KIERAN SHANNON: Time has come to inject new life into SuperLeague

Jasper McElroy couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Neither could Paudie O’Connor.

The pair of them were in a hotel in Charlotte, along with Terry Strickland and Tony Andre, to recall for a television documentary a time when they were kings and the Irish basketball league was the most exciting in all of Irish sport. They were aware that the league had declined sharply from where it was in the 90s, let alone the 80s, but some measures of and factors in that decline alarmed them.

O’Connor, a resident of Las Vegas for almost two decades now, once made the all-star five of a European qualifying tournament Ireland took part in, in 1976. Now the man who first brought American pro players into Ireland was pained to learn that Ireland haven’t even got a senior team playing in international competition.

What startled McElroy was the current format of the Irish league. Just eight teams?! With two conferences of four?! And three of those four teams make the playoffs?! It made no sense.

In his time, every game mattered. Whoever topped the league won the league. There were at least 10 teams in the top division and only the top four made it through to the national championships. In 1986-87 he averaged 41 points a game, playing with Budweiser North Monastery. Going into the final week of the season, they had a chance of winning the title. A couple of defeats later, they didn’t even make it to the Top Four, finishing with an 11-7 win-loss record. This season UCD Marian reached the SuperLeague playoffs with a 6-15 record. That’s because Belfast Star could win only four games all year. In a proper league, that would result in relegation. But since the inception of the so-called SuperLeague in 1998, there has been no relegation.

That might have made some sense back then when there were 14 teams in the top flight. The rationale was that teams might need a couple of seasons — losing seasons — to build a side, and in a way that was tolerable because most games still mattered; right up unto the end of the 2002-2003 season, whoever topped the league won the league.

But since then the league has reverted to a play-off format, and in recent seasons far too many teams have been allowed to qualify for them, thus devaluing the regular season itself. When there’s so little at stake, supporters and media tune out. Even players do.

There are signs that Bernard O’Byrne is going to make a fine chief executive of the sport. Just 12 months into the job, he rightly identified that there was a gap in the market for Friday night big-time basketball and shifted the cup finals to that slot and away from the traditional but now overcrowded Sunday afternoon schedule.

This coming Friday, the league finals will also take place in the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght and again will be shown live by Setanta. There is a strong possibility that next season Setanta will carry a regular magazine programme in the sport. But to sustain their interest and the public’s, the league must be revamped.

If there are only eight teams in the top flight, then only four, possibly even three of them, make the play-offs. Byrne will also have to seriously look at reintroducing promotion to and relegation from that top flight. Right now too many teams are comfortable at the bottom of the SuperLeague and remaining in the first division of the national league.

It was understandable a few years back to have such a demarcation because the cost of financing a couple of Americans and a couple more Bosman players to compete in the top flight was so prohibitive. But now there’s only one American allowed per SuperLeague team. Any team playing at national league level should be able to afford one American. If they can’t, you have to question their ambition and whether they should be allowed in a national league in the first place.

The authorities have allowed them wallow in this comfort zone. A decade ago it was a shame the intermediate grade had no opportunity to be on the bill of any of the sport’s big weekends. Now they have too much of a good thing with both the Division One cup final and league final on the same weekend bill as the SuperLeague finals. Maybe the likes of Titans and St Mary’s Castleisland deserve one of those days in the sun, but not both. If they want both they should be prepared to enter the SuperLeague.

Some other hard calls have to be made. If Moycullen want to remain in the SuperLeague instead of propping it up like they have these past three seasons then they need to build relations with and recruit players from rivals and neighbours like Titans and Maree, or else propose a return to the old promotion-relegation model pre-1998. The league should be about standards and continuously finishing in the bottom two falls well short of them. The league means too much to some of us for so many games to mean so little.


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