Aim for the Body Rare

The US Olympic team infuses me with a level of glee mostly incommensurate to the amount I care about the competition itself. On a basic level, the sight of Kidd throwing full-court outlets and Kobe molesting Euroleaguers taps into a fantasy for games to become extended YouTube clips, as if these games existed solely so we could imagine alternate universes in which LeBron has four all-star teammates and hamburgers eat people.

Yet, for as much as these games hold my interest, I struggle to make any legitimate observations about them that trumpet the importance of Olympic basketball. Because these games are so thrilling as showcases for our glorious nation’s best talent in a competitive atmosphere, I try to think up ways to make players approach the All-Star Game more like this, without the overbearing need to “put on a show” that turns many mid-winter classics into collections of the greatest turnovers in history. Likewise, when a foreign team beats the Americans, I try to imagine how aspects of those teams’ games can be applied to the NBA.

When I mentioned these issues to Shoals earlier this week, he accused me of practicing a subtle form of Amerocentrism. Frankly, he’s right: there’s no reason to deny the fact that the United States’ recent international losses are just as important as victories for Greece, Spain, et al. But this Amerocentrism seems at least somewhat indirect. After all, my interest would only increase if Dirk replaced Michael Redd on the roster without the aid of reverse-Kaman shenanigans. This interest isn’t about jingoistic fervor – it’s about a belief that the NBA features basketball far more relevant than anything the Olympics can produce. And, if this opinion can be held by hardcore basketball fans in the country in which the sport is most popular, then what importance does international success really hold for developing national basketball scenes? Do Argentinians secretly pine for the day when Walter Hermann decides to skip the Olympics to pursue his erotic dreams?

To be sure, the short-term national pride that follows a medal plays a huge role here, particularly for those countries that lack a long history of athletic success. But big victories every two or four years can’t substitute for the evergreen international relevance of having an insanely popular league operating on your soil. On some level, an internationally legitimate pro league must be a basketball culture’s ultimate goal, if only because the constant attention afforded to it presents basketball as a worthy alternative to more traditional sports in those nations. As important as Greece’s FIBA win over the United States was for the Greek game, the Childress deal (and any future continent-jumpers) is a more telling sign of that country’s basketballular development. On-court and financial milestones certainly operate in a feedback loop, but year-long financial competition will eventually provide the biggest challenge to the NBA monopoly on talent.

If you’re like Ugly American Me, it’s very hard even to try to see the world through the eyes of someone who talks funny and lives in a far-off land, so let’s look at a similar example of something a little closer to home: American soccer. For the majority of high-level European club teams, Olympic soccer is a two-week nuisance of a tournament that only serves to injure players in meaningless games. Simply put, the leagues don’t need it to succeed in the marketplace, with one league, the German Bundesliga, initially refusing to release its players and only acquiescing after a FIFA-issued mandate. The NBA’s global ambition lends Olympic basketball more importance than soccer clubs give to their tournament, but all these leagues, at their core, would still dominate without the Olympics. Now, soccer has the World Cup and various continental tournaments to serve that global role, but the general idea is the same: club teams take the lead, and international tournaments serve mainly to drive interest in the players who perform year-round for their clubs.

The US Men’s National Team has featured few, if any European stars outside of goalkeepers, which puts them in a position roughly analogous to that of the Greek basketball team that defeated the Americans two years ago. If US Soccer were to defeat, say, the Brazil or Argentina in Beijing, it would be an upset on the same level as that of the Greeks. Even if such an event was talked about in terms of national pride at the time, the overriding national sentiment would be that these soccer players are legitimate and deserve to be seen more than once every two years. The MLS Cup wouldn’t shoot to the top of the Nielsens for the month, but Olympic success would undoubtedly help drive some interest in the league. From a strategic standpoint, Olympic success is the means by which less successful national soccer organizations reach a critical mass within their own countries. It follows that American and African national teams typically put much more stock in Olympic success than other countries, if only because international tournament stand as rare chances to ignite national interest around pride and build stronger soccer infrastructures within their countries. On some level, the English federations no longer need the Olympics – the World Cup is enough.

Except that, even though the Premiership dominates the international marketplace, clubs like Liverpool release for participation key players who they could legally block from participating in the Olympics. Moves like these show exactly why this league is seen as the best in the world even though it arguably features an inferior product: they understand direct marketing to parts of the world where people cannot easily view these players. Not surprisingly, the Bundesliga is slowly losing popularity in every country outside of Germany, which suggests that their refusal to release stars like Brazil’s Diego is a sign of a larger problem.

