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Q&A with Paul Nilsen Part 2: Breaking down the balance European women’s teams make between continental and domestic play

During the late fall, winter, and early spring, most of us here in America watch the NBA or college basketball when we are tuned into hoops, while the WNBA provides our summer fix. But the short length of the WNBA season makes it easy for some fans to forget that many, if not most, players go to Europe, Asia, or Australia while we’re still watching another team in the USA.

Paul Nilsen of FIBA recently did a Q&A with me, which is broken up into three parts. In Part 1, he gave his outlook on the United States and Belgium’s women’s national teams as they head to the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup.

In this part, we will discuss how women’s professional basketball operates in Europe specifically, because that is where most of the top WNBA stars play during the NBA season. We will also talk about how these teams balance out the demands of their season because are often competing for more than just one title, like professional teams in the USA do. That’s because many teams compete for a domestic league title (within a country) and a continental title (EuroLeague Women or EuroCup Women).

The EuroLeague and EuroCup Women season is currently in the group stage. In today’s tech-savvy era, you can actually watch live streams of EuroLeague Women and EuroCup Women games on FIBA’s YouTube channel. It’s an excellent way to see how at least some Mystics players are doing overseas when they are playing matches on the continental stage. The video above shows UMMC Ekaterinburg’s 64-50 win over Italian team Famila Schio yesterday. Emma Meesseman scored 10 points in the game.

For the Mystics, Meesseman and LaToya Sanders play for UMMC Ekaterinburg which is in EuroLeague Women. Krystal Thomas plays for Mersin in EuroCup Women.

Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is playing on Orman in Turkey’s KBSL, but they are not in any European competition this season. Tianna Hawkins is in Korea for Woori Bank Hansae and Asia Taylor is in Australia playing for the Sydney University Flames.

To see all the teams in EuroLeague Women, click here. And for EuroCup Women, click here.

And now, part 2 of the Q&A with Paul Nilsen.

BF: How do EuroLeague & EuroCup work (as opposed to the UEFA Champions League/Europa League in association football/soccer), and how do teams plan their seasons as they go if they're at that level?

Nilsen: It is a challenge because of the vast geography and sheer intensity of the slog during the season. Sometimes 20 hour trips for a French team based in Western Europe to Russia for example on a Wednesday and then travel back Thursday for the weekend domestic fixture – then repeat for up to 4-6 months. It is relentless. The finances and logistics (think of all the visa issues alone) make this demanding.

For some clubs, it is the playing of domestic games that is ironically, the real pain as they want to test themselves in European competition and that is the priority.

EuroLeague Women is the elite and it’s like the UEFA Champions League. It has 16 teams in the group stage. At the group stage, there are two groups of eight teams.

Many of these teams have budgets that dwarf any WNBA franchise. Maybe one or two teams have budgets that would pay for an entire WNBA Conference!

You can have more than one team from one country’s association in EuroLeague Women, but there can be no more than three from any association.

EuroCup Women is the second tier of continental play, not unlike the UEFA Europa League, with almost 50 teams starting the season – although that is regionalised to save clubs some cost in the group stages and open the door to as many as possible.

Both EuroLeague Women and EuroCup are quite similar to the UEFA leagues in their general format and timing. There is a group stage in the fall, while the knockout stage happens in the late winter and early spring. And like the Champions League group stage’s third place teams, some EuroLeague Women teams are sent to the EuroCup Women knockout stage if they don’t make the quarterfinals. With the current format, the fifth and sixth place teams in each EuroLeague Women group go to the EuroCup Women quarterfinals.

There are still some differences between EuroLeague Women/EuroCup Women and their football counterparts. First, you won’t see as many countries represented in EuroLeague Women like you will in the Champions League, with money being one of the main reasons why.

Next, the knockout stage formats are different. In EuroLeague Women, there are eight teams. The quarterfinals is a best of three series, while the semifinals/Final Four is a single elimination tournament. In the Champions League, there are 16 teams that play a home and home in every round except the final which is a single game.

The EuroCup Women knockout stage last season was at 16 teams plus eight EuroLeague Women teams. However, there was a home and home with the top 16 EuroCup Women teams in a two round tournament before the quarterfinals, when the EuroLeague Women transfers come in. Every round is a home and home affair. This season, the format has changed a bit because there are more teams in it than last.

