Greek basketball league crumbling amid country's financial crisis
Greece once had one of top leagues in Europe, attracted many talented Americans
As country suffers in financial crisis, most teams can't afford to pay their salaries
FIBA has banned some teams from signing players, others are fleeing league
ATHENS -- It's fitting that the tragedy of a basketball team called Maroussi played its final road game of the season in a town called Drama. Nearly broke, Maroussi chartered a bus for the eight-hour ride because it couldn't afford airline tickets. Maroussi lost by 38 points, slipping to 1-22 on the season. Its starting power forward didn't make the trip. Injured? No. Hung over from clubbing? Uh-uh.
He's still in high school and had some big tests to study for. Amateurs from the junior squad were forced into action after many of the professionals quit. The club had stopped paying them. What little revenue it had was being diverted to players owed money from past seasons.
Maroussi is among several teams on the verge of bankruptcy. Greece is the epicenter of the European economic crisis, and with the country's economy in shambles, the Greek professional basketball league, once considered the best in Europe, is deteriorating. The all-star game was canceled to save money. With more government cuts looming, there's concern that revenue from state television will significantly diminish.
Teams are compiling huge debts even as player salaries shrink. Desperate for relief, the league has asked players who are owed money to accept a 50 percent "haircut," just like Greece's bondholders did. Ten of 13 clubs are several months late on payments, said the players' union, describing the problems as "urgent."
Players are fleeing either because they're not getting paid or they can simply earn more money elsewhere.
"Basketball is dead in Greece," said Yannis Gagaloudis, Maroussi's former point guard who is owed nearly $20,000 from the team. He left in February. "It's like being in a coma. In two or three years, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos will be in the same situation."
Three historically strong teams -- Maroussi, Panionios and Aris -- are banned from signing new players. The Basketball Arbitral Tribunal of FIBA imposed the sanctions after those clubs failed to pay overdue salaries.
Compared to other countries, the disputes in Greece "have led to the biggest number of sanctions being imposed for a failure to [pay players]," Benjamin Cohen, FIBA's legal affairs manager, said in an e-mail. Two lower-division Greek clubs are also banned from signing new players.
Like elsewhere in Europe, Greek sports teams generally aren't designed to earn money. Wealthy owners lose money every year in search of glory, political leverage and legitimacy. They've been providing personal bailouts long before Greece needed one.
But in the financial crisis, spending play money is a luxury most can't afford. Some owners make their living in industries like shipping, pharmaceuticals and construction -- all hit hard by the crisis. Dropping close to $20 million over three years -- the Josh Childress contract from Olympiacos in 2008 -- seems inconceivable today.
Even the owner of one of the few financially viable clubs, Rethymno on Crete island, is pessimistic. The team was a success on and off the court. It cultivated a fan base and sponsorships. And it signed high-performing players at workable salaries.
Harvard-educated owner Costi Zombanakis fears it may be too late. "The Greek league is just a reflection of what's going on in Greece. It's falling apart," he said. "Today, we're in an extremely precarious situation because the owners don't have money."
Arch rivals Panathinaikos and Olympiacos still have their deep-pocketed owners, but perhaps not for much longer. In the past year, the Panathinaikos and Olympiacos owners have said they want to sell, although there are no obvious buyers. They lose millions of euros every season and they've begun trimming. Still, their budgets are in the $20 million to $25 million range.
The real story of Greek basketball is in the Athens suburb of Maroussi, which is sinking in lawsuits, FIBA sanctions, general bitterness and distrust. Until recently, money wasn't a problem. The club was controlled by Aris Vovos, chief executive of the construction company started by his father. Babis Vovos International Construction is one of Greece's top commercial property developers.
The fair market value for the company's portfolio in 2008 was $1.7 billion, according to the company's annual report that year. That was before the financial crisis struck. The Athens Stock Exchange temporarily suspended trading of the company's shares on April 2, when the share price closed at about 40 cents (00.30 euro).
When construction was booming, life was good. Vovos, a former race car driver, was spending between $1 million and $2.5 million per year on player salaries. That's far less than what Panathinaikos and Olympiacos spent, but it's huge money for a club playing in a gym that some U.S. high schools would consider inadequate.
"He had a lot of money," team manager Kostas Katsanos said. "He just wanted to have a team. He was proud. The family was proud."
Maroussi punched above its weight and was widely considered the third-best Greek team. In 2001 it won the Saporta Cup, which later became the Eurocup. Maroussi made it to the league finals in 2004, losing to Panathinaikos.
Just two years ago, Maroussi competed in the Euroleague, considered the best league outside the NBA. The club also has developed young talent, including Vassilis Spanoulis. He now plays for Olympiacos and at nearly $3 million per year is the league's highest-paid player.
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