Double-teamed by knee injuries and advancing age, Sarunas
Marciulionis languished on the Denver Nuggets' bench during the
1996-97 season, the last in his eight-year NBA career. It was a
frustrating time for Marciulionis, an inveterate competitor and
two-time member of Lithuania's Olympic basketball team--yet
ultimately it may have been his most valuable season. With plenty
of free time he spent the year learning the business of
basketball, taking copious mental notes about the NBA's blueprint
and bouncing questions and ideas off the Nuggets' marketing
Today the 35-year-old Marciulionis is the founder and
commissioner of the Northern European Basketball League (NEBL), a
consortium of 14 teams from nine mostly Baltic and Scandinavian
countries, which tipped off its inaugural season earlier this
month. The season is short (January to April), and play can be
ragged, but the stands have been packed with fans whose passion
for basketball has been undernourished for years. "The love of
the game has always been there in those countries, but there has
never been an organized league," says Marciulionis. "I'm just
trying to fill a void."
In so doing, Marciulionis has borrowed from the NBA's primer.
NEBL games feature shimmying dance teams during timeouts. Ads for
league sponsors such as Coke and major airlines rotate on the
courtside signage boards. Jaw-dropping dunks are replayed on
overhead video monitors. Notwithstanding the disparity in skill
levels, a game between the NEBL's Copenhagen Great Danes and
Helsinki Teamware ToPo bears a strong resemblance to an NBA game.
"In Europe the players are professional, but the organizations
are amateurish," says Marciulionis. "I wanted to change that."
Instead of building the NEBL from the ground up, Marciulionis
persuaded a number of established European club teams, including
dynamo CSKA Moscow, to play in his league. The lure was simple:
The NEBL subsidizes teams' travel costs, team jackets, meal money
and referees, unlike other European basketball federations, in
addition to paying $100,000 to the league champion. "Being a part
of the NEBL just makes good business sense," says Gunnar Woebke,
president of the Frankfurt Sky Liners, whose roughly 60 games
this year will include 20 in the NEBL.
What's in it for Marciulionis and his business partners, who
raised more than $2 million to start the league? The league's
marketing, merchandising and television are centralized, so
virtually all auxiliary revenue flows through the NEBL's office
in Vilnius, Lithuania. "More money for the league means more
money we can pay the teams," says Marciulionis, who plans to
expand into Western Europe within the next few years. "I learned
from David Stern: The league and the teams get stronger
Marciulionis has adhered to another of Stern's tenets by
cultivating star power. Magic Johnson, part owner of the Boras
(Sweden) Magic M7, will play at least twice for his team this
season. But the league's ultimate success will depend on the
popularity of homegrown talent like NBA alum George Zidek, who
plays for Kalgiris in Kaunas, Lithuania. The commissioner is
banking on that.
The season is short, and the play can be ragged, but the stands
have been packed.