It took longer than expected and did not come with the celebratory official unveiling that usually attends groundbreaking international basketball agreements. But today, the East Asia Super League took a giant leap forward, getting an official seal of approval from both the Asia Board and the Executive Committee of FIBA, basketball’s international governing body.
The process is the culmination of four years of work on the part of Matt Beyer, a Wisconsin native who has spent the bulk of his career working as the only licensed foreign player agent in greater China. Seeking a bigger challenge, Beyer recognized the lack of an international tournament covering East Asian professional clubs. That set into motion the Super 8 tournament in Macau, which took teams from four major Asian markets—China, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines—and pitted them in a tournament against each other. That began in 2017 and morphed into The Terrific 12 for the past two years.
Last year’s The Terrific 12, won by former NBA star Lance Stephenson’s Chinese club, the Liaoning Flying Leopards, was played in front of sold-out audiences and reached 117 million viewers online.
Beyer had a bigger plan: to establish a champions league for the four countries, along the lines of the European UEFA Champions League tournament or FIBA’s Basketball Champions League in Europe. There had been no such league for the region, which has a combined population of about 2 billion and a fast-growing interest in basketball. “There was definitely a void there,” Beyer said.
That will change. The EASL will begin game play in October 2021, with an eight-team setup that will expand to 16 teams in 2023. That was the plan for the EASL all along, even as Beyer and his small team navigated the mass of bureaucracy and diplomatic hurdles that attend international basketball. The task was made all the more difficult by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Through it all, the EASL managed to maintain its drive and finally has gained the imprimatur of FIBA, a big leap in bringing the league to the international forefront.
“We’re ready to go to the public with the fact that the league is official, what the format is going to be like and to get people excited for what’s ahead for Season 1 on the horizon,” Beyer said.
The format will begin with the top professinoal teams from greater China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines playing a home-and-home series over the fall and winter, with a Final Four to be held in February to determine a champion, runner-up and third-place finisher. That is where FIBA’s involvement was imperative—it is nearly impossible to ask teams to incorporate a champions league tournament into their season schedules, not to mention their national team schedules, without FIBA having a hand in the arrangemen
Having FIBA back the league changes everything, though, and shows how far Beyer and the EASL have come from the tip-off of the first tournament in Macau, which originally drew scorn from FIBA, to this agreement.
“To be able to put this together and put a stamp of legitimacy on it from the global governing body is obviously a huge step for us,” Beyer said, “especially when you step back, four years ago, it was a very loose confederation and concept where there was no one backing us.”
The FIBA approval is a crucial step and was the East Asia Super League’s second piece of big news from this summer, a sign of the league’s momentum even in the midst of a pandemic that has forced most international sports to seize up. The pandemic has caused this year’s The Terrific 12 tournament to be delayed indefinitely. Logic would dictate that it would be tremendously difficult to pull off in light of the need for COVID-19 testing and quarantining, plus the added rigor of acquiring visas and traveling.
Even in that murky atmosphere, Beyer and the EASL were able to draw veteran sports marketing guru Mark Fischer, who helped the NBA establish its foothold in Taiwan and China in the late 1990s and was the league’s managing director in the China when the sport exploded following the drafting of Yao Ming in 2002. Fischer was with the NBA for 12 critical years during the league’s rise in Asia and went on to play a similar role for the UFC before working as a brand consultant in Shanghai.
Basketball, though, was always a draw for Fischer.
“It’s not every day you get a chance to come in with an influential role on the ground floor of a new sports league,” he said. “That’s a really exciting opportunity in general—I love basketball, I have grown up with basketball, I was with the NBA for 12 years and played for many years. It is one of my passions.”
Beyer is the league’s CEO and focused on overseeing the basketball aspects of the EASL. Henry Kerins, formerly vice president with the Asia Group, runs the league’s financial end. Fischer is charged with reaching fans across the EASL markets and, thus, building the league’s base of potential sponsors, merchandise licensees, media rights partners and revenue streams. He concedes that the many trials of 2020 have made this a less-than-ideal time to be pursuing those kinds of deals.
But the league has remained active, putting players in front of fans with a pair of digital video series—BALLERIFIC, featuring offbeat interviews with players, and Fresh in Macao, which shows what players in past Terrific 12 tournaments were up to when they were on and off the floor. Those are among the tools the East Asia Super League has so that it can stay engaged with its fan base and bring in new interest as it keeps moving forward toward next fall.
Even with the challenges, basketball is deeply ingrained in Asian sports culture and always will draw fan interest. Fischer remembered when he was first hired by the NBA and set up shop in Taiwan, 23 years ago.
“Being from the U.S., I knew Taiwan’s sports from Little League Baseball, they always had great teams in the World Series,” Fischer said. “I figured baseball was their favorite sport. When I got to Taiwan, though, it was basketball. I would talk with people and they’d say, ‘No, it is not baseball, it is basketball.’ I did not realize that. That gave me an inkling that it has been embedded in societies here for a long time, many decades. It was brought over by missionaries over 100 year ago. There’s a basketball court in every school. There is a deep base for basketball in Asia and China and it has been a growing passion in the region.”
The one thing there has not been, though, is a multi-nation champions league that brings together the best of greater China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. With the official approval from FIBA, the EASL will change that.