The German Beko BBL is the fastest growing basketball league and once again set a new attendance record. The German teams attracted more than 1.5 million fans during the 13-14 season.
Eight-time German champion Alba Berlin set the highest standard with an average attendance of 10,659 fans per game. These results might be surprising for most of European basketball fans but not for the general manager of Alba Berlin, Marco Baldi, who was working towards this direction for about a decade. Baldi and his team’s effort were recognized by Euroleague as he won the Euroleague's Club Executive of the Year for the 08-09 season award and his team received Euroleague wild card for the second time in last three years.
RealGM sat down with Baldi in Berlin to talk about his vision for Alba, German basketball, the financial side of European basketball, their upcoming friendly game against San Antonio Spurs and much more.
RealGM: First of all, how would you evaluate your team's performance during the 13-14 season?
Baldi: We should consider what we did before the season; I am talking about a complete renewal of the team. We only kept one junior player and one veteran player, while all the other players were recruited and were here for the first time. The circumstances have also changed in Germany as we now have Bayern Munich, who are what they are and they are ready to invest appropriately. Brose Baskets have also found a kind of an investor, who has a very strong relation to the club and he kind of takes it personal. Therefore he is also ready to invest, he can afford it because he is a billionaire. That means we have strong competition there and we have clubs within our league who are always able to top our offers, which changes a little bit the picture of German basketball.
We did a kind of step back; we did not go for big names. We found of good mixture of young players, who are ready to kill, ready to develop. With a very good work ethic, but no big names. We found great chemistry and combination of more experienced and internationally-proven guys such David Logan or Cliff Hammonds and also young foreigners who had their first tests to show if they can make that next step, like Reggie Redding. Also adding young players to this mixture worked out very well. You cannot forget our winning streak, which helped to build our confidence. If I have to draw a line, I would say it was unexpectedly beautiful season.
It is my 25th year here and I cannot remember a team that would put this much heart and effort on the court. Talent and skill wise, this team was not at the highest standard, but every single member was ready to work, ready to contribute. There was no jealousy and it was a huge pleasure to work with this team. Most of them are on the contract for the next season, including the young guys because this is the way we are heading. If you only look at the results, there is a title we won (Cup Trophy); we made it to the very last stage at the domestic league. Eurocup is a very underrated competition, which does not have this glamour effect that Euroleague has, but it is a very tough competition. Sometimes I think it is even tougher than Euroleague because the arenas you play are more difficult, travelling sometimes is more difficult as well. It is a very tough competition and we made it to the last eight and then lost to the champion Valencia.
All in all, I think we had a good season. For us it is always very important that we had great support from the spectators. We had a relation between people who are interested in the club and they had a very high-identification with the team, which is a very important thing for us. People saw that this team is leaving its heart on the court and is giving everything. You might have some games that are not on the highest level or you lose them, they can forgive us as long as people see that the effort is there and they see the purpose. It has been a fantastic season.
RealGM: You have mentioned the changes in German basketball. Alba is an eight-time German champion, but the last time the team won the championship was six years ago. Are those changes the main reasons of that?
Baldi: I think only Bayern Munich has the potential to dominate the league. But it is just the economical potential. It is an important part and the higher budget you have, more likely you win the league, but even for them it took couple of years to win the title. I don’t think within next five or ten years there will be one team that will completely dominate like it used to be with Bayer Leverkuen and Alba. The competition is much more balanced and it is very competitive. There is not a single game that you can win without the right approach. This has radically changed. I remember that around 2000 there were four or five teams that you can beat by just being there and doing your job. But it is not like that anymore. You need to prepare for each game, you need maximum effort because otherwise you might lose. I think this is what people want to see and what makes competition better. It increases our level every year and now we have six or seven teams that without having red faces could say they want to be in best four or go all the way to the final. They are not dreamers, they have the right, infrastructure and they have potential to achieve that. This is what makes basketball in Germany more attractive. There used to be one team and others were trying to shoot from the distance.
RealGM: For many years Alba has had amazing attendance numbers. This season you had an average of 10,000 spectators per game. How did you build this large fan base? Where did these results come from?
Baldi: First of all, Berlin is an interesting market because there are a lot of people, I am talking about modern and international people. On the other hand, at this moment we have 104 teams in the first division. Just in volleyball, I think there are three. The competition here is huge. But this is just sports as on the other hand, Berlin offers many other things as for instance people come here for only weekends to party and they leave two days later. This is another competition. We started to work on this around 12-14 years ago; we did not wait for the people to come the gate but we went out. We have six people working with tickets who do nothing else than developing ticketing programs, contacting people and do groups sales. There is a lot of effort there. Another thing is that we have a huge youth program. At this moment, there are 85 youth coaches under our umbrella who go to schools and they teach basketball there in the name of Alba club. We do that in Brandenburg area, while in Berlin we have contracts with 60 schools. All together, it is 3,000 kids and they all have friends and family, and they come to the games.
