For Jack Majewski, the off-season is always a busy period, having spent the last 6 years running Future Stars, the UK’s top international basketball tournament, along with preparing for the coming season with his own club, London United-Harefield Academy, but this summer took a whole new twist when he ended up as part owner of the Surrey Heat BBL franchise.
The Surrey franchise, which will now be known as Surrey United, was sold to Majewski’s London United, along with Surrey Sports Park, in a deal that will see them split ownership 50/50.
Despite Majewski admitting he had been in talks with Surrey Sports Park about owning a BBL franchise together since moving his Future Stars Tournament there this summer, he had no idea it would happen so quickly. He was actually in the Czech Republic on a tennis camp with his daughter, when he got wind that it could all happen for this season.
“When we met with Paul Blanchard (CEO) from Surrey Sports Park, we liked the concept; we would provide the team, he would provide everything else around the team,” he said, talking on the phone last week after the sale was approved by the BBL. “This was all planned for next year (2014-15), but we contacted Alison (Reeves, former owner) and she said she wanted to sell immediately. Part of business is timing and I guess we were in the right place and the right time.”
As with any change of ownership, sometimes there are casualties and in this instance, it was long time Heat coach and fan favourite Creon Raftopolous, who was fired immediately when it became clear the sale would go through, in regretful circumstances – with Majewski in the room looking on.
Majewski didn’t want to go into details, but said it was incredibly difficult and has since contacted Raftopolous privately to apologise.
The Polish-born 47 year old (pictured, left) is no stranger to the BBL, having had one stint in the top flight with London United during the 2006-7 season, but it lasted no more than a year after financial problems forced them to withdraw two weeks prior to the start of their second season.
“The foundation of our current venture lies in 2006 when we went there (to the BBL) with a supposedly fully professional team. We were led to believe that the team would be fully paid which turned out to be a complete, complete miscalculation.
“I made it absolutely clear then, and I will say it right now, a BBL team with paid salaries has got no reason to exist on an economic basis. There is no economic climate for a BBL team with a full paid staff, players and playing staff/coaches. The attraction of why we went into it this year is we are in full control of expenditure; we want the students on scholarships, with expenses, playing for us.
“I think personally, it (the exit in 2007) was one of our stronger points. It was one of the most honourable exits – the people who owned London United then said we didn’t want to have any bankruptcies attached to our name, any bad debt, we covered everything and said we will return next year should we get the backing.”
That return never did happen, as Majewski and London United remained competing in the EBL, first partnering with Richmond Upon Thames College, and then Harefield Academy, who remain involved to this day – gaining promotion for consecutive years until they got to Division 2 for the coming season. London United-Harefield Academy currently have a Division 2 and Division 4 team, two under-18 teams, one under-16, one under-13 and one girls team in Under-18, as well as a partnership with Buckinghamshire New University, and now, have a BBL franchise at the top of the pyramid.
“The model we’re following now, with the University and Surrey Sport Park is the only possible model that can work in the current economic climate,” continued Majewski. “That’s a direct lesson from our, I would say foolish in some aspects, venture into the BBL last time, because that was on a completely different basis. Moving the team from East to West London, paying for everything, trying to have a fully paid roster, which absolutely, in terms of economics and finances, was baseless without any kind of financial reasoning behind it.”
The model is one closely linked with local educational institutions, using university scholarships and funding to allow United to bring players in at close to little or no cost.
Surrey United will look to replicate the situation London United-Harefield Academy has in place with Buckinghamshire New University, by getting the University of Surrey on board, who begin their Sport Sciences degree from next year.
The team has little time to get settled in. The new season begins on the 28th September, and as yet, the team has not announced any signings.
As a BBL team, they will be able to field up to three imports, a proposition Majewski originally didn’t think would happen.
“We originally believed Americans wouldn’t be interested in studying at New Bucks university, but as it turns out – far from it. We’ve got a couple of Americans who really want to study at New Bucks, so for us we will probably end up with 1, maybe 2, American students who will end up at New Bucks University, as either post-grads or undergrads.
“We’ve got quite a lot of interest from countries like Lithuania, Portugal, Spain, so we’ll be recruiting from quite a number of regions. But having said so, we’ve also got a lot of interest from English kids. There is a lot of phenomenal talent in the UK, who, if they practice twice a day have the potential to do very well.”
Elvisi Dusha (pictured, right), one of the final cuts from this summer’s GB U20s squad that gained promotion to Division A and part of Majewski’s London United-Harefield Academy, is expected to be an integral part of the squad, as is Andy Tamayo – a young Spanish born wing who dominated the EBL at times last season. Sam Cricelli is another name that is being floated about.