Lastly, the winner of EuroCup Women does not automatically get a spot to the next season’s EuroLeague Women. Last season’s EuroCup winner, Yakın Doğu Üniversitesi of Turkey, did not qualify for EuroLeague Women this season because they won the EuroCup Women title. They made this season’s EuroLeague Women because of their domestic league play in the KBSL.

If you are a football (or soccer) fan and followed the Europa League, Manchester United won last season’s title and got a spot in this year’s Champions League group stage. However, Man U also would not have made the Champions League based on their domestic league (Premier League) play. If Man U played under EuroCup Women-like rules, then they wouldn’t be in the Champions League this season even with a Europa League title.

Runners up in the EuroLeague Women/EuroCup Women and the Champions/Europa Leagues don’t get guaranteed spots for the following year’s European competition. So, last season’s runner ups: Fenerbahçe (EuroLeague Women) and Abdullah Gül Üniversitesi (EuroCup Women) did not get a guaranteed spot to EuroLeague or EuroCup Women from their continental play. In practice though, they are generally good enough to play in Europe based on their domestic league performance. Fenerbahçe is in this season’s EuroLeague Women while Abdullah Gül Üniversitesi is in this season’s EuroCup Women.

Likewise, on the football side, Juventus (last season’s Champions League runner up) and Ajax Amsterdam (last season’s Europa League runner up) also got no guarantees for this season’s continental leagues. But they’re still strong teams in their countries. Juventus made the Champions League group stage this season because they won Italy’s Serie A last season. And Ajax made the Champions League third qualifying round this season after placing second in the Netherlands’ Eredivisie last season.

BF: How good is the competition of teams in EuroLeague and EuroCup when they're playing against each other vs. the WNBA? I'd imagine domestic league play may not be as competitive because there are teams that may be fighting relegation if that structure exists.

Nilsen: Domestic competition varies wildly and even within EuroLeague Women and EuroCup Women, it can vary to a large degree too. There is no salary cap for those competitions so it means you do get some mismatches, but you also get some real dream teams which is a terrific fusion of USA and Euro talent.

The names roll off the tongue at Dynamo Kursk, UMMC Ekaterinburg, Yakın Doğu Üniversitesi and so forth. We will never know which teams are better of course because the best women’s players generally play in both the WNBA and Europe. Plus we have restrictions on players and rules of eligibility which does not make it a direct comparison.

BF: Why are Eastern and Southern European clubs from Russia, Turkey, and Greece typically stronger than teams in Western Europe?

Nilsen: Greece actually has a weak league. But it is linked to the question actually. These leagues come in cycles – it depends where the money is. Which team owners are willing to pay the money to bring in elite talent?

There has always been money in Russia during the modern era for women’s players and the last decade has seen Turkish basketball rise to the fore. So, that is a major reason why Eastern Europe tends to perform better in professional basketball than Western Europe.

When the Greek economy hit the rocks, so did women’s basketball throughout much of Europe. Interestingly, some leagues like Poland lurch from one extreme to the other. They currently have about 6 or 7 clubs in European continental play and say two years ago, they only had 1 or 2.

BF: If you glance at just the box scores and statistics in European leagues, many WNBA players aren't playing as many minutes or scoring as much as they could or would in America.

However, many of the top European teams have a domestic league game one day and a European tournament three days after that so the season structure is a bit different. Does this allow European pro team coaches to rest or test different lineups depending on the type of competition they're playing?

Nilsen: It depends on the domestic league, so somewhere like Turkey means relatively few, if any, days off. You play hard and the best players in the Turkish League on a weekend and in either EuroLeague Women or EuroCup Women through the week.

In weaker leagues like Czech Republic, juggernaut clubs like ZVVZ USK Prague can rest DeWanna Bonner and Co a bit more and play the younger Czech players on a weekend. Their focus is not actually domestic, but EuroLeague Women because they can afford to rest their stars more. It is a complicated and delicate balancing act.

A lot of leagues are somewhere in the middle. For example France, Russia, Hungary and Poland have 4 or 5 tough teams each so top clubs do a mixture of resting and playing their big guns domestically – according to the opponent.

In Part 3, which we will release tomorrow, Paul and I will talk a bit more about the international game and how it specifically affects the Mystics’ players.

And finally, if you do follow the WNBA, take some time to check out what the players are doing overseas as well. The European game and season format is exciting to see.