Let’s return to basketball before I start referring to alley-oops as volleys. When we look at Olympic basketball through the prism of soccer, we can see that things like China’s steadfast decision to make Yao Ming play a full national-team schedule every summer is understandable, as it is the best way for them to increase their national – and therefore international – hold on popular athletics. Without sustained success in international competitions, these countries are doomed to occupy a middling spot in basketball culture for the foreseeable future.

But, even if the Americans lose this tournament, it’s hard to imagine David Stern and the NBA not coming out of this tournament as the biggest winners. The fact remains that the league and, lest we forget, Nike are exposing themselves to the largest untapped marketplace in the world, and my fantasies of All-Star Game perfection are exuberance is exactly the kind of reaction that Stern seeks to provoke from more than a billion people. This is a Dream Team in the truest sense of the name: they’re in Beijing to make minds race about the possibilities of the league, a place where Kidd hits Melo in stride from 90 feet away and CP3 and Deron one-up each other even as they reach for the same goals.

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At 7/31/2008 4:23 AM, Blogger milaz said...

If I am not mistaken olympics football is U21 allowing each team to have three players ofer 21 only. If this was the case for basketball as well then no team would take it's pros with x years experience and the comparison would make more sense...

At 7/31/2008 5:17 AM, Blogger bordesinremedio said...

But you have mistaken some facts and the differences between sports. While in soccer it is far more important the World Cup than the Olympics,in basketball is quite the contrary, it is more important to win the gold medal than the world cup. This emphasize how differently evolved both sports.

And about soccer, Bundesliga has never been an important league, it always had interest for hardcore fans, but apart from them, it has never attracted enough interest. So, the league hasn't lost interest, it is a second rate league.

And people who now loves the Premier League and talking about the best league in the world, which currently is, also forget that 3 years ago was the Spanish one and during the 90's was the Italian one. The English Premier League will have a good years but in one time or another will shift to another league. So your comparison about the two leagues is partly misleading.

And do not forget the Champions League.

At 7/31/2008 9:45 AM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

FIFA, not wanting the Olympics to take away from the luster of the World Cup, only allows U23 players to compete in the Olympics (with three exceptions allowed). Men's Soccer in the Olympics is best compared to basketball in the Olympics pre-Dream Team, and even then only if the rest of the world was also limited to college age kids.

At 7/31/2008 11:45 AM, Blogger Kaifa said...

SML is totally right. Also, what German Bundesliga teams and now also soccer teams from Spain and Italy criticize is the same thing that NBA teams worry about: their star players getting hurt in a competition not benefitting the club teams that pay said star players. The teams in European soccer care about international success as much as NBA teams do - not at all, because they care for their investnments. Even leading up to big international tournaments there's all sorts of quarrel between club teams and the national football bodies.

What could come out of this: first, maybe FIFA gets enough confidence in its World Cup to allow all players to participate, the Olympic Comittee drops the 'amateurs only' rule (like for the Dream Team in 1992) and the Olympic soccer tournament will steadily increase in importance - to the fans that is, to whom it could become as important as the WC. Or, some system will have to be implemented that mirrors the insurance policy that e.g. Mark Cuban lets the German Baslketball Federeation pay to have Dirk Nowitzki on board. Or maybe nothing happens and we'll have the same discussions again in four years.

Also, I think that no Greek basketball fan will ever be more proud about a top-notch national league than an Olympic medal or a World Championship. Maybe it's just the geographic proximity of the rivaling countries, but in my opinion international competition will always be the most glorious and most prestigious for European sports fans.

At 7/31/2008 11:51 AM, Blogger themarkpike said...

One of my favorite sports memories of all-time was attending the 1996 Olympics soccer match in Athens, Georgia with my dad.

Nigeria overcame a deficit to defeat Argentina (and Crespo!) in the last few minutes of the game. The place was going nuts all day, with the Nigerians in attendance banging drums right up behind "the hedges."

They had just beaten the Brazilian juggernaut in the semis, with Brazil featuring Ronaldo and Bebeto on attack. I think Romario was even there as one of their over-23's. Nobody thought Nigeria could pull off the finals victory over a stacker Argentina.

