What is it like to start a union from scratch? EuroLeague basketball is finding out

What is it like to start a union from scratch? EuroLeague basketball is finding out

In 2020, during the early months of the pandemic, the EuroLeague shelved its still unfinished season. It was one of many cancellations that flooded professional sports around the world, but the circumstances behind this one were atypical for the league.

While sports leagues in North America usually discuss big decisions with their counterparts at the respective unions, bound by a collective bargaining agreement and shared power, that has not always been the case in European basketball. The EuroLeague, the second-best basketball league in the world, has been more top-heavy, with a strong central system and a peripatetic player base. That began to change in 2018, when players across the league (then at 18 teams in 11 countries before EuroLeague kicked out three Russian teams in Feb.) united under one banner. That year, the EuroLeague Players Association was born, and for the first time, the league had a union. It was a seminal achievement for the league and an attempt by players to provide a voice for their own working conditions.

In 2020, as the pandemic raged, the players association had talks amongst its representatives about whether to continue their suspended season. Ultimately, ELPA voted not to play. Then, so did the EuroLeague.

“EuroLeague is the second-highest basketball in the world; we’re trying to put together and trying to build a foundation of a union or player association that reflects that,” Kyle Hines, an ELPA vice president, said. “We look (at) the NBA or all the other sports around. You see how strong their unions are and see how powerful they are. So I think for us, I think that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to lay down the foundation, and the roots for players that are going to play in EuroLeague for years to come.”

While American sports have come to take a strong players union for granted, there is little such history in Europe. Each country has its own league and its own laws, making collective action difficult. Even in a country like England, home of arguably the best soccer league in the world, there is no equivalent; players there have the Professional Footballers Association but no collective bargaining agreement. The PFA has even earned criticism for doing too little to help its constituents.

The EuroLeague Players Association set out to solve that issue for themselves. It was created as a vehicle to bring players into the league’s decision-making process, which both players and the league itself thought could benefit the EuroLeague’s growth. Last month, four years after ELPA was formed, it reached an agreement with the league on the first-ever EuroLeague Framework Agreement. EuroLeague Basketball CEO Jordi Bertomeu called the document “historical.” ELPA managing director Bostjan Nachbar believes it is precedent-setting for international leagues like itself.

ELPA set out with meager goals in mind, at least compared to its brethren in the United States: to obtain uniform working conditions across the EuroLeague teams and to make it safer on players.

“At the beginning, we had to deal with such a basic thing that we wanted to achieve,” Nachbar said. “For people, especially for the NBA players who are hearing this, they would think it’s absurd to even talk about that.”

Before ELPA started bargaining, players had to share rooms on the road. It took time to convince EuroLeague teams of the benefit of single rooms; Nachbar said they worried players would then sneak out or abuse this new privilege.

On-court stickers, used for advertising, were another issue. They are slippery and can cause injuries. ELPA worked with teams to limit them to just the sidelines, while advertisements on the court must be painted on.

ELPA has so much to catch up on, Nachbar admitted, that players in other leagues would “probably laugh” at what it has to accomplish.

Hotel standards, training camp duration, and the right to a second opinion were other points of negotiation. Players, Hines said, did not always get hot meals after games. Last month’s EFA amendment included the option of arbitration in case of disputes between a player and club, and added insurance for players’ families.

“Our union is where the NBA was 30, 40 years ago,” Hines said.

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Nachbar, a six-season NBA veteran and long-time European star, has served as its leader since the union began. After being asked to develop a players association, he spent his first year in retirement from basketball traveling across EuroLeague cities, talking to players to gauge their interest. When he saw that players wanted a union, he ran into his next problem: how do you even build an international players association?

Not only are the teams located in different countries; they are also part of their national leagues, which have their own bylaws. But Nachbar had also seen the NBPA at work during his time in the NBA and knew the value of a robust players association.

He knew that EuroLeague players needed a union but he did not know what it would take to build one. Not only are the teams located in different countries; they are also part of their national leagues, which have their own bylaws. But Nachbar had also seen the NBPA at work and knew the value of a robust players association.

The NBPA provided help to him and to ELPA as they built out their organization. They visited with the NBPA’s executive director at the time, Michele Roberts, and toured its departments. Ron Klempner, the NBPA’s senior counsel, explained how associations worked, from their CBAs to the rights players attain.

The most difficult part of the launch, Nachbar said, was getting approval from everyone else. There was skepticism from teams, he said.

“A lot of people still thought that we’re here only to mess things up and to try to, I don’t know for lack of a better word, but to screw up the club,” he said. “It’s not about that. Yes, we want to help the players but we also want to help the product because if the league grows, the players’ careers are going to grow. I think the most difficult part is still trying to have an open and honest trust and dialogue with some of the teams in EuroLeague that are still a little bit reserved with what we’re doing and they’re seeing ELPA is only taking, taking but not giving back. That’s something that we’re still working on.”

Jordi Bertomeu, the EuroLeague Basketball CEO, believes ELPA’s creation is a positive for the league, and a natural point in its life cycle. He said that the money teams earn from EuroLeague is now their most important revenue stream due to its pace of growth, and salaries have increased alongside that.

The league, he said, is now creating its own ecosystem, and for it to continue to grow, it will need to have a strong partner.

“If we want to have a solid league we need to have solid foundations, and (a) players union is fundamental,” he said. “It’s one of the most important pillars for the growth of the future of the league.”

Said Nachbar: “Maybe ‘wanted’ is not the right word; maybe ‘they have nothing against it’ would probably be a better phrase.”

Bertomeu disputes that ELPA’s creation is any dilution of power for the league or its teams. He argues that it is not about power at all, or it now being managed between the two sides.

“I will not say that people, at least on EuroLeague side, the club side, were scared about this,” he said. “But it’s also something new for the clubs. They’ve never had a counterpart. In most countries they don’t have a union for players. For clubs, it’s a new experience. It’s never about sharing power.”

There is agreement, however, that ELPA may not have been able to be formed even a decade ago.

Bertomeu said it is because the EuroLeague was not as strong then as it is now. There were fewer games and there was a less drastic gap between itself and the domestic leagues its members also play in. There is an exclusivity to being in the league now that he said was not as apparent 10 years ago.

Nachbar believes ELPA flourished now because there is a larger recognition in Europe that it is important for players to have a voice in any governing process. He used the NBA and the NBPA, which had a strong working relationship under Roberts and Silver, as a guidepost for Europe that player representation matters and can help a league too.

It has taken time for players to be ready for collective representation as well.

“The basketball mentality, or the sports mentality, is different here than it is in the States,” Hines, an American, said. “Players in the States are a little bit more individual-based, versus here sometimes players — especially the local players — don’t want to certainly go against their local teams. It is a team that they’ve been playing with since they were 17, 16 years old. So it was difficult for them to kind of change that mentality to want to go against their team or go against their agent or go against somebody that they feel like may not have their best interests in mind or best decision in mind or whatever. So I think that was the initial hardest part was just kind of to get everybody to kind of change their mentality, that mindset, and I think that is still today.”

Change, Hines said, came over the last half-decade as players found their voice through social media and other means. Today, players are more likely to share their opinions publicly.

ELPA’s genesis, he said, came from players talking on Twitter and sharing their experiences, which led to a larger conversation among others and in the media, then to a discussion about the need for a union.

“Now, like four years later, we have an actual agreement in place and we help kind of cure the force majeure with the COVID and that type of thing,” he said. “I think the times have kind of accelerated our progress a little bit more. I think that it’s put us in a great place.”

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