million).

A number of EuroLeague clubs have refused to release players to the more frequent demands from their national teams, and EuroLeague itself has sometimes scheduled matches that clash with national team windows.

The conflict is viewed as a contributing factor to European champions Slovenia failing to qualify for the World Cup because of having to field weakened teams too often.

FIBA has described the EuroLeague position as a "commercially-driven attack to the national teams" – the bete noire of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

Andreas Zagklis, secretary general of the International Basketball Federation, has updated the FIBA Congress in China ©FIBA
Andreas Zagklis, secretary general of the International Basketball Federation, has updated the FIBA Congress in China ©FIBA

But in May, at the General Assembly of the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) in Gold Coast, Zagklis expressed his hope that a collaborative approach could be reached with European Commercial Assets – the private company that runs EuroLeague – which he believed would lead to European basketball reaching its full potential.

"We need to bring balance between clubs and federations in the European continent," he said.

"We have four European club competitions and are not reaching the potential European basketball has.

"We can only do this through collaboration."

He told the FIBA Congress, at which Mali's Hamane Niang succeeded the man who has held the Presidency for the past five years, Horacio Muratore of Argentina, that "some of you asked me today to make a reference to the ongoing dispute in Europe that is taking too long to resolve". 

"It is not an easy topic, and it has impacted in a very negative manner at times our qualifiers for the World Cup, and particularly our qualifiers in Europe," he said.

"When a relationship has reached a negative climax as this one has it is necessary to decompress the feelings.

"Now I think you saw this in the last national team window in February, when more players were released by clubs. Clubs understood that the window is not there to disturb or hurt them, but to provide the regular presence of national teams, because our sport needs a strong heartbeat, and when the beat goes down for the clubs, the national teams can start playing.

"The value of the national teams is that, when the club league stops, they attract more attention, particularly from those who aren't core fans. So they attract new fans, and then two or three days later they follow the league, and that is when those fans can become a new part of their audience.

"We want to develop our players and at the same time to defend their freedom of choice."

On the plus side for FIBA, strong attendances during the 15-month qualification process for the World Cup have been noted, and the format has allowed fans the opportunity to see top players more often.

Coaches have also commented positively on the way the format has strengthened developing teams.

Asked on the FIBA website to name "recent stand-outs" in terms of changes, Muratore, who has now become FIBA's Honorary President, said: "Our aim at FIBA is to develop and promote the game of basketball. 

"It's also to bring people together and to unite the community. The main vehicle to accomplish this mission has been the new competition system, introducing the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 qualifiers in November 2017.

Argentina and South Korea in action in Wuhan at the FIBA World Cup that begun this weekend ©FIBA
Argentina and South Korea in action in Wuhan at the FIBA World Cup that begun this weekend ©FIBA

"By having national teams compete more frequently and at home, FIBA has provided more opportunities to watch games in person, on television and online via live streaming.

"The qualifiers gave our federations a unique chance to welcome fans, generate profits through ticket sales and sponsorship, offer opportunities to up-and-coming young players and hold games in cities where their national teams had never been before. 

"FIBA is also playing its part, including a remarkable investment of more than €30 million (£27 million/$33 million) for the benefit of our federations over the 2017-2021 cycle.

"The impact of the qualifiers has been tremendous, but it's not enough. For me, developing our National Federations should remain our primary focus. 

"We visited 181 federations from September 2015 to April 2017, assessing the needs of each and producing strategies to help them develop. 

"A programme structure has been developed and a set of upcoming activities – including a targeted and tailor-made process for 24 national federations – is just the beginning.

"The support and development of the federations is and will remain a priority."

Reflecting on the challenging nature of the changes to the World Cup, Zagklis added: "This project was meant to take us all out of our comfort zone. Because it was a comfort zone just to show up with a team somewhere in the world every summer, play, win, or lose, and go back.

"The only way for us to grow is if we organise, regularly, home games of the national team. 

"This is the main message that comes from the experience of the last 15 months.

"And at the end, the players are in the centre of this."

In an impressive keynote speech at the GAISF General Assembly, Zagklis had stressed that, as far as FIBA was concerned, 2019 would be "a year of delivery".

In China, he has warmed to his theme.

"In the two years since the last Congress we have passed from theory to practice," he said. 

"What we have managed, to get 3x3 basketball into the Olympics, is a major achievement. It is an achievement that will stand the test of time.

Horacio Muratore, who stepped down at the FIBA Congress after serving for five years as President, said
Horacio Muratore, who stepped down at the FIBA Congress after serving for five years as President, said "the support and development of the federations is and will remain a priority" ©FIBA

"We can claim we are one of the very few, if not the only Olympic sport which has a traditional side – the tournaments of men and women are always the highlight of the Olympic Games – and a new youth urban discipline.

"In Montreal, women were able to play at the Olympics. Now we can come to the Congress and say, very proudly, 'we made it'. 

"We are one sport, with two disciplines – basketball, and 3x3 basketball, and they will both appear in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

"I have just returned from meeting Tokyo 2020 organisers. You could feel the excitement. 

