Poor worldwide economy is limiting overseas basketball opportunities for U.S. players

Traditionally, professional basketball leagues in Europe and Asia have been refuges for female players.

Before the ABL and the WNBA, overseas leagues were where women aspired to play after college. Since the inception of pro ball in the U.S., overseas teams still appeal to those who don’t make a team’s cut here, as well as those professionals looking to play year-round and supplement their income.

But a poor worldwide economy the last several years has chipped away at overseas teams – especially in Europe – to the point where some franchises have shut down. Those that are left are paying lower salaries to athletes. The result is that basketball players are having a hard time finding jobs overseas, and those that do are being paid a lot less.

“It wasn’t so long ago that people were shocked at how much players were getting paid overseas,” said Noah Croom, vice president of Seattle-based Goodwin Sports Management. “But the economic downturn has impacted the U.S. as well as Europe. It’s effecting basketball worldwide.”

The most dramatic example may be the Valencia, Spain-based Ros Casares team, which won a Euroleague championship this past season. To the shock of those in the industry, the franchise folded last May 30.

“Teams that shouldn’t have financial problems are folding, because of the incredible financial crisis around the world,” said Mike Cound, president of the Cound Group. “Things are falling apart.”

Boris Lelchitski, founder and CEO of Sports International Group, Inc., said many other teams have folded as well. Three of the hardest-hit countries have been Spain, Greece and Italy.

“In Spain it’s really bad….Greece – it’s a complete wreck,” he said. “A lot of teams in Italy, where the economy is really bad, they dramatically cut their budgets.”

Women’s professional basketball in Europe and Asia is directly effected by the worldwide recession because teams there are sponsored by businesses and governments. When faced with keeping their enterprises alive, companies cut the extras, like their team sponsorships. Ditto, governments. And as up to 100 percent of a team’s budget can come from sponsors, some franchises are forced to fold.

Lelchitski is from Russia and coached the Spartak team there for 11 years before coming to the United States and starting SIG, Inc. in 1996. He explained that in smaller towns overseas, teams are funded by local governments for the citizenry.

“That’s where the money comes from is the taxpayers, and it doesn’t bother them because people love the teams,” Lelchitski said. “Women’s basketball is very popular in Europe for a long time – 45 years. It’s just a general attraction to the sport.”

The pro game also attracts European and Asian spectators because colleges there are not tied with athletics as they are in the United States, and professional basketball is a fan’s only way of seeing the sport. In small cities, pro players can achive superstar status.

“Imagine a town of 50,000 people, a relatively small town,” Lelchitski said. “So their women’s basketball team is everything to them. They draw 6,500 people to every game, and they just go crazy.”

Another factor that makes sponsorships essential to the success of women’s basketball overseas, according to Croom, is that sports revenue is not tied to TV ratings as it is here.

In larger European and Asian cities – especially in Russia and Turkey – teams are sponsored by businesses with political ties to their governments. Lelchitski said governments also use revenue from men’s soccer, which is very popular, to help fund women’s basketball. Less fans support women’s hoops in big cities, but Lelchitski said the soccer-to-basketball funding is the overseas version of Title IX in the U.S.

“There are competitions between business owners in Russia to sponsor teams,” Cound said. “It’s different in club teams in Europe, which are generally sponsored by companies who have an interest in their success. The sponsors are usually a local company that looks good supporting (women’s basketball).”

Spain and Greece represent both situations.

Lelchitski said the collapse of numerous Spain teams is because so many are sponsored by construction companies, which have been particulary hard-hit by the recession.

“It’s just a really bad time,” he said.

Vassilis Kouros, an Athens-based FIBA agent, said teams in Greece are funded by the Greek Basketball Federation, which reduced their sponsorship by 90 percent two years ago. As a result, clubs are having to fill their rosters with players who will take little or no salary, which has effected the quality of play in the country.

“In Greece, women’s basketball is amateur with the exception of the foreign player, because clubs can’t pay the Greek players due to the lack of funds,” Kouros said.

Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel are perhaps the strongest in Europe for basketball right now, but even in those countries, instability can rule the day.

“With Israel and Italy recently, I have at least four cases where the contracts – the deals – were done and suddenly the sponsors pulled out, leaving the team to tell me, ‘I can’t pay your player,'” Cound said.

Those teams that have survived thus far have been forced to cut player salaries.

Chris Mammides, a basketball specialist and scouter for Eurobasket, Inc., estimates athlete salaries have plummeted 30-40 percent throughout Europe.

“The average American player in Greece was receiving around 1,500-2,000 Euros two years ago, and now their salaries are not more than 1,200-1,300 Euros,” Mammides said. “In Spain the differences are even bigger since their salaries were better. A player who was receiving a monthly salary of 3,500-4,000- are hardly receiving 2,100-2,300 Euros a month. In Italy, the salaries were 4,000-4,500 and now they are at 3,500.”

Cound said that because of the “gluttony of players and lost jobs,” several of his clients are waiting for replacement jobs overseas, i.e. when a club needs a new player.

But despite the worldwide economic downturn, agents say opportunities are still available, with some searching.

Lelchitski said that although some teams in Russia did fold this year, the top four clubs are still going strong, and there are another six teams besides them. Many of the top athletes in the WNBA and Australia’s WNBL play in Russia during the winter.

Both Lelchitski and Cound pointed to China as a hotbed for the sport, due to its strong and self-sustaining economy. They said athletes can earn good salaries there.

Lelchitski said South Korea is letting foreign players back into its leagues this season for the first time in six years, after a ban proved unfruitful.

“South Korea was thinking that if they didn’t have Americans on their rosters, they would get better and play more, because American players tend to play one-on-one,” Lelchitski said. “But that wasn’t necessarily the case. In the last two Olympics, South Korea didn’t even make it.”

Agents are reminding clients that like everything, the economy has ups and downs.

“It’s cyclical – it will change,” Croom said.

Cound reminds athletes to remain resilient.

“Don’t give up, it will turn around,” Cound said.

Croom recommends that players who have been in overseas leagues ensure they continue playing, because “once you’re out, it’s harder to get back in.” Recent college graduates would do best to have an agent, but it’s not always necessary.

“Those players need to be proactive and contact teams directly,” Croom said.

Agents say that especially now, maintaining perspective on the evolution of women’s basketball is essential.

Cound has had “Mama” Taj McWilliams-Franklin, of the Western Conference Champions Minnesota Lynx, as a client for over two decades. He said her first job in Europe 20 years ago paid a mere $1,250 a month. Five years later, women’s professional basketball was born in the U.S.

“Though there are setbacks, players will climb the ladder,” Cound said.