October 3, 2013

#Spain2014 European wild card race

The FIBA Basketball World Cup (nee FIBA World Championship), must be the only high profile "world championship" in the world that has berths assigned to wild cards, or entries that "qualify" to the tournament by writing an essay and donating a generous sum instead of participating in an actual tournament. Sure, the Olympics has them, mostly for individual sports such as swimming; even FIBA has wild cards for the Olympic basketball tournament, but there is a wild card tournament.

FIBA has two concrete criteria for wild cards:
  • They must have competed in qualifying tournaments.
  • Only three wild cards are allowed per FIBA zone.
That means pretty much everyone has a shot. Everyone with mad writing skills, and who has boatloads of money.

First, let's remember why FIBA invented the wild card (both for the Olympics and World Cup): in case the U.S. team, by some disaster, fails to qualify to the World Championship, they'd have a shot. It makes sense, not necessarily economically, as FIBA basketball is not that much followed in the States, for FIBA to assure the participation of the U.S. whether they qualify or not, at least for the foreseeable future. A world championship of basketball without the U.S. is not a world championship solely because the U.S. has the strongest "program", by far, in the world.

Now since the U.S. has already qualified, we'd go to the usual reason why FIBA has wild cards. Aside from those two "hard" criteria, FIBA has several more "soft" criteria. From this you can deduce that, aside from donating money to FIBA, it has to make economic, not necessarily sporting, sense. What does that mean?

Aside from the money they directly give to FIBA, FIBA and the organizers must earn more just from that team's participation: TV rights, traveling fans, merchandise sales, and the like. Think of it as the massive advertising exodus in the UAAP when La Salle was suspended in 2006: even the cheerdance competition, of which La Salle is not traditionally strong, did not have a sponsor. This is what FIBA wants: money, and eyeballs, for their premiere tournament. Of course, they have to pretend that they want competition, so they've settled in on a pattern, which would be revealed later.

Now with that said, let's see the wild cards FIBA has had. This will be the third and final iteration of the wild cards, as the tournament will expand into 32 teams in 2019, unless FIBA wants to invoke the U.S. exception, as their new qualifying system ran smacked into the NBA regular season.
  • 2006
    • Italy
    • Puerto Rico
    • Serbia and Montenegro
    • Turkey
  • 2010
    • Germany
    • Lithuania
    • Lebanon
    • Russia
FIBA has always invited three -- the maximum -- European teams every time they chose the wild cards. With that said, there hasn't been that much upsets in the continental championships elsewhere, so allocating the maximum three teams to European teams has been easy; what has been more difficult is choosing which European teams get in. Let's see how the European wild cards fared in the immediately preceeding EuroBaskets, with the top 6 teams automatically qualifying:
  • EuroBasket 2005 at Serbia and Montenegro:
    • Italy: tied for 9th-12th
    • Serbia and Montenegro: tied for 9th-12th
    • Turkey: tied for 9th-12th
  • EuroBasket 2009 at Poland:
    • Russia: 7th
    • Germany: ranked 11th-12th
    • Lithuania: ranked 11th-12th
Looking at how the teams finished, it doesn't matter if a team barely missed out in 2006, with 7th placed Croatia not going; they changed it in 2010, with the Russians going (also helped that they had tons of money). FIBA also selects teams that missed the quarterfinals on both occasions. Also, FIBA selects teams that have their regular NBA players commit to the World Cup.

With that said, FIBA always selected one of the following:
  • Any country where basketball is massively popular: 2006 Serbia and Montenegro and 2010 Lithuania
  • A large country where basketball is reasonably popular: 2006 Italy and 2010 Germany
  • A country with plenty of money: 2006 Turkey and 2010 Russia
And FIBA never selected one of the following:
  • A country which has either never appeared ever, or never appeared in a long time,  in the World Cup.
  • A country that has been previously selected as a wild card.
There's one thing that happened in EuroBasket 2013: there was only one major casualty after the second round: Greece, with Turkey and Russia as the major casualties in the first round. Therefore, looking at the results of EuroBasket 2013, one can deduce that:
  • The country where basketball is massively popular: Greece
  • The large country where basketball is reasonably popular: Italy or Germany
  • The country with plenty of money: Turkey or Russia
Teams that would almost certainly won't be selected:
  • A country which has either never appeared ever, or never appeared in a long time, in the World Cup: Finland, Belgium and Latvia
  • A country that has been previously selected as a wild card: Germany, with Dirk Nowitzki retiring from the international scene.

There are a few issues with that list: Italy, Germany, Turkey and Russia were all been previously selected as wild cards. Considering FIBA doesn't invite a team which has been previously invited as a wild card before, there were not much upsets in the EuroBasket, and there were upsets elsewhere, that means the money is that FIBA will select only two wild cards, and those are Greece and a toss-up between Russia and major Euroleague sponsor Turkey.

Next time: Wild cards elsewhere.

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