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Spanish passion and smarts fuelling a special project in Valencia
NEWCASTLE (Paul Nilsen's Women's Basketball Worldwide) – Valencia was very much synonymous with success and the elite level until 2012, when it disappeared off the face of the women's basketball map.
The fact it came literally days after Ros Casares had been crowned EuroLeague Women champions and just two years after the club hosted the Final Four in front of big crowds at the renowned Fonteta, was a substantial shock to the system. Not only for the locals, but also for fans of the women's game in general.
Naturally, the initial reaction of raw emotion, outrage and despair from the Ros Casares fans was replaced by the basketball community coming together to look at how the women's game might be resurrected.
A long roller-coaster ride later and here we are in 2018 with something special being built. This incredible journey and stunning renaissance deserves some serious recognition.
Much is owed to the critical moment when some life was truly breathed back into women's basketball in the city.
During 2014, Liga Endesa men's club Valencia Basket rescued all of the Ros Casares youth teams. They had all managed to briefly stumble along the road, before inevitably bleeding-out from the fatal wounds of the senior team collapse a couple of years earlier. The decision by Valencia Basket to step in and pick up the pieces was a monumental turning point.
The base of this new women's basketball pyramid at the club was strengthened and in timely fashion, the senior team, which was based on former Ros Casares players from different generations, gained promotion from the third tier of the Spanish Leagues in 2016. After then managing to remain in Liga Femenina 2 during 2016-17 with virtually the same team, the club opted to take an extra step and push for promotion last season.
They did it. They made it to the top flight and into Liga Dia / Liga Femenina. The response in terms of the outpouring of passion and support has been genuinely incredible.
The mention of 'smarts' in the title of this story, is that it was facilitated using a powerful marketing strategy. Valencia put all their tools to the servicing of women's basketball during the last critical phase when they sealed their famous promotion. There was an average attendance of over 5000 people, reaching 6,200 on the big day itself, when they reached Liga Femenina. It was barely a surprise that it smashed the historical record for a match in the second division.
Day by day, the staff at Valenica had realized what was possible and that an elite level women's team in the city was not a fairy-tale or something to reminisce about. They recognized it could become a reality with an increase in budget of course, but alongside intensive promotion. At the very heart of this, is a decision to push the women's team equally with the men. I love the approach the club has implemented. Three major decisions have helped to sell the project to everyone and make it one of the most exciting in the women's game right now.
Firstly, Valencia have pushed and sold combined season tickets: The season ticket includes the matches of Liga Femenina and Liga Endesa for the next 2018-19 season. It is a clear measure that demonstrates the important commitment that the club makes to encourage attendance at women's games.
Secondly, they also have the same social networks. The club shares networks for men and women. They see that Valencia Basket is about both and the women deserve the same spotlight through social networks, where Valencia has a combined 300,000 followers.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all, they reiterate on an operational day-to-day basis to those actually involved, that they have a commitment to equality. The club tries to get their two teams represented at any event they take part in. For example, Irene Gari was alongside Antoine Diot at a promotional activity and that trend was dominant throughout the season.
The club is now building for their rookie Liga Dia campaign and the excitement is palpable around the club. They have inked Maria Pina and Anna Gomez. It is particularly poignant that they are both high-quality professional female players who were born and developed in Valencia. Now they are back home, alongside Gari – another Valencia-native.
Throw in Spanish national team member Tamara Abalde who is fighting for a place at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018, along with young and skilled players, such as Marina Lizarazu and the ever-reliable Rebeca Cotano and Esther Diaz who have been around since the inception of the team several years ago, and you realize Valencia can be competitive.
But not wanting to get ahead of themselves, it's clear from speaking to representatives of the club that they accept they are nowhere near the heights previously reached by Ros Casares.
But that is not really the point right now. The fact is, fans of the women's game in Valencia aren't just dreaming any more. They can now live and breathe women's basketball again. The genuinely crazy reaction from those 6,000 fans at the end of the last season reminded everyone how enjoyable it can be to just take a tangible step forward.
Sure, promotion from Liga Femenina 2 was not exactly a EuroLeague Women title for those former Ros fans. But, I imagine that it tasted every bit as sweet - perhaps even sweeter in a strange kind of way.
What Valencia and the local basketball community are thriving on now isn't top-level silverware – or at least just yet. It is the simple, but fulfilling sense of intense pride that they are the only club in Spain with a men and women's team who are both playing in the top national competition. For that, everyone involved in this project, both on and off the court at Valencia, needs some serious praise and congratulations.
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