Looking back at the 2019 FIBA World Cup format

For the first time ever, the FIBA World Cup format included a staggering 32 teams in the 2019 final phase. They came from FIBA’s five regions. In the end, the Marc Gasol-lead Spanish squad reigned supreme in China, beating out tournament surprise and fan-favorite Argentina to secure Spains's second World Cup title.

Isn’t 32 teams a bit too much?

That depends on how you look at it. FIBA has 213 national federation members. Some simple math tells us that 15% of them qualified for the World Cup. That’s three out of every 20 teams. That percentage is on par with other similar international competitions, but low compared to top professional championships in various sports. Take a look:

  • FIFA Soccer Men’s World Cup: 32 out of 211 member nations = 15%*
  • IBAF World Baseball Classic: 16 of 127 member nations = 13%
  • FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship: 24 of 222 member nations = 11%
  • NBA basketball playoffs: 16 of 30 teams = 53%
  • NHL hockey playoffs: 16 of 31 teams = 52%
  • Euroleague basketball playoffs: 8 of 16 teams = 50%
  • NFL American football playoffs: 12 of 32 teams = 38%
  • MLB baseball playoffs: 10 of 30 teams = 33%
  • UEFA Champions League soccer playoffs: 16 of 79 teams = 20%

*Keep in mind: FIFA is planning to expand to 48 teams (23%) for the 2026 USA-Mexico-Canada World Cup.

It is important to note that the globalization of sports has changed the landscape dramatically in the past decades. As a result, World Cups between national teams are no longer the highest level of sports, but professional leagues are. They are more entertainment-focused, have more money, and contain the world’s top players. That allows the club teams to be much more competitive from top to bottom.

Conclusion: Based on these numbers, a 32-team FIBA World Cup format WOULD be the correct size. Especially when compared to other world championships.

A closer look reveals different numbers

Please note that NOT ALL all FIBA’s 213 members participated in the 2019 WC qualifying process. Because FIBA reduced that number to only the top 80 national teams from its five regions. But in other sports, ALL member nations participate in an all-inclusive and multi-tiered qualification process.

If you redo the math using only a total of 80 member nations, you get (32 divided by 80) a much higher qualification ratio of 40%. Hence, the question is now if 40% is too much?

Probably yes. Based on 80 countries participating in the qualification process, the percentage should be 20 to 30% or 16 to 24 teams.


Now let’s look at it from the angle of competitiveness.

Is it really a competition of 32 teams where all 32 have a legitimate chance, or at least a shimmer of hope, to finish on the podium? Or is it really a competition of six to eight teams with real chances of medaling, while the other 24 to 26 teams are just rice-and-bean fillers in the “basketball burrito” for the purpose of increasing fan interest, TV markets (and most importantly) sponsorship and advertising revenues?

Let’s examine the competitive level of the 2019 WC by studying how many games were “blowouts,” how many were “competitive” and how many were “ultra-competitive.” Let’s define a blowout as a game with a final score differential of 15+ points, competitive games with differentials of six to 14 points and ultra-competitive games as those won by five or fewer points as well as those that go into overtime, regardless of the final score.

Most games were blowouts

A total of 48 group games were played In the first round of the competition.

Blowouts: (22) 46%

Competitive: (15) 31%

Ultra-competitive: (11) 23%

Of the 22 blowout games, eight (17% of all games) were major blowouts with point differentials of between 39 and 59 points. Furthermore, in three of these contests, the losing side was from the African continent, while the other five involved Asian teams coming out on the short end of the scoreboard.

In the second round, or medal-round, games there were an additional 16 games played among the top 16 teams. The percentages remained almost identical, with blowouts accounting for 44% of the games.

Blowouts: (7) 44%

Competitive: (5) 31 %

Ultra-competitive: (4) 25%

Not until the quarterfinals (final 8) did the games really get “competitive.” Here there were a total of 12 games, including the fifth through eighth place classification games.

Blowouts: (1) 8%

Competitive: (9) 75%

Ultra-competitive: (2) 17% (includes one of the two semi-final games)

Though a total of 11 of the games were competitive/ultra-competitive, only two of the 12 were ultra-competitive. The only blowout took place in the championship game where Spain dominated the tournament darlings Argentina by winning all four quarters and winning the Cup with a 95-75 victory.

What does this breakdown tell us? Above all, it tells us that the games only get completely competitive when the tournament is twiddled down to its final eight teams.

Third conclusion: If we want the Basketball World Cup to be competitive from start to finish and truly be a festival of basketball with the world’s TOP teams, the field should be reduced, not increased. 32 teams, like 48 in soccer, is way too watered down and it takes too long to get to the interesting games. In other words, the FIBA World Cup format needs to change.

An alternative FIBA World Cup format

However, knowing that FIBA would never go back down to just eight teams. It would be OK with 16 teams (FIBA won’t do that either), or even the previous 24 teams, in order to include more countries and it not be such a drastic U-turn, but that is the max.

An alternative solution is that FIBA needs to be bold and think BIG by being the first international governing body to have multiple championships (world cups) that would involve all their 213 member nations in the qualifying process while allowing all countries to compete for a championship with others on their level.

Also, this would motivate all the national federations to really develop the game within their countries and their national teams, knowing that everyone has a legitimate chance of qualifying for a World Cup.

How would an alternative FIBA World Cup format work? While this solution is specific to the men’s competition, it could be applied equally to the women’s side.

1. FIBA Basketball (Gold) World Cup (24 teams): top 80 ranked teams in the FIBA World Ranking Presented by Nike (two years prior to the WC) compete in a qualification process to qualify the top 24 teams for the (Gold) WC. Europe (7), Americas (6), Asia-Pacific (6), Africa (4), host nation (1).

2. FIBA Basketball Division B (or Silver) World Cup (16 teams): teams ranked 81 to 150 (70 teams) compete in a similar qualification process to qualify the top 16 teams for the Division B or Silver WC. Europe (5), Americas (4), Asia-Pacific (3), Africa (4). The host nation would be determined one year out among the 16 qualified teams.

3. FIBA Basketball Division C (or Bronze) World Cup (12 teams): teams ranked 151 to 213 (63 teams) compete in a similar qualification process to qualify the top 12 teams for the Division C or Bronze WC. Europe (4), Americas (3), Asia-Pacific (2), Africa (3). The host nation would be determined one year out among the 12 qualified teams.

Each tournament would be hosted by one or more different countries or regions – such as Central America or the South Pacific, rotating FIBA regions each tournament – and take place one after the other allowing FIBA and the game of basketball to dominate the summer months of June through September every four years.

If FIBA really wants to increase fan interest, TV markets, and sponsorship and advertising revenues, yet with competitive tournaments while also TRULY developing and growing the game globally, then this is the way to do it!

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