Jumping through hoops

The municipal plan for a new basketball arena is a welcome development, but is it enough?

Without a doubt, the hall where Hapoel Jerusalem plays its basketball games is an embarrassment. The 2,400 capacity Malha "Arena" is not much bigger than many American high school gyms. In fact, many of the American players who join the team played in arenas double that size in high school and four or five times the size in college. Jerusalem is an iconic international city and clearly deserves sports teams and venues that reflect its status on the world stage. We should be compared to other religious centers such as Rome, which hosts one of the world's greatest soccer teams (Roma), and a Euroleague basketball team in Lottomatica Roma. When European teams travel here to play Hapoel in its ULEB Cup fixtures, players and management are hardly impressed by the facilities. So at first glance the recent decision by the Jerusalem municipality's finance committee to approve the construction of a brand new NIS 130 million, 5,500-seat basketball arena in the capital's Malha district by 2010 appeared to be a great move. The press release about the project proclaimed that the CEO of Moriah, the company building the new arena, will be giving the city its very own Madison Square Garden. The municipality spokesman was bubbling with excitement over the possibilities of how this multi-purpose venue could be used, such as hosting pop concerts. But a closer look at the facts of the matter reveals a number of glaring problems, which really highlight Jerusalem's (and Israel's) lack of appreciation for the impact that high quality professional sports can have on its image and - of course - its economy. Naturally, the artist's impression pictures of the new arena make it look nice, shiny and modern. But the main barrier that has prevented Hapoel from advancing to the top level of European basketball has been the number of seats in its home court. In most other European sports competitions, such as soccer's Champions League, teams from each country qualify purely on merit. The highest ranked teams in each country's domestic league play in the Champions League the following season. In basketball it is different. Though some spots in the Euroleague are reserved for domestic champions, others are awarded to teams that sign long-term contracts with the league. However, for any team to join the competition it must meet certain criteria, including having a full front office with a press officer and professionals in charge of ticket sales. Another requirement is a seating minimum, which until now has been 5,000 and starting next year will grow to 10,000. In 2004, after Hapoel won the ULEB Cup final, it was invited to enter the Euroleague, but Malha's capacity was only half the number required. Even though they could have played their European games in Tel Aviv at the 10,000 capacity Nokia Arena, the team from Jerusalem declined and remained in the ULEB Cup. It is the only ULEB Cup winner to pass up the opportunity to join the Euroleague. So what is the point of building a basketball arena that only holds 5,500 people? How will Jerusalem ever be able to play on the world stage, in the competition which is broadcast around the world and recognized as the best outside the NBA? True, the municipality has stressed that the new venue would have the option to build an extra 5,000 seats, but there is no way the Euroleague would accept Hapoel until these seats are installed, and the municipality is unlikely to invest the extra NIS 27m. needed to reconstruct the arena unless it has been accepted into the Euroleague. It's a bit of a vicious circle. Surely it would be a good investment to find the extra money to make the arena the requisite size from the start. When questioned about this, a municipality spokesman first cited budget constraints imposed by funders Mifal Hapayis and the Sports Betting Council, and then claimed that Hapoel doesnt need a venue with more than 5,000 seats because they have worked out that that is the maximum number of fans that they have anyway. This totally belittles the amount of sports lovers in this city and its surrounding areas. From Ma'aleh Adumim to Modi'in and Beit Shemesh, supporters would flock to Jerusalem to watch a top basketball team of the caliber of the Maccabi Tel Aviv of the past. The boost this could give the city, both in terms of image and economics, is worth far more than the NIS 27m. that the powers-that-be are trying to save.