"You could see how our 3x3 venue has been set-up in a key area where other events are taking place, close to the water.  

"This is where we are expecting the world, the few who have not yet seen, to appreciate the entertainment and high quality of this event.

"We are trying to bring new stars on the stage, and these come, sometimes, from countries which are not traditional basketball countries.

"And this is the opportunity which we see then reflected in the annual 3x3 World Cup, where we have countries that would find it very, very difficult to come to China for the 2019 World Cup or to qualify for the 2023 World Cup. 

"Well, there is a chance for all of you, and this is the 3x3 World Cup every year, and the 3x3 at the Olympics every four years.

"Newborn is no longer newborn, it is no longer a baby. It's now working. And to work, you need balance. And this balance is what will be for us a main focus over the next four years.

"We need to find a proper space for the promoters in our family, because without them – and let's not hide this – without the support of private initiatives we would not have made it to where we are now, because more than 70 per cent of our events are based on private initiative.

"But you are the members, and you take the initiative now."

The long-term future of FIBA was further bolstered after they signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Wanda Group, who will continue as a global partner for the next 12 years.

This global partnership will extend an agreement, which was first signed in 2016, to 2031.

As a global partner, Wanda will have global marketing rights to the next three cycles of the FIBA Basketball World Cups and World Cup qualifiers, the Women's Basketball World Cups, the FIBA Continental Cups and also the FIBA Youth World Cups.

The strategic partnership between FIBA and the Wanda Group has been extended until 2031 following a signing ceremony in Beijing as the World Cup finals got underway ©FIBA
The strategic partnership between FIBA and the Wanda Group has been extended until 2031 following a signing ceremony in Beijing as the World Cup finals got underway ©FIBA

Wanda will benefit from exclusive marketing rights across a wide range of categories including real estate development, shopping malls, hotels, travel agencies, cinemas and theme parks.

The enhanced partnership will continue to promote the development of basketball worldwide, bringing more top international club competitions to China and also contributing to the development of basketball in the country through programmes such as the Little Champions initiative.

Zagklis said: "Today is a very important day for FIBA, not only because it is the start of the FIBA Basketball World Cup but it is also the day of a landmark announcement and celebration of this strategic global partnership extension with the Wanda Group.

"This 12-year extension confirms that Wanda and FIBA together think long-term and share the same vision."

During his address to Congress, Zagklis recalled a conversation at the beginning of this year with Muratore about one of the key pillars within the FIBA strategy, involving new governance and getting the Europeans on board.

"In January the President said to me: 'we have a heavy task – we need to finish this pillar. We have completed four continents. We need also to complete our work with our friends in Europe'.

"And we closed ourselves in a room with the leaders of Europe, headed by the FIBA Europe President Turgay Demirel. We managed to finish in five hours the problems of five years.

"I am thankful to the people who did it, thankful even more to our federations who came to the Assembly of Europe in May, and with a unanimity of 46 in 46, supported and said 'yes, we are one family, yes we know our role in this family. We know that we are a good player – of course Europe is a big player – but we know that this is a team of five players on the court at any given time'.

"This was the achievement that enabled us to complete the new FIBA governance and to be here today as what we had dreamed in 2014 – united.

"We don't confuse the audiences. We don't confuse our fans. We are FIBA. We are basketball. Therefore these are the synergies that we will have working from now on."

Zagklis went on to highlight the three pillars of the sport that will be priorities over the course of the next four years – the development and empowerment of national federations, women in basketball and enlarging the FIBA family in terms of including new youth players.

"The vision for the future remains the same – basketball as the most popular sports community," he said.  

"It has to be our vision because we can make it. It's not a dream, it's a vision."

New FIBA President Hamane Niang of Mali, who will serve a four-year term, pictured at the FIBA Congress in Beijing ©FIBA
New FIBA President Hamane Niang of Mali, who will serve a four-year term, pictured at the FIBA Congress in Beijing ©FIBA

In his first speech as FIBA President Niang paid tribute to the hand that had guided the sport in recent years and reflected upon the three key priorities in the FIBA strategy.

"Under the impetus of Patrick Baumann, who has sadly left us, our sport has developed over the last few years and I am convinced we are on exactly the right track," he said.

"I believe we have all the athletes we need in order to be able to achieve our goals as we have an ideal structure that will enable us to meet challenges in the future.

"We have very clear objectives. We know what we need to do. Our priorities for the next four years are set out.

"The first is probably the one closest to our hearts in FIBA. We will continue to do everything possible to strengthen the position of our national federations. Solid organisation and infrastructure will allow them to develop basketball in their respective countries.

"Our second priority is women's basketball. I think we saw at the Women's World Cup in Spain last year that the women's game was becoming more and more global. We are going to continue that development.

"The December 2019 calendar will increase the number of women's teams participating in FIBA competition. We hope they will play on a regular basis. We want more and more women to take up basketball.

"Finally we need to see that the FIBA family grows. We want to have traditional players and 3x3 players, we want to see more people involved in our sport at all levels. Together we will work to become the most popular sporting community in the world."