Despite growing interest among youth, German basketball is struggling, with club-player membership down and pro teams fighting for survival. But aficionados say it's the system, not the sport, that's at fault.
Just over a decade ago, things were looking up for basketball in Germany. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, coverage focused on the US "Dream Team," which featured an assembly of all-time B-ball greats including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. Just a year later, the German men's team caused a sensation when it won the European championship on its home turf.
Mirroring the sport's wild growth across the Atlantic at the time, hoops began mushrooming on playgrounds and schoolyards around the country -- giving German kids their first opportunity to dribble a ball outside a gym. In addition, lifestyle companies like Nike and Adidas took to sponsoring streetball tournaments in the bigger cities.
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The era marked a high point in popularity for basketball in Germany, when the number of people officially registered to play in basketball clubs reached around 200,000, said Dirk Kaiser, spokesman for the German pro-basketball league, Bundesliga Basketball (BBL).
Earlier start -- but no follow-through
But it seems a few summers flirting with a sport rooted deeply in US culture were not enough to win the undying love of soccer-mad Germans.
Today, the number of registered players has receded to around 193,000, although Kaiser estimates about three to four times as many people -- "potentially a million" -- play streetball or in unregistered pickup games around the country.
As a spectator sport, basketball is somewhere around third or fourth place, alongside ice hockey but well behind handball (number two) and miles out of the league of soccer, Germany's all-encompassing sports monolith.
Despite kids getting in touch with the sport at a much younger age than they used to, Germany's basketball federation "isn't doing a good job" of getting kids to go on to play in the clubs, said Andre Voigt, editor in chief of the German basketball magazine Five. In Germany, competitive sports are much more closely tied to clubs than to schools.
Greece were Euro champs, Germany second, in 2005
"There are always polls of kids and their interests that show a great deal of interest in basketball. Often it even beats soccer. But they aren't going on to play later," Voigt said. "It's a complex problem."
One major aspect of the problem is the lack of a strong domestic league with national basketball stars.
"It's obvious that kids interested in basketball today know more about the NBA players than they do about the guys who play here," Voigt said.
German-player quote -- high enough?
In 2005, the BBL tried to improve the situation by ruling that at least three of the 12 players on the roster have to be Germans. Voigt called the quota "kind of low," saying that court time in the pro leagues is necessary for Germans to develop enough home-grown talent to field good national teams for European championships. Otherwise Germany couldn't hold its own against more basketball oriented countries like Greece or Spain.
But more worrisome than keeping German players active, is the question of how to keep the teams alive at all.
Earlier this month, the Cologne 99ers announced bankruptcy, despite a string of successes. The move came after the team's corporate sponsor, RhineEnergie, pulled its support and a private financier failed to come through with enough cash to carry the team.
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Likewise, pharmaceutical giant Bayer announced it would cease funding any pro teams except soccer, leaving its Giants basketball players searching for a new owner. And teams in Ulm and Giessen are both facing shaky futures because of sponsorship problems.
Catch-22 sponsorship debacle
The problem of sponsorship is, in fact, a tricky one. Sponsors see sports teams as a marketing vehicle, ideally to reach television audience. But German free TV doesn't carry league basketball play; it is found either on pay channels or the Internet. So big sponsors drop out, pulling support from the teams, in turn weakening the sport, which then lowers the chances of having a strong following.... and the cycle continues.
German national team coach Dirk Bauermann told the European basketball association, FIBA, that the TV issue is "a huge concern."
"If we don't find ways to get in free television, we're going to continue to lose sponsors," he told the FIBA Web site. It would be a "tragedy" if the league were to lose such established winning clubs as Leverkusen and Köln, he said.
'They've got to go after the kids'
Five's Voigt acknowledged that the TV coverage situation is a problem, but thinks that a little time, and some smart moves by German basketball organizations, could fix things in the long run.
"I don't think the basketball associations should be trying to sway 20- and 30-year olds. They've got to go after the kids. They have to go into the schools and grab the seven and eight year olds, and let them know how beautiful the sport is," Voigt said.
Cologne's team was doing well when its support got pulled
"If we get kids to play in bigger numbers than now, then we'll generate better players, more viewers, get more people engaged, and more sponsors," he added. "This will take more than two or three years. But it's the only way to improve the situation in the long run."
Missing the boat on Nowitzki?
Some critics say top basketball officials are missing a golden opportunity to win converts by failing to adequately exploit Germany's most important basketball resource: Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki, a seven-foot (2.1-meter) power forward for the US National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks, was voted the league's Most Valuable Player in 2007.
Germany should be making more of the fact that the man nicknamed the "Bavarian Bomber" was born and bred in Wuerzburg, Voigt said.
"He is the last global sports icon we have, now that Boris Becker left tennis and Michael Schumacher left racing," said Voigt. "Everyone knows about him -- that's he's very tall, a great athlete, and he earns a lot of money."
In summer, Nowitzki plays for the German national team
Nowitzki does come to Germany in the summers, to play for the German national team at the European championships, which are run under the aegis of the German Basketball Federation (DBB). The biggest problem with making him a full-time ambassador for basketball in Germany is time, BBL's Kaiser said.
"There's only so much he can do in a couple of months, and he has to be careful not to do too much. I think the German Basketball Federation does as much with him as they can," he said.