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Baltic ball a glimpse of future

Mark Woods

If Celtic and Rangers want a glimpse of the apparent future then it's to basketball which they might look. The Old Firm's mooted involvement in the proposed Atlantic League could break new ground but it is a trail which was blazed first with the recent launch of the Northern European Basketball League, an initiative which threatens to internationalise the sport as never before.

The brainchild of Sarunas Marciulionis, a former NBA star from Lithuania
who was a member of the Soviet Olympic gold medal side of 1988, the NEBL
has tipped off its first full campaign  with just 12 teams based in eight countries around the Baltic periphery, building on a more limited version of the competition of 1999. 

Until now, men's clubs harbouring continental ambition have been restricted to the three main competitions governed by FIBA, the sport's governing body. Like their footballing counterparts, a lucrative elite league which was not just confined to the champions of each country was set up in 1992 and since then,  basketball's riches have been increasingly concentrated within the Greek and Italian super-clubs who are well able to offer NBA level salaries.

With a rumoured proposal to divide that cake more generously next season
with a reduction in the Euro League membership from 24 to 16 teams, NEBL's arrival is a counter-weight to Mediterranean dominance and a threat even to FIBA's untouched authority in Europe. 

It is a charge which the upstart organisation has been quick to dispel, stressing co-operation rather than conflict. However it is the nature of NEBL's structure which as Marciulionis - the league's Commissioner - explains, makes it an attractive proposition but strict criteria are in place before clubs can climb aboard this apparent gravy train.

"First of all they have to present the team, high standard arena, hotel, media partners that will cover the League, local transportation arrangements. All the rest, including costs, is covered and done by the League. For the current moment NEBL clubs have no expenses. The League provides international transportation, accommodation and meals."

NEBL makes no secret that it is looking to the NBA for inspiration. One notable investor is basketball legend Magic Johnston whose deal to purchase Swedish outfit M7 Boras will see him play a number of games for
the club during the next two years.

"NBA activities are successful for many decades," adds Marciulionis. "The system of selling a basketball show and entertainment has already been worked out and developed. We shouldn't, of course, copy NBA model, because there are some differences in American economical base. But the most important rules of sports business are the same for all."

Several British clubs are expressed an interest with London Towers believed to have withdrawn their application for charter entry only at a late stage. A Scottish entry would be an attractive addition although the lack of a suitably sized venue will for now leave that idea on the sideline.

One club who have pushed themselves forward for future inclusion are Sheffield Sharks. And while club director Nick Montgomery is adopting a wait and see policy, he admits the possibility is intriguing.

"As an organisation we are interested in playing in European competitions.  Having said that the costs at the moment are prohibitive to us and would seem to be for the foreseeable future. However, we will continue to monitor closely the progress of the NEBL and the opportunity that it presents to an organisation like ourselves."

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