The Newcastle Eagles have been a real sporting success story for the North East and the club’s haul of trophies puts Newcastle United’s cobweb-clad cabinet to shame. Since 2004 The Eagles’ list of honours includes four BBL Championships and four play off triumphs; they’ve already had their name engraved on this year’s BBL Cup and at the time of writing are still in contention for the three remaining trophies that would earn them a ‘clean-sweep’ for the second time in their history. For Managing Director Paul Blake this success is the fruit of 14 years of hard work. Having began as Marketing Manager for Sir John Hall’s ill-fated Sporting Club in 1997 before putting together a management buyout for the basketball club with then Chief Executive Kenny Nottage. ‘We were both basketball players at heart – Kenny had played 110 times for England – and we were both interested in the sport and had a good understanding of it. We knew the financial workings and in terms of a business model it was the right fit.’
Kenny soon moved on from The Eagles to become Chief Executive at Gloucester Rugby Club with Paul taking over majority ownership of the team in 1999. Since then he has been balancing his passion for seeing The Eagles win trophies with the necessity for them to remain financially prudent off court. ‘It’s very difficult when you’ve got a passion for winning, there’s a lot of pressure to make sure we’ve got the most competitive team but from my perspective I have to step away from that as much as I can – I’m not very good at it, I have to say, but I’m better than some others.’
With stories of administration and liquidation appearing more and more frequently on back pages, the club is mindful not to make the same mistakes that other sports organisations have made and have always strived to live within their means. This was made particularly difficult last season when the team lost two quality players to injury and were forced to get the chequebook out to replace them as Paul and 38 year-old player-coach Fab Flournoy chased their goal of winning a piece of silverware every season for ten consecutive years. Last year turned out to be one of the toughest for the team and for the first time in six seasons they finished trophyless. ‘Fab and I had a secret ambition to win a trophy every year for ten years, it stopped at year seven so we’ve started all over again! It’s changed actually, now we’ve got to win 20 trophies in ten years but I haven’t told Fab that one yet.’
It’s no coincidence that the team’s glut of trophies coincided with the promotion of enigmatic player Fab Flournoy to player-coach in the 2003/04 season. In his first year as player-coach he led the mid-table team to a play-off quarter final where they narrowly lost to London Towers. The following season his team took the league by storm, winning the play-offs and picking up their first BBL Trophy. ‘In terms of the on court success he’s been huge,’ says Paul of Fab, ‘the amount of time and effort he puts in off the court as well as on it is part and parcel of what makes the whole thing work. He’s not there to score loads of points but defensively he’s awesome – one of the most underrated players in the league. I think that’s what drives him on, he’s the guy who works hard in the one area you can’t really do stats on but that’s the area that wins games.’ The Eagles are widely regarded as the best defensive unit in the league and, as Paul points out, it’s not about the number of points you score, it’s how many you don’t concede. ‘Fab’s defensive philosophy has rubbed off on the rest of the team, he doesn’t win player of the month – he wins coach of the month a lot – but there’ll be some legacy stats that come out of this period that will see him become the league’s number one rebounder who nobody will ever catch. I never quite know from year-to-year what his motivations are but he clearly doesn’t want to stop playing; as long as he’s still motivated to play he’ll still be here I think.’
As well as working with Fab to ensure the team has the best chance of remaining competitive on court, a large part of Paul’s job as the club’s Managing Director is spent developing their community programmes. ‘We’ve got the club and the foundation to look after, we have 15 full-time staff with another 25 part time and then the basketball team on top of that.’ For all the good intentions Sir John Hall had for Newcastle’s Sporting Club, the missing link was a community model that really engaged the region. ‘When I took over my view was: if we’re going to get basketball moving at all in this area and the club with it, we needed to be more focused with what we do in the community. We needed to build a basketball playing market.’ When Paul took the reins a community playing model did exist but it was extremely small. The Eagles quickly set about running junior clubs and school programmes and as a result 20 stand-alone club sites now exist around Tyne and Wear, with a number of regional teams competing in the national junior league and over 1,500 children actively playing the sport. What’s more, these youngsters are now graduating from junior level into local senior teams that were around long before The Eagles had even hatched.
By introducing a solid junior development structure The Eagles have provided a vital link to senior level. On top of their community programmes the club has also built an academy which pyramids up to the BBL team, with the same structure in place for their women’s side. ‘It feeds all the way up that system,’ explains Paul. ‘When players reach the age of 16 clubs still exist for them to play in, but we also point out educational routes that are available via Tyne Met College, Gateshead College, Newcastle College and beyond to Northumbria University. It’s an educational pathway that runs alongside all the development work and the by-product of all this is developing an audience off the back of that playing market. We’ve still got a long way to go – we really need to double the number of junior clubs that are running and continue to build that playing market.’
As well as pushing forward in the community and on court, in 2010 The Eagles made the decision to fly their nest at Newcastle Arena and set up home in Northumbria University’s state-of-the-art Sport Central facility. ‘It’s been a good move. We do miss the arena for lots of different reasons – the staff were great to us and I spent a large part of my life there – but equally it’s great to be in a brand new facility which is sport-focused.’ The one thing the arena could never do was be absolutely focused on sport but at the new facility players have the advantage of training and playing at the same venue. Sport Central is also a more intimate venue in which to enjoy basketball, and with a capacity of 3,000, can sell out quicker. ‘The Arena certainly didn’t want us to go and it was a very tough decision, but for financial and playing reasons it just made sense to move.’ Being at Sport Central also helps the club continue to work alongside their sister club Team Northumbria and the university team now play one division below The Eagles, having just secured promotion to National League 1.
In terms of local sport The Eagles are fully accepting of the fact they will always exist in the shadow of the sporting colossus that is Newcastle United, for whom supporters are born black and white and programmed to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers by visiting St James’ Park come rain or shine. ‘There’s a whole socialisation process there that’s 100 years down the line which we haven’t even started on; I don’t expect us to come anywhere near competing with that but I do believe there’s a niche for an indoor sport where it’s warm, you don’t get wet, there’s some music playing and the hot dogs are nice!’ Hot dogs and exciting sport sounds like a winning combination to me and should appeal to anyone who has ever braved The Gallowgate End in the rain. Add to that the fact The Eagles have established a dominance in British basketball akin to Manchester United’s grip on the Premier League and you have a recipe for some top class entertainment. ‘As long as the support we get continues and grows we’ll remain competitive and we’ll keep winning, the two come together. I do believe there’s a continuing future for The Eagles, but I don’t really need to say that after 14 years, do I!’