By Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
Newcastle Eagles are the most successful club in the history of the British Basketball League. Since their rebranding in 1996, they have won 25 titles and achieved three clean sweeps of BBL silverware – in 2005-06, 2010-11 and 2013-14. Off the court, they are an example for sports clubs across the North East.
None of this would have been possible without owner and managing director Paul Blake, who has been at the club for more than 20 years.
The Eagles were once one of three teams along with the Falcons and the Cobras (a now defunct ice hockey team) who formed part of Newcastle United Sporting Club, a grand vision from the football club’s owners to expand across a variety of sports. But when they announced they would not continue to run any of the sides in 1999, then-marketing manager Blake stepped up and bought the Eagles. As he tells me, “the rest is history”.
The club’s success is even more impressive given they started from a financial base which Blake admits “wasn’t in great shape”. He attributes the change in fortune to “a lot of hard work from a lot of people” in building a system which “didn’t exist in any sort of large scale” for basketball in the North East.
“We’ve had a very strong focus on community development; setting up junior clubs, leagues for those clubs to play in and schools programmes to engage young people and point them to those club sides.
“Ultimately we’ve built an infrastructure up across Tyne and Wear and parts of Northumberland that mean that we have over 40 different sides that operate every week where young people play.”
It is tempting to compare the rise of the franchise with Newcastle United’s stagnation under Mike Ashley over the past decade, but Blake says “it’s all relative” when I ask him how he views the situation at St James’ Park.
“You say ‘mismanagement’, but I look at it and 50,000 supporters are still turning up every week – Bournemouth Football Club would love to have 50,000 supporters turn up every week.
“It’s a different set of rules, and fortunately we’ve found a way within our league to get to the top of the pile financially and on the pitch – and one helps the other.”
One difference is the status of the two sports. While the likes of football, rugby and cricket are undeniably popular in the UK, basketball does not receive the same attention. Blake, who served as Chairman of the BBL between 2006 and 2013, says participation is not the only factor.
“When you delve into the figures in terms of the numbers of participants, in rugby and in cricket particularly, the participation rates that come out from Sport England’s Active People Surveys are that basketball’s participation rates are just about the same as rugby and cricket, but its media presence isn’t.
“Those participation figures that you’re seeing in basketball could be people that are playing at clubs but are more likely to be people that are just picking a ball up in a park or have a hoop on the side of the house; or are watching a bit of NBA or perhaps watching a bit of BBL.”
He sees the lack of basketball infrastructure and history in the UK as the two main reasons it has not yet gained a foothold nationally.
“It doesn’t matter where you go in this country, you can find a rugby club,” he says. “If you rock up in Norwich tomorrow morning, you’ll find a rugby club and you’ll find a football club you can join, you’ll find a cricket club in the summer that you can join. You may find a basketball club, you may find a volleyball club, you may find a netball club. The infrastructure is just not as developed, and that’s the key.
“The sports you named have a historical legacy in this country, and basketball doesn’t.”
Is that not strange given how easy it is to pick up a ball and play?
“It’s not hard to pick up a ball and bounce it, but it is hard to then find a club to play in at 12 or 10 years of age,” he tells me.
“If you cannot access it because you don’t have a school team or a school basketball club or local junior club that you can go and join, it’s not easy to play. And that’s regardless of the number of basketball facilities available in the country, because every school has one.”
Even so, the Eagles have created a fervent basketball community in the region. Blake says the club’s infrastructure is “bursting at the seams”, to the point where coaches are having to be turned away.
They are not the indomitable force they once were in the league – they currently sit third in the table behind Leicester Riders and Glasgow Rocks, which Blake describes as a “tragedy for us” – but the unveiling of a new 2,800-seater stadium in November later this year will mean the Eagles will have their own venue for the first time in their history.
“Teams around us are getting stronger and their business models are improving so we’ve got some challenges there in terms of the league becoming more competitive but that’s good for the league.
“Our main challenger is Leicester and they’ve been in their own facility for a few years now. They were the first club in the country to own its own facility, and if we don’t do the same then we’ll get left behind.
“Equally, in building [the stadium], it’s going to open up opportunities for us to play on different nights of the week and Europe’s part and parcel of that.”
Blake adds that clubs having their own venues is crucial for the league and basketball in the UK more generally.
“Our league needs organisations that own and run their own assets. All sports that have found their way and ultimately have become mainstream have owned their assets for many, many years and have been able to build up a level of sustainability.
“Whether that be just a cricket club or a rugby club that own the land and have a bar and a clubhouse, that’s the route to sustainability.
“It’s very positive and it should mean a period of growth for the clubs that are participating in the league, a more sustainable league, hopefully a higher profile league as a result – one that can go out and put its teams into European competition and test themselves.”
He takes a deep breath when I ask him how he views basketball progressing in the UK. However, he seems cautiously optimistic.
“As always, huge potential, but that potential is only ever going to be properly realised if an infrastructure like ours can be seen area by area,” he says.
“You have, nationally, patches of intense activity, other places very little, and that’s purely down to club infrastructure in my view, or lack of in certain places.
“The sport can grow, the interest is undeniably there, but if we’re wanting to engage people to play the sport frequently, you cannot do that if you don’t have the clubs. It’s as simple as that.”
Photograph: Newcastle Eagles