Of course, we also have special ticketing programs, but this is how we work. First of all, let’s make a platform where people could actively participate on Alba Berlin, I mean by playing the game. This one part, and the other is an aggressive ticketing, which means we are not waiting for people to come to the gates, but we go out, we sell to corporations, we sell to groups. There is not a one institution in Berlin that we have not contacted yet in order to sell them tickets. This is our investment. Also we keep our people motivated and we give them competitive salary. Maybe we could have a better player but then we might not have fans in the arena. We believe in sustainability - the more fans come, the better our image will be and maybe we will have a chance to increase the culture of our team. Also we are used to work on a market. We have never been organized in a way that we rely on a sheikh, a millionaire or a city. We are always working on a market and this is how we grow. This was built over years.
RealGM: It seems that everything Alba does is based on financial or other logic, however, in the offseason teams like Alba has to compete with teams which do not have large fan bases and they pay the players unreasonable amounts of money. Does that bother you and do you think there will be a salary cap or any financial regulation in the future?
Baldi: When you grow up in basketball in general, you are used to competition. There will always be a one who has more or who is nicer. This is one part. I think Euroleague is going towards this direction that you are talking about by so-called financial fair play. They know that it is not healthy if clubs with the biggest budgets in the Euroleague depends just on one person. We see what happened to Montepaschi Siena. It was a typical monostructural club, depending on one institution, which was a bank, and once that bank faced problems, the team is in trouble as well. We are not waiting for the sheikh. Maybe he will come, but we are not waiting for him. And if he does not come, we will not blame anyone. We are also not blaming anyone that are in the market with much higher salaries because that cannot be avoided but at the end, they might not even pay, as it happens often in basketball. For this kind of approach, there should be a very clear regulations. Euroleague is working towards this direction as they offer ticketing programs, teach you how to work with the fans, they offer marketing programs as well. If we want to develop European basketball, we can only do it with sustainability. We cannot do it by just waiting for people who might invest some money in basketball because they consider it to be fun. Or if they see basketball team as a toy or a thing of personal interest. We cannot give our basketball into these hands.
Of course, this is not specifically a basketball problem as we have in football teams such PSG or Chelsea, where you have these situations. I am not crying that Russians or somebody else have more money because this situation has been like this for years. Previously it was Greece, who offered two or three times more money than you could even think of, but they never got paid and players were off the market at the time. There are some regulations now and we should continue to work on this situation. On the other hand, it is always important for basketball to have investors. But most sustainable investors are these who get something back, not those who do it for fun. There are exceptions like Panathinaikos situations, where a family has been investing for so long, they have my respect. On the other hand, it cannot be a model for a European basketball.
RealGM: Where do you see German championship ranked among European competitions in five or ten years?
Baldi: It is very difficult to say, but German league has a goal to become the best league in Europe by 2020. But what is the best league? Best basketball, highest attendance, best TV coverage? The criteria are not so easy to define. I think we really improved in the last years. Definitely, in order to make the next step, we need more German players. We are working on this very hard. At the moment, we have some kind of misbalance because some of the teams in Germany feel nervous that you have to pay very high salaries for German, comparing with the prices in the international market. On the other hand, to give players motivation, we need those regulations we have now in order to motivate and develop German players. Spain or Lithuania, I think they make their living because they have so many great players. Maybe they have other weaknesses such weak economy, inexperience in marketing or ticketing or other things, but they have the core, which are players and coaches. We need to work on this direction and we need to improve.
Answering your question, I think now Spain is stronger and then I am not sure who is second. Because you have those typical situations in Israel or Greece, where you have one or two very dominant teams. Italy? Not really. France? Stable but we are there.
RealGM: No German players made it to All-BBL First or Second team this season. Is the fact that players from abroad dominate the German league your biggest worry?
Baldi: I do not think that the problem is foreigners dominating the league, but we definitely need more higher-level German players. If we were good and foreigners would still dominate the league, then why not. At the best time of Italian league Bob McAdoo and players like him was dominating. When Italy had golden era, they had many great international players. What you said is one of the biggest worries and it is something that we need to work on; bring more German basketball players to the highest level. We started ten years ago collecting kids from schools to teach them basketball. And it starts from there. In Lithuania, probably the first sport young kids meet is basketball, while here in Germany they get in touch with soccer, then more soccer, then maybe a little bit of handball, then volleyball and then maybe some basketball, which is taught by someone who is better in soccer (laughing). And we need to change that. The best place where it can happen is school. Of course, most of kids who are involved in our training program will do it for fun but who wants more, they come to our club, they get their practices and support. If you want to move further, all the options are there. This season we won the junior title and the results are slowly coming up. We started ten years ago when they were six years old. Now they are 16-year-old and it will take another five or six years and then we will have the benefits.
