The FIBA Basketball World Cup gets bigger and better!

Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game of basketball back in 1891, could’ve never imagined the popularity that this little game would enjoy one day. Today, basketball is the second-most popular – and the fastest-growing – sport in the world. Naismith has been forever immortalised with his name on the trophy of basketball’s biggest international event, the FIBA World Championship.

Yet, when it comes to international competitions, basketball is yet to have the same type of impact that world’s most famous sport – football – has had. Yes, the game of hoops is played all around the world, and yes, professional basketball stars and leagues (mostly the NBA) are immensely popular around the world. But when it comes to the world’s national teams, the magic has rarely ever translated globally the same way. National team success in basketball isn’t yet celebrated the same way that it is in football, or cricket.

This is a major void, but it seems that the world’s governing body of basketball – FIBA – is finally taking big steps to fill it.

In a meeting of FIBA’s Central Board in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Sunday, FIBA has given the green light to some major changes in the format of its biggest international basketball competitions – including the Basketball World Cup – and the calendar of international basketball events. The new moves are designed to hopefully emulate the success of international football and give an exciting new identity to international hoops.

If you have been following my work, you would remember that back in summer – intrigued by FIBA’s move to revamp the World Championship and the excitement over Euro 2012 – I wrote a feature about why a differently-modeled World Cup of basketball would be the best idea ever. I had argued that currently, the most prestigious international basketball event is at the Olympics, but basketball has to share the spotlight at Olympic Games with dozens of other sports. The FIBA World Championships don’t usually have the same hype because most of the best players around the world don’t consider it to be a top priority. Serious hoops fans will follow the game religiously at almost every level, but FIBA hasn’t yet mastered the art of cashing in from the casual fan like FIFA does in football.

But the new changes to the World Championship might be the type of rebranding needed to boost the game’s global popularity.

After the 2014 FIBA World Championships in Spain, the next edition of championship will be moved to 2019 (instead of 2018), and played every four years from that point forward. The tournament will be called the FIBA World Cup and its timing will mean that it will fall in the summer between the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, instead of clashing with the football World Cup like it usually does. This will mean that FIBA’s flagship event will enjoy exclusive visibility compared to the two other major international sporting events.

Starting from 2019 onwards, the FIBA World Cup will feature 32 teams – an increase from the previous 24 – a move that also parallels the FIFA World Cup model. More teams means more interest and excitement from more parts of the world. 32 is the perfect number for such tournaments as teams can take part in a group league so that each team plays at least a few minimum games, and then proceed to an exciting knockout bracket of 16 to determine the winner.

The qualification period for this championship is being extended too, and will begin almost two years prior to the tournament, from November 2017. National teams will be divided into two divisions – Division A and Division B – with groups of three or four teams in an open system with promotion and relegation.

FIBA says that a total of 140 national teams from all the federations in the world – North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania – will take part in the qualification leading up to the World Cup. Furthermore, games will be played around the world in a home-and-away format, so that all the 140 countries can look forward to being able to host ‘Road to the World Cup’ games and watch their country’s best basketball players in action!

Asia and Oceania will play in a combined Asia-Pacific region to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, but universality will remain in place for the qualifying process to the Olympic Games. This means that, with Australia and New Zealand in the Asian bracket, it makes it tougher for some of the weaker Asian countries (like India) to make their way up to the World Cup. Exactly how many seeds that each bracket will receive in the Final 32 is yet to be determined.

At this point, the continental basketball championships – such as the FIBA Asia Championship or the FIBA Americas Championship – are held every two years. But this is also set to change. From 2017 onwards, the continental championships will be held once every four years also, and will have a similar system of qualification as the Basketball World Cup. The new qualifying process for these championships will only come into effect after 2019.

Currently, each sub-division in a continent holds a tournament in one host country to determine the teams who qualify for the continental championship. For example, to qualify for the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan (China), India hosted the Mid-Asian Zone Qualifiers in New Delhi, a tournament between itself, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, and Nepal. As the winner of this tournament, India got to represent the MAZ in Wuhan. But in the future, all the countries will play in a home-and-away league type system to determine the qualifiers for both the FIBA Asia Championship and the FIBA World Cup. This is good news for countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc., who can host more prestigious international basketball qualifying events.

FIBA has said that the new qualifications system will see more than 1,200 games played in a four year cycle in 140 countries! So, yes, more basketball!

In their release, FIBA were also careful to bring up the ‘club vs. country’ debate that might arise for many of the top basketball athletes in the world. They say, “[FIBA] recognises the fundamental role played by clubs and leagues worldwide and the need for appropriate insurance for players competing for their national teams. The new competition format takes the health of top players into consideration by reducing their current summer workload and responds to the clubs’ concerns about player fatigue and injury. The FIBA Central Board looks forward to cooperating with all stakeholders to make this new calendar a success for the world of basketball.”

There is sure to be more raging debate on this point once the new calendar sets into motion, but for countries like India, which don’t have celebrated basketball leagues like in the USA, Europe, or China, more international basketball is just the type of exposure that our best players need. The club/country dilemma will definitely spring up concerning the health and fatigue of the NBA’s best players, but if the right balance can be found in the schedule, then the best players in the NBA can take part in their national team and devote their attention to the NBA teams, too. Football teams around the world do this all the time. Football clubs aren’t always happy about this, but the players are more or less able to devote attention to both club and international competitions. There are a few injuries and annoyed coaches (like Arsene Wenger) along the way, but the system – in a broad scale – seems to work. It can work for basketball, too.

So far, the changes only concern Men’s international competition, although FIBA say that similar revamps will be announced in the Women’s game soon as well.

As basketball fans in India, we can now realistically look forward to more high-quality international action for our national team in the future, and thus, create a bigger buzz for Indian hoops. This is no secret, but despite our great population, we are pretty bad at most sports relative to the rest of the world, and basketball is no exception. India’s Senior Men’s side currently ranks at 58th place in the world. But with the recent boost in the game’s management back home has meant that the next generation of young Indian players have shown immense potential to take a major leap forward. It is definitely realistic that, in the next 5-7 years (as the World Cup qualification leads to the World Cup), India will be able to leap frog several other countries and get to the high 30s in the world ranking. By the time the 1st (new) Basketball World Cup rolls around in 2019, we may be able to find ourselves in the tournament’s final 32.

And what then? Yes, we’ll be minnows and prime fodder to some of the best teams in the world, but hey, at least we’d be there! I’m already imagining Satnam Singh Bhamara and Love Neet Singh facing off against Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving. Now someone please control me before my imagination starts to run a little too wild.

Congrats to FIBA for these bold changes. It’s a surprise that a hugely popular sport like basketball took so long to take this leap, but in about half a decade, it will finally be here. The basketball world will have a major international sporting competition to call its own. And that simple little game that Dr. James Naismith invented 120 years ago will be more popular than ever.

Edited by Staff Editor
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