Helping Americans Understand Overseas Leagues
Whenever I speak of our Indiana Fever players playing overseas — whether in China, Australia, Israel, Turkey, Russia or elsewhere in Europe — I frequently sense that the conversations lead to more questions than actual answers. Certainly the cultures and languages are often different; and certainly there are rules that are different and in many leagues, there are limitations on the number of foreigners or Americans that can play; and salaries, sponsors and attendance all vary greatly. Those discrepancies vary from league-to-league and from country-to-country.
Those conversations could last hours. But for today, I’m going to keep it simple. I’m going to break down the format of those overseas leagues by comparing them in American terms. With a slight twist to how we Americans view college basketball, imagine an NCAA scheduling format for pros. Throughout Europe and Asia, this analogy works very smoothly; in other countries like China and Australia, those leagues are more separate due to geographical and cultural constraints.
So, as we consider all of the WNBA players currently involved in leagues throughout Europe and Asia … this is your comparison.
Imagine every European or Asian country as a conference, just like the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big XII or Pac-12. Every conference has between 8 and 16 teams. So, too, do each of these countries.
Now, imagine all the teams in those conferences that also participate in a large postseason tournament — either the NCAA or the NIT. The best teams take part the NCAA Tournament (EuroLeague); the next-best teams play in the NIT (EuroCup); and the teams that aren’t as good don’t play in any other tournament at all. Those “tournaments” in Europe and Asia, however, are season-long competitions called EuroLeague and EuroCup.
Contrary to NCAA or NIT events as we know them, the EuroLeague and EuroCup events not only are season-long, but they are structured like every other FIBA tournament in the world. Just like the Olympics, there is an early round of round-robin “Group” competition which filters into an actual bracket. In bracket play, unlike our single-elimination format in an NCAA or NIT tournament, they play a best-of-three series to advance to the next round, just like we do in the WNBA.
So, while every European team has a regular domestic schedule of in-country (conference) games and an eventual league tournament and league champion, they also are playing an ongoing competition against other teams from throughout the continent. Domestic games may take place on weekends, while Euro games usually take place during particular weeks. Different from our college comparison, the domestic games have absolutely no bearing on EuroLeague or EuroCup activity, and vice versa. The Euro tournaments are completely separate from domestic-league results and the Euro tournaments actually end prior to domestic (league) tournaments.
The season-long EuroCup tournament is currently in its semifinals already, with two representatives from Russia and one each from Turkey and Slovakia. It will end later this month. The EuroLeague tournament is ending a much longer period of group play, with its more intense bracketed tournament comprising most of March. The EuroLeague Final Four takes place in late March, at just the same time we are celebrating March Madness here in the United States.
Following the close of the two European tournaments, each country conducts its league (conference) tournament. It is during those tournaments which often run through April and May, that most WNBA players are finishing their overseas commitments and returning to WNBA teams. Tournaments in Russia and Turkey are often the last to finish, often ending right at the start of our WNBA season.