Are we seeing the end of 5-on-5 Olympic basketball?

Read the tea leaves, and the trend is clear: the Olympic 5-on-5 tournament is slowly being phased out.

There have been rumors that Olympic five-on-five basketball is being slowly phased out. European national team officials have been fanning the flames of whisper. The evidence might be hiding in plain sight, though.

First, there’s the fact that FIBA (the international governing body for basketball) and the IOC (the Olympics’ governing body) have added 3-on-3 basketball to the mix despite no apparent grassroots drive for the sport. None of the top basketball players in the world (except Joe Johnson, perhaps) are playing competitive 3-on-3. The biggest 3-on-3 league in the world is run by Ice Cube and features retired NBA players. There is no huge international 3-on-3 league, there is no women’s 3-on-3 movement, there is no college 3-on-3 competition. This is a sport no one really asked to have.

Yet there will be medals awarded for 3-on-3 basketball in the 2020 Olympics.

Did you know the United States won the men’s 3x3 basketball World Cup — FIBA calls it 3x3, so we will too — earlier this summer? They did. The players for the gold-medal winning Team USA? Canyon Barry (younger brother of Brent and Jon, son of Rick, noted granny-style free throw shooter, G League mainstay), Damon Huffman (he’s 34 and went to Brown), Robbie Hummel (who was on Purdue’s roster for like a decade about a decade ago), and Kareem Maddox (Princeton product whose day job is podcast producer).

This is the best men’s 3x3 team in the world, and is on track to compete to win the same gold medal that James Harden, Kemba Walker, and Anthony Davis are hoping to win in 5-on-5.

The situation is even more circumspect on the women’s side. The United States, the dominant power in women’s basketball, with the lioness’ share of the best players in the world, didn’t even have a team in the 2019 World Cup. In fact, there wasn’t a single team from the Western Hemisphere! China won. The MVP of the Chinese team does play 5-on-5 professionally in China, which is something you can’t say for any of the top players on the men’s side.

The first FIBA 3x3 World Cup was held in 2012, confirming that this has been a quick rise for the sport. The question is why. Why has FIBA pushed 3x3 so vigorously? Why is IOC on board? And what will happen to 5-on-5 basketball as a result?

It’s no secret that FIBA has long sought to make the World Cup the centerpiece tournament of global 5-on-5 basketball. It is considered the premier tournament for much of the world, but that’s never been the case in the United States.

FIBA has in recent years expanded the field to 32 teams and changed the schedule so that it is now in the summer preceding the Olympics, not midway between Olympiads. FIBA has also changed qualification processes to de-emphasize continental tournaments in off-years. (That’s been a real disaster, as none of the major professional leagues are creating breaks in their calendars on FIBA’s behalf.)

Why would FIBA prefer the World Cup to be the more important event? Well, FIBA controls the World Cup, and that means profit. It doesn’t control the Olympics: the IOC controls the profits from broadcast deals around the Olympic tournament, whereas FIBA controls the revenue from World Cup broadcasting and sponsorship.

That might explain why the Olympic tournament is shrinking at the same time as FIBA is growing the World Cup in size. Five-on-five teams will play fewer games than usual in the 2020 Olympics (three group stage games and a maximum of three knockout games for six total, as opposed to the previous eight games). That’s two fewer games for the IOC’s global broadcast partners to show NBA superstars playing basketball in between sponsor breaks.

Why the change? There are rumors the decrease was to make space for the 3x3 tournament.

Right. To make space for the tournament for which no one knows any players and for which there is no grassroots demand. Fewer appearances for NBA superstars, more for former members of the All-Ivy League team and one of Rick Barry’s non-NBA sons. (No offense to any of those guys, but they are not James Harden and Kemba Walker.)

You can understand why rumors of the doom of the 5-on-5 Olympic tournaments are taking flight. Frankly, maybe that’s for the best. NBA stars seem to be losing interest in international competition. The women’s side isn’t so bleak — the top players still want to play over there — but the American dominance in both tournaments is thoroughly established. The United States women have won eight of 10 Olympic tournaments. The men have won six of the last seven. If this were a natural fade for 5-on-5 basketball at the global level, maybe it would feel fine.

The fact that FIBA seems to be pulling the levers to suit its own purpose is what makes all of this seem unseemly and gross. Whose interest is being served here?

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