Flying Eagles not good for Basketball's future

IT has been a remarkable journey which has put Newcastle Eagles miles ahead of their rivals as a franchise and a trophy-winning force.

Paul Blake, Newcastle Eagles' managing director

IT has been a remarkable journey which has put Newcastle Eagles miles ahead of their rivals as a franchise and a trophy-winning force.

From a loss-making franchise which almost folded at the turn of the century to a club which is the envy of British basketball, playing in a sparkling new £30m Arena, with 13 trophies in the last six years to celebrate.

Winning has not only become a habit as far as the Eagles are concerned, it has even got to the point where it has become a little too predictable in a league full of franchises who are desperately trying to make up lost ground by following the model it constructed.

Managing director Paul Blake would never describe the winning feeling as boring.

He has loved seeing the club he has transformed dominate domestic basketball like no other has done before, but he is also wary of it.

The gap, in truth, has closed. Newcastle completed a clean sweep of trophies in 2006 but, despite not matching that feat since, they have won the BBL four times in the last five years.

The only problem is, if they keep winning every year, the league ultimately suffers and without a strong league Blake – who combines his job on Tyneside with the role of BBL chairman – fears the Eagles will never grow into the club he aspires it to be.

Blake, who came to Newcastle as a student studying sports studies at Northumbria University in the early nineties, said: “There is no point us running away with it every season in a lot of respects.

“I have been chairman for five years and if I had taken all those hours out of that and put them into the club we would be light years ahead of the rest.

“There is no two ways about it. Even now, if we did things slightly differently, reduced our staffing levels and put it into the playing budget, we would be light years ahead, but what is the point?

“I do not want to win everything every year, it would be to the detriment of the league.

“I don’t want to be sitting here every Friday winning by 50. I do not think anyone else does.

“What we want is more games like we had against Everton Tigers last week, even though it hurt a lot to lose.

“It was a fantastic event. That is where the sport should be across all the venues.

“It was a benchmark, but there is a long way to go.

“That keeps me involved, it is growing and it is improving. The league needs to be stronger, richer, with better players across all the franchises. “

Blake added: “If we can get to a stage where the league has a few more teams and everyone is pulling in crowds of between 2,000-5,000 at their own arenas, we will have made it. That is where the sport can be in this country.

“We are waiting for the rest of the league to catch up.

“The club has done everything it can, but the club is not going to move forward without the league moving on.

“It needs the league to improve to release the ability for this club to move on another step.” Where Newcastle should be is Europe, but it remains a pipe dream.

For all of their dominance in Britain, Blake knows the Eagles would have their wings badly clipped on the continent. That is why he needs the overall standard of the league to improve.

With bigger crowds and stronger franchises comes better players, stiffer competition and, hopefully, the golden goose of more spectator interest and the golden egg of greater media coverage.

Yet, at the same time as he wishes his competitors improve, he also fears the day Newcastle are knocked off their perch.

“I do take the trophies for granted now,” said Blake, who was in Brighton in 2005 when Newcastle won the BBL Trophy for the first time. “It will only dawn on me what we have achieved when we stop winning and that is inevitable at some point.

“I have a personal goal, which is to win a trophy every year for ten years, but that might end this year.

“We are the most successful team in the league’s history, there is not another team which has won league three years in a row.

“Have I self-actualised in this role? What else is there to do?

“The last thing you want to do, having taken it to where it is, is be party to it going the other way.

“That does worry me a little bit. I could move on, but I ask myself that question, and what else do I want to do? The businessman in me says I have to set those new goals, go to work in the NBA or a team in Europe, to expand my role as league chairman, but I am already doing that.

“I could earn far more money abroad for less work and less stress, but for whatever reason none of those are enough of a motivation for me to fill in application forms.

“I have never applied for another job since I started working on this.”

You can understand why when you know the history.

Blake saved the franchise from oblivion in 1999 when he took over the club from Sir John Hall.

Hall’s flawed Sporting Club concept had brought Newcastle professional basketball, ice-hockey and rugby union, but racked up huge debts to do so.

For the first two years after Blake led a management buy-out with partner Ken Nottage, Newcastle lost money and he feared the worst.

He said: “It was a huge risk, but I was naive enough at the time not to realise what I was doing.

“Would I do it again now, absolutely not, it was madness really.

“At 27 or 28, I felt I could turn a business around in one year which had lost £1.7m over the previous three.

“It was ludicrous to think we could, foolish.

“We lost money for the first two years and broke even in the third.

“We have either made a profit or broken even every year since, but I thought it would never happen.

“I was ready to walk away from it, there was something in my head that said I should, but I could not.

“ I was too stubborn and I wanted it to work too much.

“The first triumph was probably the first year we broke even.

“From there I knew we had a chance of surviving – we could not have gone on another year losing money.

“It was a good feeling to know we could move forward.

“Every year, we are never quite sure how it is going to go. There are so many things which can go wrong, but we have learned to cope.”


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