- New tournament aims to elevate basketball in East Asia through ‘Champions League’ format
- League wants to produce players technically capable of moving to Euroleague or the NBA
- Asia a high priority for world governing body Fiba
Since its launch in 2016, the aim of the East Asia Super League has been to elevate the standard of basketball in East Asia through an elite regional competition.
According to EASL chief executive Matt Beyer, “A top quality regional basketball tournament is long overdue.”
Beyer recently spoke to SportBusiness on how he originated and launched the new competition featuring top club teams from China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, modelled along the lines of European football’s Champions League.
Beyer started living and working in China in 2002, after spending time there as a student. He had always played basketball and played for his university team in China.
But it wasn’t until he started working as a personal interpreter for Yi Jianlian in the US when the Chinese player was the 6th overall NBA draft pick, that Beyer realised basketball was a serious business as well as a pastime.
“I wanted to find a way to stay in the sport, so when that experience was done I began to look at what my next career move in basketball was going to be.
“I moved to Beijing and started working in public relations and government relations, and during that period I got certified by the General Sports Administration of China as an agent.
Then I was certified by the China Basketball Association as an agent and quickly within a few years my agency already had a 40-per-cent market share of the foreign players that were playing in the CBA,” says Beyer.
The big idea
While watching how fans reacted when the Chinese national basketball team was playing, Beyer saw a new business opportunity and began formulating his plan to establish a regional club competition.
“I noticed it wasn’t just the hardcore fans but also the casual fans and even families that engaged when the national team played. I thought that if someone can figure this out on a club level or make this type of international competition more regular, then there is really going to be a business there.”
Beyer understood the Chinese market given his close relationships with the clubs in the CBA, but wasn’t sure about the other leagues.
When it came to the Japan, South Korea and the Philippines he knew he would have to build trust and support with the leagues in those markets.
“If you want to go to these different leagues and say we want you to change your schedule so we can put in home and away competitions in the middle of your domestic season, I think most of them would tell you to buzz off,” he says.
Beyer also needed to find out what the appetite would be from potential investors, what the trends were in the industry in terms of sponsorship and media rights and where the opportunities were, so in early 2016 he started traveling around his target markets in Asia.
He spent time in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan looking at different opportunities and understanding what the desires of the stakeholders would be.
To prove his concept would work and to build trust, Beyer proposed an invitational tournament at the end of the pre-season, right before each country’s club basketball season started.
The first event in 2017, the Super 8 and was made up of eight teams; Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers and Guangzhou Long Lions from China’s CBA; Etland Elephants and Seoul Samsung Thunders from South Korea’s KBL; Blackwater Elite and Nlex Road Warriors from the PBA in the Philippines; Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka from Japan’s B.League, and Formosa Dreamers from Taiwan’s ABL, and drew 36m viewers. The reaction and feedback was positive enough to push Beyer on.
Last year, his week-long tournament held in Macau in September expanded to include 12 of east Asia’s top teams; Shandong Hi-speed Golden Stars, Xinjiang Flying Tigers, Zhejiang Guangsha Lions and Guangzhou Long Lions from the CBA, Chiba Jets, Ryukyu Golden Kings, Nagoya Diamond Dolphins from B.League, Samsung Thunders and Mobis Phoebus from KBL, Fubon Braves and Yulong Luxgen Dinos from Taiwan’s SBL and PBA D League All Stars Ieco Green Warriors from the PBA.
The larger event attracted both sellout live audiences and claims to have been watched by more than 115m viewers worldwide.
EASL has held four successful pre-season tournaments over the past three years, featuring the elite club teams from the top leagues in Asia. This success won buy-in from the clubs and leagues into Beyer’s plan for a larger format from 2021.
“Now we are evolving and are rolling out the original concept of the business which is to have a home-and away-competition that is modelled on the Uefa Champions League or the AFC Champions League here in Asia.
“We take the top finishers from the individual leagues and feed them into a platform that’s above the leagues, in partnership with Fiba or Fiba Asia, to create a higher and more technical level of competition.
”It should really encourage the domestic leagues and the teams to invest in the product and not only achieve great things within their own domestic league but to be a top regional player.
“At the same time it can really strengthen the quality of the leagues and hopefully produce some players that are able to go out and make a name for themselves in the Euroleague or the NBA.”
The first season of the EASL Champions League is scheduled to run from October 2021 until February 2022, with matches every Wednesday night and teams playing each other in home and away legs.
Participating teams will get an appearance fee and game-winning bonuses. The winning team in season one will receive prize money of $1m (€864,000), the second-placed team $500,000, and the third placed team $250,000.
Beyer, meanwhile, is continuing to build out the EASL’s capital base and commercial platform expertise. Investors were initially Beyer’s family and friends but recently the funding activity has been ramped up.
“Our second round of funding was led by the Raine Group, a leading sports investment bank, founded by former Asia Pacific Goldman Sachs veteran Joe Ravitch, and spearheaded by EASL CFO Henry Kerins. We are currently preparing for another round of equity financing to prepare adequate capital for the launch of the home-and-away league format led by Raine’s advisory group”
Beyer would not divulge how much has been raised so far or what the budget is for the new league, due to confidentiality agreements, but said he expects break-even in year three of the new EASL format.
EASL revenues will predominantly come from sponsorship and media rights sales. Current sponsors include Spalding, since 2017; and Coca-Cola’s BonAqua as bottled water partner since 2018. Beyer’s target is to establish a group of five to 10 corporate sponsors for the league.
The EASL is in preliminary discussions on broadcast rights with rights holders from around the region, including Tencent and others. The league has had a strategic partnership with Tencent as its broadcast production partner since 2018. Tencent also broadcasted the 2018 and 2019 events as a non-exclusive broadcast partner, among several other major international and Chinese digital broadcasters.
He is also working on the creation of further revenue streams and a digital platform for the EASL. Beyer is looking at producing branded content and merchandise for the competition, and offering business consultancy services to the member leagues.
EASL’s digital presence has already gone live with a recently-launched live stream show called Terrific Together and a recorded series called Ballerific. He said these had already reached more than 10m viewers via YouTube and Facebook live.
To drive the fledgling league’s marketing partnerships, media distribution, and other commercial revenue streams, in June the EASL appointed Asia sports industry veteran Mark Fischer as chief commercial officer.
Among Mandarin-speaker Fischer’s previous roles was time as managing director of the NBA’s China operations, he had previously been general manager of NBA Taiwan and head of NBA Asia’s sponsorship and events business based in Hong Kong.
Era of Asia
The expansion of basketball in Asia is a high priority for world governing body Fiba, and the EASL’s success in hosting the trial events brought it Fiba recognition.
“For us to have their (Fiba) recognition, support and partnership is essential, especially at an early stage in our business, and I think there are a lot of best practices to learn from them,” says Beyer.
Fiba has put a major focus on Asia in recent years by awarding awarding back-to-back World Cups to hosts in the continent, the first in China in 2019 and the second to be hosted jointly by the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia in 2023.
In an interview with SportBusiness last year Fiba Secretary-General Andreas Zagklis said that it was “the era of Asia” for basketball.
If EASL can deliver on its early promise, it could play an important role in that era.