CSKA Moscow president Andrey Vatutin recounts to TalkBasket the backstory of the last tumultuous months for his team and European basketball.
Andrey Vatutin is all over the place. The 47-year-old Moscow State University graduate and former journalist took the chair in CSKA in July 2009, replacing Sergey Kushchenko. At the same time, he retained the post of the Chief Executive Officer.
During his tenure, CSKA Moscow has won 3 Euroleague titles (2008, 2016, 2019), 8 VTB League titles (2010, 2012-18), never lost a Russian championship crown and won three games against NBA teams (Clippers, 2006; Cleveland, 2010; Minnesota, 2013). On top of that, he was inducted into the newly-established VTB United League Hall Of Fame.
The 2019-20 and also the present campaign have been tricky for everyone involved in the European basketball structure. Apart from the covid-19 pandemic and its ramifications, EuroLeague clubs have to deal with internal issues. CSKA had several injuries, some of them season-ending (like Milutinov’s), but also the Mike James saga, which ended with the two sides parting ways – at least for now.
TalkBasket.net met Andrey Vatutin in Athens for a conversation revolving around the latest version of the Russian powerhouse, the success of the EuroLeague model, his future with the club and the perspective he has taken throughout the years.
Q: How is this CSKA team responding to your expectations?
A: We had many injuries, some new players. It looked like we were in preseason. I remember a NISSAN advertisement, which read “swift expectations”. Every GM in Euroleague has high expectations, but the issue with injuries makes everything unpredictable. Niko Milutinov is a key player for us and we lost him until the end of the season. I hope that we qualify to the Final Four, after our first goal (the playoffs) has been accomplished. Point number one is to keep all the team healthy.
Q: You once told me that it doesn’t matter whether CSKA ends up first or fourth in the regular season. Do you have the same mindset this year, with no real homecourt advantage at stake?
A: I might be wrong, but the team that won the regular season has never won the EuroLeague. The most important factor is to have the homeport advantage in the playoffs. First place, second or third … it doesn’t matter.
Q: Are you happy with the way the EuroLeague dealt with the pandemic last year, canceling the season?
A: It was an absolutely logical decision, no question about that. There was no possibility to play. This year, things are going well, but we have only one problem: spectators. Because for players, coaches and the media it is difficult without supporters. We are lucky in Russia because we have the possibility to play in a half-full arena, while in the past we had a 25% capacity.
To be realistic, the season will finish without spectators in most countries of Europe. I try to be optimistic, but I think that the Final Four will be played without spectators. I hope that next season we will find a way to play in Athens, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Moscow with spectators because we miss our fans.
Q: How is the financial situation in CSKA? Before the beginning of the season, you said that the club has to make some serious cutbacks.
A: Yes, it was the economic crisis, some problems with Norilsk Nickel mining company. We had to cut around 20% of our budget. This year, in order to pay for the players we signed (editor’s note: Iffe Lundberg from Zielona Gora, Michael Eric from Turk Telekom), we took money off next season’s budget. In the summer of 2020, we were at -25% compared to 2019.
Next summer, we will decide how to deal with this problem. We expect to have more spectators and increase our revenue with ticketing and merchandising. It’s a problem for all Euroleague clubs.
Q: How do you believe European basketball will emerge from this pandemic?
A: I don’t know the answer yet. Lockdown still exists, we lose money every day. When people lose their lives, it’s not so fair to talk about basketball. You lose normal life. I hope that after the summer, the situation will be much more normal, in every way.
Q: In terms of the competition, has it changed in any way?
A: I like the system. You know my position about Final Four, but it’s the face of EuroLeague. Everybody accepts it. Maybe for big clubs like CSKA, Real or Barcelona it’s not so fair, because they spend a lot of money during the season and the can lose everything in one game. But I think fans like it and there is no reason to change it. You can organize a tournament in one city and in a short period.
Q: Do you believe that the EuroLeague in general is following a successful financial and organizational model?
A: You put me in some difficult position! (laughs). We would like to play more sold-out games and receive more money. To talk about finance and profit amidst the pandemic is strange. The most important thing is to play basketball because we had to keep our tournament.
Q: Was the Mike James issue the biggest crisis you had to face while at the helm of CSKA?
A: He was an important player for us; a good player, but not an easy person. For sure, we knew that before signing him, but we always believe that a good organization is much more important and valuable than one player. It’s not easy to work with Mike James. It wasn’t easy with Teodosic and other players, for many different reasons. I am not an easy person to work with, either.
We heard a lot of rumors: fights etc. For me, the interest of the team is always more important than one player and Mike accepts this. We tried to keep the story in our locker-room only. In a sports team, there are a lot of players and coaches with a big ego. Sometimes it’s difficult to put everyone in the right position. I have been trying to do that in the last 20 years.
Q: For how much longer will you keep on doing this job?
A: I am thinking about it every day. Unfortunately, I have no idea! (laughs) If you lose, your first reaction is: “Uff, I’m tired of this shit!”. It’s a really difficult question, but basketball is number one my life.
Q: Is CSKA really the “hot seat” of Europe? We all know that a player or a coach is not considered successful if they don’t win the Euroleague. The Final Four is never enough.
A: In the past, the main idea for me was to win the EuroLeague. We did it, three times. Now, I like the process more than the result. I try to find pleasure in practices, games, trips, interviews, contact with players. I am enjoying it. We are lucky people because we have the possibility to travel.
Q: Is Dimitris Itoudis going to stay with the team after his contract is over?
A: Theoretically, his contract will finish in the end of the season. When we decide about his future, the club will announce it. We are lucky to work with him. It’s a successful cooperation.