Down but not out

Basketball sponsorship in Lebanon has nosedived, throwing the sport into turmoil about its future funding

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There was a time, in the late 90s, when Lebanese basketball could do no wrong. Lebanese teams – brimming with home-grown talent and the odd high-profile import – beat everyone in sight, games were shown on prime-time TV and crowds of enthusiastic fans blocked streets for hours, celebrating victory after victory. Lebanon appeared to have found its national sport and the sponsors could not get their checkbooks out fast enough.

That was then. Today, the clubs, deserted by their sponsors, are propped up by wealthy patrons, marred by scandals, feuds and crises. The recession did not help, but when Antoine Choueiry, advertising mogul and the so-called “Godfather of Basketball,” recently announced his retirement from the presidency of Sagesse and indeed from the sport in general, basketball’s last hope appeared to have hung up his shirt. So what went wrong and what now for the sport that promised so much?

A sport supported by patrons

Essentially Lebanese basketball was always a loss-making concern, largely dependent on patrons willing to pick up the check. In the first division, all teams have one to two main patrons, covering virtually the entirety of their budgets, which averaged $1.5 million in 2004.

Relationships were formed out of a love for the sport, politics and business interests. Hence BLC Bank became one of Champville’s main sponsors, contributing $350,000 annually to the team, because tuition fees to Champville School were deposited with BLC. UFA insured the club and went on to sponsor the team to the tune of between $200,000 to $300,000 annually (although this jumped up to $800,000 in 2004 when UFA General Manager Henri Chalhoub was nominated team president).

“Each club has a certain person paying the deficit,” said Federation of Lebanese Basketball (FLB) Manager Roland Tabet. “For Blue Stars, it’s [Banque Saradar’s] Mario Saradar or [Loto Libanais’s] Rainier Jreissati. The club is not making a profit. None of them are.”

The Choueiry factor

It was Antoine Choueiry’s goal to make the game financially self-sufficient when he took over Sagesse in 1994. He may have failed in his bid, but his tenure as the sports most high-profile patron changed the face of the game. “Regardless of what anyone might say about Antoine Choueiry, what he did for basketball was memorable,” said Carlo Vincenti, who represents William Lawson, a former major sponsor of Sagesse. “His approach to basketball was very interesting, and it is what Lebanon needed – a more global approach, a more commercial approach.”

Choueiry injected significant amounts of capital both into his own team as well as into that of others. “He backed other teams up financially such as Antranik and Hannibal. He used to pay them $150,000 so they could play in the league,” explains a major Lebanese sports agent, who did not want to be named. With a solid group of teams competing at the highest level, Choueiry upped the ante by buying overseas professional players (mainly from the US) to shore up the quality of his own team. Such a move catapulted both Sagesse and the Lebanese national team on a winning streak, which culminated in Sagesse’s victory at the Asian Basketball Championship in 1999 and Lebanon’s qualification for the World Basketball Championship in Indianapolis, USA, in 2002. The media took the bait and the hype surrounding the sport reached a frenzy in 2000, when Choueiry, who controls 70% of Lebanon’s ad-spend, convinced LBCI to broadcast basketball games during prime time. “He got all the teams together and brought LBCI in to cover them, broadcasting the games live on satellite TV,” said the sports agent. “People started watching more and more basketball.”

Summing up the philosophy behind his strategy, Choueiry was quoted as saying that “to be competitive in sports, you need money, to get money, you need sponsoring, to get sponsoring you need exposure, for exposure you need TV, for TV to be interested you need true competition of a certain level. This needs important teams, to get important teams you need money.”

The sponsors liked what they saw. Despite representing a non-sport oriented product, William Lawson went from an obscure Scottish Whisky to a household name in three years by sponsoring Sagesse. “It was definitely effective in terms of brand building. When we started (sponsoring Sagesse in 1999), basketball wasn’t that big,” he said. “And basically while we were sponsoring Sagesse, it started winning tournaments, starting with the Lebanese championship, the Pan-Arab games and then all the way to the Asian Basketball Championship. So there was a major hype around basketball, and we got a lot of exposure from it. Before Choueiry you would never have seen a basketball game playing on prime time on LBCI. What sponsors need is the exposure – for them a basketball game playing at midnight or a game playing at 8:30 pm makes a big difference.”

The sport of choice

The increasing exposure made basketball the sport of choice in Lebanon, both in terms of audience and practice. According to Tabet, the number of licensed basketball players in Lebanon has been steadily increasing since 2000, when the Federation counted approximately 6,000 players. Today, this figure stands at 15,000. “Everybody loves basketball,” boasted Riaydi coach Fouad Abou Chacra. “In every family in Lebanon you have someone playing basketball. It’s the biggest sport.”

For Pepsi, the growing appeal of basketball in the country, especially among the youth, served as a big draw to get involved in the sport, and from 2000 on, the multinational signed up. “Pepsi wants to get close to what the youth likes, and in Lebanon, that sport is basketball more so than football,” explained Roula Safi, a regional account director at Impact/BBDO, Pepsi’s regional advertising agent.