This is Berlin only and we gave to do it nationwide. Berlin is a specific place, while in other places, maybe even rural areas you must use other concept. The number of people playing basketball must be increased and then of course we need to improve coaching quality, referees because it is all connected. But first step is to bring young kids to basketball. We already made some steps; there are requirements from the league now. If you want to participate in the top league, you must work with youth. It is not you want it or not, you have to. We are improving in that but it will take certain time to grow more quality players. The circumstances are right for that and there is no excuse.
RealGM: In your opinion, what the future holds for German national team after the retirement of Dirk Nowitzki?
Baldi: First of all, the German national team was depending a lot on Nowitzki. I think it was a miracle that the guy who was really exhausted after a long season was still involved and had a special role there. He was still coming back to Germany and played for Germany. At the same time, everyone understands that this is over. Maybe he might play in a game or two, but more or less this is over. For this reason I think we need to create a certain spirit and bring something to play for this team. I’m talking about the approach “Dirk is there, I’m coming” and “oh no, Dirk is not there, I’m not coming, I need to rest”. This is the first thing that needs to be done. Then it is again, players development is not a thing that you can do in two years, it will take time. We have many good players, of course not as many as Lithuania or Greece, which are smaller countries. Talking about material if we compare Germany with Italy, I would not say that they are on a higher level. I think until German national team will be really strong, I am talking about making to the final four of European championship, it is going to take some time. Maybe five years. We could find something better with Nowitzki and Chris Kaman, but that would not be natural. To develop our players, get to the next level, it is going to take us about four-five years.
RealGM: Did you expect to get a wild card from Euroleague and what does this extra attention from Euroleague means for the team?
Baldi: Yes, I think they appreciate what we do because they see the way we are working. They also understood that German competition is not so easy to win. We have their support and they like the model we have here. We are grateful to have their support. On the other hand, there are sports ranking with different criteria. Sports criteria, TV ranking, fans attendance. If you look there now, we are here and it is not a big surprise for us. Even last year we were there but they chose Budivelnik Kyiv because they could not foresee what is going to happen in Ukraine but they saw this possibility with Ukraine having European championship and basketball growth there.
Of course we have our limits because we do not have an investor who would not care about the money and would buy every player we want. There is a high-consistency, sustainability and we spend only the money that we generate. Sometimes it is a little bit boring because it is more exacting when you have guys from the NBA coming to play for your team. But on the other hand, we cannot afford this. They analyze the cities and that is why we got the support. Also, whenever we played in the Euroleague, except once, we always made it to the Top 16. There are many explanations to choose Berlin basketball, the market is interesting and we have proved that we are serious.
RealGM: Despite Berlin being a huge market, do you see Alba becoming a European powerhouse by going this “I spend as much as I generate only” way?
Baldi: Of course it is possible. At the same time, the regulations should be adapted as well. Two or three years ago there was a report by a company, which analyses sports business, that the basketball section of FC Barcelona had 30 million euros turnover with six million euros revenue. As long it is going to be like this, we have no chance. Again, I am not crying and I am not blaming anyone for this. I think we have to come to reasonable terms and we will develop in this direction. Investors must feel comfortable in the Euroleague and they must see that it is attractive to invest there. We need to build the sustainability, otherwise, as we see with Siena, an elite league cannot afford to have protagonist who suddenly disappear. It just cannot happen. It will come but it is a process. It will definitely help us but we need to work ourselves as well. We need to find people who are ready to invest in our project and want to work on sustainability. We see people put a lot of money, they do not win and then they just come home and do something else like horse riding. That is why we need sustainability and we are developing into this direction. We might not become a powerhouse in five years but the market, Berlin allows it, and the arena is here, the potential. We cannot have CSKA approach - whenever you offer we can top it, we want to have this player. This cannot be our approach and it is not going to be.
RealGM: What was your first reaction when you heard officially that Alba is going to compete against the San Antonio Spurs? What are your expectations for the game?
Baldi: I cannot say this because Dirk will be disappointed, but I was hoping to play against San Antonio Spurs because it is much better to play against NBA champions. That is my favorite team in the NBA, I followed them all the years. We are happy that we had an opportunity to play Dallas Mavericks. And this is what people want to see - local team playing against an NBA team. We had Washington Wizards and New Orleans Hornets in Berlin in 2009 and you cannot compare the revenues and TV coverage with the game that Alba was involved. People want to see great NBA teams, in this case it is going to be the best one, playing against the home team. If NBA teams play against each other, it might work in London, but it does not work in Berlin. I am sure that if Indiana Pacers would come to Kaunas to play against Zalgiris, that is what people would like to see. You were asking when we will become a powerhouse but do not forget that this is going to be our 25th season. This is still a young club and this event fits our anniversary season perfectly. We are very honored and we will try to do everything to play a very good role there. We do not have to motivate our guys and we have some experience as we played against the Mavericks here. Different rules and the atmosphere is a little bit different as well. But you have to adapt, even if it for one game. I do not want to say that the result will not count but especially for our young guys, just to play against the top of the top is fantastic. This is a great opportunity.