Sinai Says: After changes, BSL risks alienating fans

With so little incentive, regular season will become a prolonged preseason. For Israeli basketball’s sake, let’s hope someone still cares.

MACCABI TEL AVIV’S Guy Pnini 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
As much as I love Israeli basketball, I can’t help but ask myself: Is there any point to the coming season? The BSL undergoes somewhat of a facelift from year to year, but this season, the resulting product is anything but new and improved.
The league’s top eight teams from last season will gather at Malha Arena next week for the preseason Chance Cup.
The preseason knockout competition, known until this year as the Winner Cup, tends to act as a tempting appetizer for the upcoming season.
The meetings between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem in three of the five finals of the competition since its initiation in 2006 rarely proved to be a sign of things to come, but they usually provided entertaining basketball that left you itching for the regular season to get underway.
However, considering Maccabi’s current dominance and all the changes made to the Israeli league’s format for the coming campaign, you can’t help but wonder if they might as well crown the champion at Malha next Thursday so that local basketball fans won’t need to suffer through more than seven months of virtually pointless games.
At the start of June, the BSL announced several significant changes to the league’s rules.
After five seasons, the league decided to drop the “Russian rule,” instead choosing to allow each team to use no more than four foreigners in a league game.
Since the 2006/07 season, two Israeli players had to be on court at any given time during a game, a regulation copied from the Russian league in the hope of promoting local players.
Teams will be allowed to register up to eight foreign players this season, but will be able to use no more than four in a game.
The BSL also voted unanimously in favor of allowing the last-placed finisher to buy its place back in the topflight for a set amount, while deciding that the Final Four format will remain for 2011/12, although it will likely be scrapped after this campaign.
The fact that the BSL once more tried to resuscitate Israeli basketball by tinkering with the size of the league, its format and the number of foreigners allowed on court, came as little surprise.
After all, it was quite amazing that the “Russian rule” lasted as long as it did – five seasons – and considering the league’s struggle to garner public interest in recent seasons, you can hardly blame BSL chairman Avner Kopel for trying everything that crosses his mind.
However, the absurd decision made in August to cancel the relegation playoffs and play the league with 11 teams was utterly inexcusable.
Contrary to what it decided two months earlier, the BSL announced that it had chosen to allow Ironi Ashkelon to remain in the league – as it represents an important part of the country – despite the fact that the club lost to Maccabi Haifa in the relegation playoffs last season and had no intention of buying back its place.
The BSL had hoped that Hapoel Tel Aviv would accept an invitation to play in the top-flight, despite its defeat in the National League finals to BC Habika’a, to help make up a 12-team league.
However, Hapoel voted against the BSL’s offer, preferring to earn its promotion in a sporting fashion. That prompted the league to cancel the relegation playoffs in the hope that Hapoel will come aboard next season while the likes of Ashkelon will stick around to create an ideal 12-team league for 2012/13.
There’s a pretty good chance that will happen. But in the meantime, Israeli basketball’s ever-shrinking fanbase has to endure 25 regular season games followed by a best-of-five quarterfinal playoff to decide the four teams that will play for the title in the Final Four at Nokia Arena next May.
Essentially, the BSL has elected to play six months of basketball to whittle down the field from 11 to eight teams before having its champion determined in a three-day knockout tournament, the same way the Chance Cup is decided.
We know who is going down (no one) and we know who in all likelihood will lift the league title (Maccabi Tel Aviv), so what exactly are they playing for? With so little incentive to offer, the regular season will become a prolonged preseason, alienating those few brave souls who still insist on attending BSL games.
The start of the season on October 16 should be accompanied by excitement and celebration, not despair and apathy.
The BSL is of course regarding this season as a transitional period before the league returns to normalcy for 2012/13.
For Israeli basketball’s sake, let’s hope someone still cares.
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