Could a “March Madness” style FIBA Championship Tournament promote global growth for basketball?

In February, someone on Twitter asked what a “FIBA March Madness” tournament would look like. The yearning for more 64-team, single elimination tournaments usually starts within the next few weeks after the NCAA March Madness ends. This year though, the thrill of the upset and a hankering for high energy games was enough for some to start proposing it for other sports before this year’s tournament even started. The proposals usually start with college football, asking “What would a 64-team college football national championship tournament look like?”. Football (soccer) and rugby are others that are usually suggested. It’s a fun thing to look at. What would this tournament style or format look like in other sports? What if the PGA did a 64-player, single elimination tournament? What if, as suggested, FIBA did have a 64-team, single elimination tournament?

Some sports fit this tournament format better than others. Basketball has been one of the main sports to use this format for tournaments and has shown success with it. The sport uses the single elimination tournament format for their finals at the amateur levels, but not at their professional levels where pool play or a best-of-seven series is often used.

Basketball is a sport that is being played today on almost every continent (almost…. blast you Antarctica). And like soccer, the sport is considered a global game. The National Basketball Association (NBA), the sport’s highest professional level, started the 2013-2014 season with 92 international players from 39 countries and territories. The San Antonio Spurs broke the record this year with 10 international players on their roster. READ MORE: LINK.

Part of this globalization of the sport can be credited towards the Olympic Games. The 1992 Dream Team changed basketball on the global scale forever by bringing professional players into the Olympics and breezing through the competition. Since 1992 though, the world has caught up. Past FIBA tournaments and the Olympics have seen great increases in competition. Professional leagues in Europe and Asia have taken off and are attracting better talent each and every year. The gap is also being closed in terms of player skill development and athletic capabilities. You can actually start to see it with the FIBA tournaments and qualifiers and youth events.

FIBA, the world’s governing body for basketball, holds the FIBA Basketball World Cup in between each Olympics to determine the best country in basketball. The “pool play” formatted tournament, which is held this year from August 30 to September 14 in Spain, features only 24 teams and is not as popular as the FIFA World Cup Tournament for football (soccer). The full schedule for this year’s event can be found here: 2014 FIBA basketball world cup draw results and schedule.

As with a single-elimination 64-team tournament, there are positives and negatives for the “pool play” format tournament too. Since we can see what the current format looks like, let’s envision an alternative tournament style to help compare the two. So if the FIBA 2014 tournament did go to a 64-team, single-elimination “March Madness” style tournament, what would it look like?

If we used the FIBA Men’s Rankings from back in late February, this is what a FIBA Basketball World Cup tournament could look like:


click to enlarge

To examine it closer, let’s look at how the “FIBA Americas” bracket would breakdown with some predictions:


Feel free to argue my predictions in the comments below!

Now that we can visualize what a tournament of this scale could look like, we need to do some detail work. Let’s start with these questions:

  1. Would this new format present a more even playing field?
  2. Are upsets in basketball a good thing or bad thing? Beating USA, Spain, or France in pool play has been proven to be quite the challenge and some may argue that keeping the better teams in the tournament longer is a good thing. However, it takes just one game within this tournament for one of them to go down. Is this good for the game or bad? If Qatar or Belgium have a 1:100 chance of winning their game and the possibility for an upset is always present, does this promote the growth of the sport more in that country? If the Republic of Cabo Verde, which was previously not in the tournament due to not being in the top 24 teams, had a chance to upset #3 seed Serbia and advance, would this promote the sport more in that country? Would they then prepare more for the next tournament? If the USA were to be upset in the first two rounds, what reaction would that get? What impact would that have on USA basketball? What impact would it have on that country that beat the USA? In short, would the expansion from 24 teams to 64 and a new tournament format positively impact the promotion and growth of the sport? Could this tournament have a “Dream Team” type impact on the growth of the sport globally?
  3. What would travel times and distances look like? The bracket above would have the tournament being played in a regional zone for each of the first four rounds and then another site for the Final Four. As we know with the current NCAA March Madness tournament, seeds and location do not always go hand-in-hand. The sites chosen for the tournament rounds could be based on seed location or FIBA’s own geographical territories: FIBA Africa, FIBA America, FIBA Asia, FIBA Europe, and FIBA Oceania. Having more locations would require more travel and more travel-associated costs, but you could potentially have 5 total locations (4 sites for the first four rounds and 1 for the Final Four) for the tournament which could grow the sport more in those geographical areas. In fact, you could rotate the 5 FIBA territories locations so that every 5th tournament that territory gets the Final Four in their area. For example, instead of combining two territories like above with Asia and Oceania, one those two would have the Final Four location.
  4. Would this tournament bring in more viewers?  Would it make those viewers watching the games more engaged? How would tournament site locations and time zones impact the televising and media coverage of the event? Keep in mind, upsets are not as much fun on DVR or Twitter.
  5. Would you watch this tournament? Would you take a greater interest in your country’s games if this was the format? What impact would this new tournament style have on viewership and popularity of the sport on a global stage?
  6. How would this tournament format impact players’ performance?

This idea brings forth a lot of discussion based upon these questions and more. Please feel free to sound off below in the comments section and share your opinion.

About Dr. Zachary Binkley

Zachary W. Binkley, PhD is the former Assistant Professor and Program Director of Exercise and Movement Science Program. He is a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Special Interest Group on Basketball.

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