They did. It was declared a National Holiday in Nigeria.

At 7/31/2008 11:54 AM, Blogger themarkpike said...


"Kanu's protestations were meek. He is torn between club and country. Arsenal gambled on him after it was discovered, after the 1996 Olympics, that he had a heart-valve infection."

At 7/31/2008 1:12 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

Shoals' Artest post on the Sporting Blog is amazing. I completely agtree and can't wait to see how mcgrady and Artest coexist. I'm from SA and have a unfliching loyalty to the Spurs but I'm certain I'll be rooting for the Rockets if the Spurs are (fading?)out of the picture. It does seem like this might actually increase the pressure on Mcgrady in a way similar to that of Kg in Boston, there are no more excuses...

At 7/31/2008 2:13 PM, Blogger morgenstern said...

This is a great post, period. The soccer parallelism may be wrong in some details, but it is sound. World cup is the big event, when italy won two years ago we danced in the streets all night long, the priest even cued the big church bells for the last penalty. everybody remembers that, but the real hardcore fans get amped every year for the champions league, nothing tops that in sheer 'game quality' and star potential, a bit like the nba.

If the soccer olympic tournament became as important as the world cup tv here probably wouldn't even show all the other events.

At 7/31/2008 2:39 PM, Blogger Ty Keenan said...

Thanks to everyone who's commented with context. I wasn't able to include that stuff due to length issues in here, but I do want to address everything.

First, SML is right, Olympic soccer is closer to pre-Dream Team basketball, but there's an important difference in that U23 players like Messi can be seen as some of the best players in the world and still play in the Olympics. In the pre-Dream Team era, basketball players were still rookies who hadn't proven themselves in top leagues, although they did have some amount of star wattage. From a league marketing perspective (which is really what this post is about), you're not just displaying up-and-comers to the rest of the world -- it's also about showcasing league stars. So, even though it's not on the same level as the World Cup, there's still an opportunity for expansion.

And that's where the point about the Bundesliga comes in. Bordes is right that the Bundesliga hasn't been a top league for a while, but it's still losing steam outside of Germany. There's a fundamental difference between being relatively unpopular in comparison to leagues like the Premiership and attempting to negotiate television contracts that screw consumers because the clubs desperately need money. The Bundesliga isn't so much worse than those other leagues that they should have to make highlights unavailable to a large portion of their domestic fans.

There are multiple reasons for that, but I'm sure that a lack of broad marketing savvy is one of them. Injuries are and should certainly be a concern for these clubs, but these tournaments can be used as important marketing opportunities too. If it were only about injuries, Liverpool wouldn't release Javier Mascherano when they can legally block him from playing. Some of that has to do with making your players happy, but it's not as if Liverpool and the Premiership don't stand to benefit from exposing their players on an international stage. Werder Bremen can't operate from the same position of economic strength as Liverpool when taking that risk, but some change in strategy might be warranted.

Also, Kaifa, you're right about international play being a bigger deal on an event-by-event basis, but I don't think biannual victories in major competitions can match the day-by-day attention, importance, and money devoted to a league that's considered close to or equal to the NBA. That goal is a long ways off from being met, but I still think it's the eventual goal.

At 7/31/2008 11:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@themarkpike: I was at that game, too. Still get chills thinking about the award ceremony, but there was some seven foot tall dude blocking my family's view for the majority of the game, unfortunately.

At 8/01/2008 11:10 AM, Blogger Jerry Vinokurov said...

Sorry to keep talking about soccer, but...

It would be impossible to add another international competition to the already impacted schedule that players are playing these days. When they're not playing for clubs, they're qualifying for or participating in the European/South American/African competitions, and every 4 years there's a World Cup. The Olympics will never be even remotely as important as those other events. For basketball, on the other hand, it seems that the international schedule is pretty light, so a high-profile event like the Olympics is going to mean a lot more exposure.

At 8/03/2008 8:05 PM, Blogger Robin said...

Great post. For years I've been trying to explain to people that the regression in US Olympic basketball comes from the fact that no one in the US really cares about it anymore. Fans don't care about it as much as the NBA, because the NBA is the pinnacle of basketball, both in America and internationally. The US doesn't have an incentive to put forth as much effort as, say, China or Greece in international competition. Other countries value the Olympics because it's a bigger venue than their national leagues, and cultivate their athletes accordingly; hence the dedication of guys like Gabrojosa.


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