The State of German Basketball Business – May 2020

It’s a series of “first afters” here in Berlin these days. Yesterday, on the 15th, restaurants and cafés were allowed to offer dine-in again. Today, the other Bundesliga, the football (soccer) one, had their first game day after the Corona lockdown. Unlike most top-level leagues in other sports, most notably ice hockey (DHL) and handball (HBL), top-level basketball (BBL) also has decided to play out a continuation of this 2019/20 season. In the following post, I want to summarise, what this means for pro basketball in Germany and how the following season could look like.

The Final 10 Format

  • 10 out of 17 BBL teams play out a very condensed championship, starting from beginning of June, with games every second day, all in Munich, in the home arena of FC Bayern München Basketball.
  • All games are played without any spectators in the arena, for obvious reasons and teams are supposed to stay isolated from the rest of the world for the duration of the tournament.
  • The modus is going to be two groups of five playing a single round robin, after which the top four teams of each group play out the quarter finals.
  • The K.O. rounds, including the final will be played with two games, i.e. two legs, or “home” and “away”.

The ten participating teams are not the top 10 teams according to the standings when the season was interrupted after game day 22 (out of 32) on March 8. Würzburg, Dirk Nowitzki’s home club, decided to not participate despite finishing 8th. Braunschweig, Bayreuth and Giessen passed, allowing the FRAPORT Skyliners from Frankfurt to get into these “playoffs”, despite finishing 14th, with 6-15 record. Especially in the case of Bayreuth, I must say that I am surprised that they passed, as I thought their sponsors are very keen on seeing success rather sooner than later. Bonn (15th) was keen on hosting the tournament and I think not giving that honor to one of the cities not participating might have been a mistake by the BBL teams, which decided otherwise.

Player Transfers

The BBL agreed on letting each team acquire up to two new players for the tournament. Vechta (6th) will look the most different, with five players from the “regular” season missing, and two – still to be selected – players coming in. Göttingen (9th) is missing three players and got two players from abroad instead, Crailsheim (3rd) has acquired two of key players from MBC (16th) and Hamburg (17th) at the bottom of the table, Bamberg (7th) is missing two players, Olinde and Bryce Taylor due to injuries. Bayern as the top team will be unchanged and Berlin also did not add anyone. For the clubs that changed their lineups considerably, I think it will be interesting to see how the fans will accept the new faces and identity of “their” team.

Winners & Losers of the Break

ALBA Berlin went into a social media frenzy during the Corona crisis, focused on instructional YouTube videos for basketball-related exercises for three different age groups, starting from Kindergarten age. These videos generally “only” gathered 20k viewers, so far, but I believe this content will be timeless to some extent and the focused strategy, with a steady rhythm of publications, will pay off handsomely in the future.

Brose Bamberg arguably had the worst break. After persistent rumours already before the crisis, yesterday it was officially announced that Brose, the majority owner and main sponsor of the club, will gave up their stake in the club in July, while staying on board as a sponsor – for now, at least for another three seasons. This, however might be the begin of an Abschied auf Raten, as you say in German, ultimately leading up to Brose to longer supporting basketball in Bamberg. The days of playing in the Euroleague – 2016/17 for the last time – and as the best club in the country seem long gone now and the trend looks downward, although it is hard to imagine the BBL without Bamberg, given how big the sport is in the city.

Down in the lower tiers of German basketball, the season was ended prematurely by a decision in the middle of March, to make the intermediary results final. Schalke 04 (16th in Pro A, second league) and Elchingen (1st in Pro B, third league) already pulled out for the next season, ending their professional ambitions. I have a feeling that these two clubs will not remain the only ones that are dropping out, or moving down a league or two voluntarily.

Women’s pro basketball maybe found the worst possible solution of all, by deciding to annul the entire 2019/20 season results for the DBBL, due to the veto of two clubs. Fortunately, over on the other side of the pond, Satou Sabally was picked second in the WNBA draft, just behind her Oregon Ducks teammate Sabrina Ionescu. Two more Germans, Luisa Geiselsöder and Leonie Fiebich, were selected in the second round. As only 4 Non-Americans made it in this draft, out of 36 picks in total, this certainly gives some hope for the future of German women’s basketball.

Outlook for the 2020/21 season

At the end of last season, there were rumours that some of the top clubs wanted to shrink the league from 18 down to 16 teams. In the end, only Nuremberg, home of the very successful Fame-or-Shame summer ProAm, could not convince the BBL that they would have a suitable arena in time, leading to the literally odd 17 we had now. Along with the agreement on the Final 10 format, the league also agreed that there would be no demotion this season based on the results. I do not want to speculate which club(s) will no longer be in the BBL next season, however, I think it is rather likely that we are going to see only 16, as several clubs just barely got the budget to play first league in the last few seasons and it is likely that several bigger sponsors will reduce their investment in the upcoming crisis, not just Brose.

Below the first league, Pro A had 17 teams, Pro B 12 teams each in two groups, resulting in a total of 24 teams. For me it’s hard to imagine that this number will not shrink further as well, beyond the two clubs that already dropped out, so we might see German pro basketball going from 58 clubs in 2019/20 to something around 54 the season after. Like with the introduction of local player rules in lower-tier Regionalliga (4th league) before the current season, this means that getting a job in German basketball is getting tougher, once again. Overall, the picture is somewhat bleak, but then again, compared to most other sports and basketball in other countries, German basketball might actually fare better and ultimately get out stronger from this crisis.

One trend that will be interesting to watch is whether the first league will move towards having more clubs in Germany’s biggest cities, after Hamburg was promoted before this season. Out of the 15 biggest German cities, only four have a top-level basketball club based directly in the city, compared to eight in the football Bundesliga. With Bayern establishing itself in the first league over the last couple of years, there were some fears among fans that clubs primarily known for their football teams would take over basketball too. After what happened to Schalke and with economic pressures on most other top-tier football clubs as well, this now seems less likely than ever.

If you are an American interested in playing professionally in Europe, I highly recommend the No Plan B podcast by Rene Weimann and my friend Joe Asberry, a video scout for MAC Sports Management & Consulting and former pro, who played most of his career in Germany, but also played professional ball in Japan and Finland. Here is an interview with him in SLAM, from back in 2015.

If you are a coach looking to learn, I highly recommend the European Basketball Webinar by Thomas Roijakers. I participated in several of the sessions in the beginning of this month.