“I want to have a situation where, most of our younger players are playing 30+ minutes in Division 2 and then significant minutes in the BBL. We want to play a style of play like you saw at Future Stars; a rotation of 10 players, pressing non-stop throughout the game.
“(I would love to have) Well over 50% of British kids, I would love to have that, especially younger ones where we are categorically giving them a chance to play – not cameo roles. I’m not interested in having British kids, stuck at the end of the bench, not being able to do anything other than their very specific role.
“Our British kids will be young, fully experienced in playing Division 2, and travelling abroad; they will be fully fledged players who are able to step into BBL teams.”
There is one major sticking point on that however; BBL clubs must declare the nine players on their roster that will play BBL only, whilst the remaining three are only allowed to play up to 50% of games in either the EBL or BBL before declaring which team they will remain on for the rest of the season.
Jack is in the process of trying to fight this, as are other team owners – a proposal was put forward earlier this year to allow more free movement between leagues to aid the player development pathway, but it remains to be seen whether or not the rule will be changed.
Having a BBL franchise is not the only feather in Majewski’s hat; in July he announced London United-Harefield Academy will also be competing in France next season. However, this was before the club had any idea they would have a BBL side, and with many potential fixture clashes, Majewski concedes that it is a “logistical nightmare”.
Over the years, he has made no secret of the importance of exposing British kids to Europe (it was one of the reasons he set up Future Stars in the first place), and with Surrey United, he feels no different.
“Categorically, categorically, and I know this may sound laughable, but we want to play in one of the European competitions fairly soon.,” he said assuredly. “Not in Euroleague or EuroCup, but EuroChallenge, you’ve got teams from Denmark, Norway, Hungary; much less developed teams that don’t have a fraction of the talent that England has, so how on earth are they playing and we are not?
“Taking people abroad, and paying for their hotels, and air-fares, or travelling even by bus is not so prohibitively expensive. That’s possible to do; especially the Eurochallenge, which is quite regionalised.
“It is exactly part of our philosophy, throw these kids into the deepest possible waters, expose them to the program. we will put you on such a stage, on such a level, that maybe after three years, someone will be interested in you.
“Someone needs to be brave and say ‘we’re going to play in Europe; we want to be exposed to mainstream European basketball’. English basketball cannot pretend it’s an island not attached to Europe – that will open a new gate, for new spectators, new money/sponsorship opportunities.
“Being in Europe, is a very, very, important part of what we are doing now.”
It’s not only about Surrey United going into Europe either, Jack would like to see European teams coming here.
“This programme must have as closest links to Europe as possible, inviting teams here, and playing Senior friendly tournaments is not expensive, it can be very cost effective. We would love to, and I think we will do it in pre-season next season, invite European teams from the countries which have big populations in London, such as a Lithuanian or Turkish team, I’m sure there supporters will be killing themselves to come. We will explore the allure and attraction of London.
“We want to work with them (European teams), we want to talk to them constantly. Especially with the economic situation in places like Greece, Spain, it is changing rapidly, maybe England, via creative thinking, can be a very attractive option for them. Creative thinking is key.
“If we were thinking in only very straight and narrow terms, you know, ‘we are only a British team from Surrey and we will only play in the BBL’ – it doesn’t work like that, we need to be super creative, we need to create something for these players which is equivalent of salaries – we will go abroad, we will invite foreign players and teams, we will show what we can do and that’s the way forward.”
And in terms of the team’s performance on the floor?
“I really do believe that the team we will begin with at the beginning of the season will be vastly different to the one we are fielding in say, January,” Majewski continued, adding it is unlikely they will be able to sort out any American imports’ visas on time for the end of this month when the season starts. “For two reasons, 1) we will get much better and adapt as the season goes on, we’ll learn what works and doesn’t work, secondly, our recruitment process is an ongoing situation – I’m sure there will be movement within the team.
“In terms of expectations, we will not be Mersey Tigers. Definitely, we won’t win the league, but as long as we’re competitive, working hard then we’ll be satisfied. We won’t be losing every game by 40 points, I think we’re good enough.
“If, God forbid, we have made a huge miscalculation in terms of the quality of the players we’ve got, which I’m sure is not going to be the case, we’ve got the means to get other players to ensure we are competitive.”
Majewski will no doubt have his hands full this season, but says taking on a BBL franchise is a decision he definitely does not regret.
“Busy year for me or not, I think this is a real chance for us – we are not in a position to say no to it. If someone comes to you and says you have this opportunity, you’d be foolish to turn it down.”
Image Credits: Future Stars