Piggybacking on the significant exposure brought to basketball through prime time TV coverage, Pepsi went on to sign deals with LBCI, as well as buying ad space on courts. They launched a major ad campaign around Rony Seikaly, a fading, but high-profile Lebanese NBA player, and organized a promotional competition in 2003 to attract young, new talent to basketball.

“LBCI has done a good job of promoting the game, creating a hype – that’s why we have been sponsoring the game for the past three years,” Safi added. “As all the games are retransmitted, there is a lot of brand visibility, so branding on courts has been a good investment for us.”

Too much hype?

The sport reached it peak in 2000, after which the hype began to fizzle. Explaining William Lawson’s decision to terminate its sponsoring contract with Sagesse in 2000, Vincenti said: “Once you’ve reached the top it’s difficult to keep the interest going. They won the Asian Championship… then what? When you win the Lebanese championship ten years in a row, it becomes boring.”

For now, the brand is not considering returning to sport sponsorship any time soon. “Lebanon is not sports-oriented,” Vincenti said. “Actually, they are quite sports oriented, but not toward local sports, it’s much more international. Football is small and basketball was basically the most popular sport.”

It’s the economy stupid! Compounding the slump was the slight problem of a recession. Sponsors are pulling out, contracts are going for less, and advertising spots are being sold for a fraction of the price they used to. Getting one’s brand on the coveted center circle of the basketball court once went for $50,000 to $100,000, depending on the club. Today, it can go for as little as $6,000.

“The economic situation in Lebanon has been getting worse in the past five years, and thus the overall advertising budget is also down proportionally, by nearly 30% compared to what it was six years ago,” Choueiry complained last year.

Tabet agrees. “Instead of having a contract for $50,000, probably now they are negotiating for $15,000 to $20,000.”

Following the withdrawal of LibanCell, Sagesse is now saying goodbye to Adidas, its second biggest sponsor and one that had been with the team for years. “Adidas sponsored us for five to six years,” said Barakat. “This is in part because they are transferring their regional headquarters to Dubai, but it is also due to the fact that they are cutting down on their sponsoring budget and focusing on big international teams.” Adidas declined to comment on the matter.

The vote of no-confidence will undoubtedly affect the earning power of Lebanon’s top players, many of whom earn as much as $20,000 a month. “Even Lebanese players are earning between $5,000 and $7,000 per month,” said Barakat. The unraveling of the sport

However the sport’s struggle to obtain sponsoring cannot only be blamed on the economy. Crises, scandals, and mud-slinging have destroyed confidence among fans, players, team owners and sponsors alike. Topping the list of scandals is Café Najjar’s decision to dissolve its team following the brawl that erupted between its players and an Algerian team at the Arab Championships in Jeddahin May 2004. “Georges Najjar was unhappy with the fact that a team associated with his company, which is expanding into Algeria, was seen fighting on TV with the Algerian team,” the agent explained. “There are problems in Lebanese basketball,” admitted Joseph Abdel Massih, a member of Champville’s Sports Committee. “The championships never really finish. Every year you have a problem at the end of the championship. The clubs and the Federation need to solve these problems –sponsors don’t want to see players wearing their jersey having problems. Everything has to be calm.”

To others, the problems go beyond the perpetual feuds between the FLB and the teams. “The problem is that we’re in Lebanon – no law is applied, there is no legal recourse,” a Blue Stars affiliate complained. “It’s the law of the jungle, the law of the strongest that prevails. And who is the strongest here? Choueiry.” But while Choueiry’s sudden departure from Sagesse left a few rubbing their hands in glee, the most prevalent reaction was that of widespread regret. That the sport will suffer a set-back financially due to his retirement is beyond doubt and many patrons are abandoning what they see as a sinking ship. Henri Chalhoub is apparently to leave Champville and take UFA’s sponsorship with him. “I am almost certain that we won’t sponsor Champville anymore,” an associate of Chalhoub confided.

The challenges ahead

As patrons and big sponsors desert the court, the onus is on the sport to clean up its act, and on the teams to build up a strategy to re-attract enough sponsors to become self-sufficient. “Within five years, we plan to have sponsors covering our budget,” said Riyadi coach Abou Chacra. “We can achieve this target. This team will be able to attract all the big companies – it has the biggest number of supporters and it’s the oldest club.”

Others are more cautious in their predictions. Acknowledging that Choueiry’s departure will require an extended recovery period for the sport, they do however, point to the strengths Lebanese basketball has been able to build up over the recent years: the number of enlisted players, the enduring preference for basketball over other sports, the continued broadcasting on LBCI and the on-going plan to establish a Lebanese-Syrian-Jordanian Superleague.

“This [super league] will attract sponsors,” said Sagesse technical director Rizkallah Zaloum. “Next season the sponsorship will increase.” Pepsi is cautiously confident. “We do research assessments on the game’s appeal every year, notably to see if it is still attracting youth,” said Safi on behalf of Pepsi. “If it is still generating the interest that it is now, that will serve as a major factor in our decision as to whether or not we will continue sponsoring the sport.”