The German basketball star Dirk Nowitzki had an unusual introduction to the U.S. National Basketball Association. In 1997, the German under-21 national team took part in a show match against a team made up of several U.S. NBA stars.
During the game, the lanky 18-year-old then playing with lowly DJK Würzburg in the second tier of Germany’s professional basketball league slammed home a ball over the head of NBA legend Charles Barkley.
Afterwards, Mr. Barkley asked him what college he was going to. Mr. Nowitzki answered that he still had to do his military service. “You’re not going into the army, you’re going to Auburn,” Mr. Barkley said, referring to his own alma mater.
He later urged Nike, a sponsor, to take the young German to the United States. The fact that Mr. Nowitzki did end up in the country, albeit joining Dallas Mavericks directly rather than going to Auburn, is now history.
Mr. Nowitzki is the best basketball player that Germany has ever produced. He became an NBA champion and was its most valuable player. But now he would like nothing more than helping the German national team to a championship title.
“As a comparatively small league, we have to be creative and act clever.”
Even at 37, the player is still a pillar of the German Basketball Federation’s (DBB) national team. But an essential supporting pillar? “We need him,” says Peter Radegast, the DBB’s sports director, “but as a team we are not dependent upon him.”
Mr. Radegast, and national coach Chris Fleming, are currently in the final stages of preparing for EuroBasket 2015, Europe’s official basketball tournament. The championship will see 24 nations compete from September 5, with Germany, France, Croatia and Latvia acting as hosts after Ukraine had to pull out.
“We’re unpredictable,” says Mr. Radegast. The team has had to deal with several injuries in the run up to the tournament and will have to do without four important players. But it can manage because this year’s crop is full of talent.
That wasn’t always the case and is the result of the overall positive development of German basketball in recent years. The federation and the German leagues, particularly the top-flight Basketball Bundesliga, or BBL, have been pushing the training of home-grown players.
They need to. Since the 2012-13 season, at least half of a 12-man BBL team must hold a German passport. “It has redefined the job description of basketball players,” says Mr. Radegast. Now it is possible to recommend a career path in professional sports from an economic perspective to young talent. “You couldn’t do that before with a clear conscience,” the sports director adds.
Jens Staudenmayer, the head of the sports department at BBL, is one of those pushing this development. Since the DBB isn’t as big and as financially strong as its soccer equivalent, the leagues and federation rely on partnerships. “As a comparatively small league, we have to be creative and act clever,” explains Mr. Staudenmayer.
The league has enjoyed some success. The income of the clubs has increased in the past ten years by 178 percent, from €34.1 million ($38.3 million) to €95 million. Audience averages have increased in the past six years by 20 percent, and are now at 4,655. “Together with the clubs, we upwardly adjusted standards in the league like public relations, marketing, arenas and in athletics,” says Mr. Staudenmayer.
A positive result of this was FC Bayern München, Germany’s most successful soccer club, entering a team in the BBL. This generated interest and attracted more spectators to the indoor arenas in away games.
The league has ambitious goals. By 2020, BBL wants to be the strongest national basketball league in Europe. To accomplish this, a five-year business plan was adopted by the clubs last year. It is also a matter of seizing the moment, as financially the league is now already attractive, simply because the structures are right and the players wages are paid promptly, says Mr. Staudenmayer. While France, Italy and Turkey are within striking distance of the strong Spanish league, beyond that, there are “hardly any functioning national leagues.”
Growth is purely organic, he says, there are almost no investors, patrons or major subsidies. The league reinvests the income it generates. “The clubs are also increasingly able to find funds for developing young talent,” says Mr. Staudenmayer.
German basketball failed to take advantage of the sudden rise in popularity of the sport in the early 1990s, when the U.S. Dream Team played at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and streetball, an outdoor version of basketball, became a fad.
But that could change at EuroBasket 2015. All of Germany’s qualifying matches, which are taking place in Berlin, will be carried on state TV channels. Mr. Radegast hopes they will act as a showcase, and hopes that basketball will compete with the blanket media coverage of soccer.
But it is uncertain to what extent German basketball will profit in the long-term from the championships. “The national team is always the driving motor of a sport,” says Mr. Staudenmayer.
The minimum goal is a ticket to the Olympic qualifiers. And if not? “Then we will continue working on a positive future for German basketball, there are enough highly encouraging prospects,” says Mr. Radegast.
Alexander Möthe is a Handelsblatt editor specializing in sports business. To contact the author: email@example.com