Israel's Basketball Players End Strike After Compromise Reached on Foreign Recruits

Local betting board to provide financial incentive for teams that do not take on a fifth player and use more Israelis; Russian rule to return.

Arie Livnat
Arie Livnat
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Arie Livnat
Arie Livnat

The Israel Basketball League and the players union signed a 5-year agreement on Tuesday night, effectively ending the players' strike.

The agreement will enable teams to register five foreign players for every game, while at least two Israeli will be on court throughout the game. The league administration will add financial benefits to teams choosing not to sign a fifth foreign player.

The strike was not observed by Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Eilat's Israeli players, but no league games have been played since March 17th. Most teams did not hold training sessions during this period.

Sports and Culture Minister Limor Livnat said last Saturday, "The Israeli Basketball league has no right to exist without Israeli players, and therefore there is a true need to act to ensure their position in the teams and see that there are more Israelis on each team." Livnat instructed the director of the ministry's sport administration, Uri Shefer to intervene in the crisis.

Shefer met separately with league administration chairman Shmuel Frankel and with players' union chairman Nir Alon on Tuesday, but to no avail. The administration preferred to solve the crisis without his intervention, and the players' union rejected his demand to end the strike before an agreement was signed.

On Tuesday evening, yet another meeting between the sides began, with Frankel, administration general director Adley Marcus, and Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman, Shimon Mizrahi representing the league, and Alon, together with Matan Naor, Meir Tapiro and Yaniv Green representing the players.

The players rejected the administration's first offer, which included having five foreign players on each team, the so-called Russian law requiring teams to field at least two local players at all time, and financial benefits for teams who would use more Israeli players. Hapoel Tel Aviv's Matan Naor, who seemed to the most militant of the players, angered the administration negotiators with his tough stance, particularly Maccabi Tel Aviv officials.

As both sides resumed talks, Shlomi Perry, the administration's press officer, informed the awaiting journalists that "an unexpected visitor is about to join the negotiations." It turned out that not one, but two men joined the negotiations, Shefer and Tzachi Fishbein, the chairman of Toto, the Israel Sports Betting Board.

Fishbein turned out to be the man who eventually induced both sides to strike a deal. He joined the meeting following pressure from Livnat, since Toto is one of the official sponsors of professional basketball's Super League.

Fishbein approved the administration's last offer to the players – five foreigners and the Russian law, but promised that the financial benefits the Toto – would be distributed in a different manner. He said Toto would provide NIS 1.5 million to every team not signing a fifth foreign player, and a further million shekels to each team using more Israeli players. This offer, too, was rejected by the players.

The administration made one more gesture toward the players, offering a further NIS 250,000 for teams playing with no more than four foreigners. The players initially demanded an extra NIS 50,000, but eventually agreed. According to the final agreement, each team would register at least two Israelis 22 or under and at least one Israeli up to the age of 25 per game.

Still, the meeting continued due to endless haggling over minor details. At one stage it became a shouting contest when the sides dealt with the petition the players' union submitted to the High Court of Justice, concerning the employment of foreign basketball players.

After five hours the sides finally signed the agreement. Frankel, who returned from a vacation in Thailand just a number of hours earlier, said: "The agreement is good for both sides and good for Israeli basketball. For our part the strike is over and the teams can resume practice sessions. The league games will be resumed next week. The damage caused by the strike isn't that severe. We will have to continue the league after June 6th."

Nir Alon said: "Both sides eventually had to compromise. We didn't want to twist the administration's arm, since it does a good job for Israeli basketball. This was a very difficult period, but we will work to rebuild the trust between the administration and the players. It's a good agreement for both sides. I believe eight or nine teams will prefer to sign only four foreign players, and that means we will see more Israeli players on court."

The agreement must still be approved by the players' union on Thursday and by the administration's board on Sunday.

Eldad Akunis, the chairman of Bnei Herzliya, credited Fishbein with the eventual success of the negotiations: "Without him we wouldn't have reached an agreement and the teams could not resume practice sessions," he said.

The games that were postponed due to the strike will probably be played next Wednesday, while Maccabi Tel Aviv's game against Herzliya will be postponed to the following Saturday, if Maccabi manages to progress in the Euroleague.

The upper-tier and lower-tier playoffs will begin on April 17th, two weeks later than in the original schedule, meaning that the final championship game will also be put off.

The lights are on but the team was off: The Rishon Letzion Maccabi HQ stands bereft on the night of a canceled game.Credit: Nimrod Glickman
Shmuel Frankel, chairman of the basketball league administration.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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