Basketball - Russian bank to sponsor Europe-wide students league

Russian basketball officials, impressed by the college game's huge popularity in the United States, hope to imitate their former Cold War adversaries by creating a Europe-wide student league.

Reuters

Formed last September with the help of Russia's second-largest bank VTB, the International Students Basketball League (ISBL) has quickly grown into a top-notch competition, with 26 collegiate teams from the Baltics to the Far East taking part.

"We have teams from Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and even China competing," ISBL chief and VTB senior vice-president Andrei Peregudov told Reuters in an interview.

"Next season, we're adding teams from Belarus and Latvia. We hope Finland and Sweden will also take part. We also negotiating with schools from Serbia and Spain about their participation.

"Japan and South Korea have also expressed interest in joining the ISBL's division in the Far East. In all, we think 30 or 32 teams would be an optimal number."

Officials and business people in several sports, such as soccer, have recently announced plans to create a joint league, bringing neighbouring countries together.

In December, several top Russian soccer clubs, including champions Zenit St Petersburg, big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala and CSKA Moscow, unhappy with the way the domestic game is run, unveiled a plan to break away from Russia's top flight and start a joint venture with neighbouring Ukraine as early as next year.

Peregudov said he has a different idea.

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"As a bank, as a business, we obviously don't want just to spend money, we want to get something in return, that's why we have targeted colleges and universities," he said.

"Students are a young, dynamic group of people, many of whom will become political and business leaders in their respective countries in the future. We want to be associated with such an audience."

College basketball is a billion-dollar business in the United States. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, culminating with the Final Four, draws thousands of fans, with millions glued to their TV sets.

The ISBL's inaugural Final Four, staged at the Tallinn University of Technology over the weekend, was a much smaller affair, with the hosts beating the Moscow Academy of Physical Culture in the final in front of a few hundred spectators.

"Well, the NCAA championship is what you call a benchmark for us in terms of a business structure," said Peregudov, who has a first-hand knowledge of North American sports after working in Canada for several years.

"I've even played basketball in one of Canada's amateur leagues so I know their model pretty well. Ours is a bit different. It's more suited for Europe. We want the ISBL to resemble basketball's Euroleague, but for students."

All of the ISBL's expenses are covered by VTB and other commercial partners while teams only pay for their travel.

The league is also discussing a plan to allow professional players to participate, hoping such a move would significantly improve its level of play.

"We're not talking about top international players. I don't think our league would be of much interest to them. But those third-fourth line players who usually spend time warming the bench would get enough playing in our league," Peregudov said.

"Of course, all of them must be active students."

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