Paul Blake In-Depth Interview on the BBL -

Paul Blake In-Depth Interview on the BBL

Paul Blake British Basketball League

Paul Blake British Basketball League

UK American Sports Fans did a great podcast with BBL Chairman Paul Blake last week, where he spoke about everything ranging from the recent appointment of a commercial director, to the Olympic basketball legacy.

The podcast is 37 minutes long, so I took it upon myself (with full permission from them, of course) to transcribe the interview for those who prefer to read/scan it. You can find full interview transcription below, as well as the audio if you prefer to listen, at the bottom of the post.

Some of the highlights of the interview:

    • Blake talk about Olympic legacy “If the London Olympics had left us with a legacy of 16 small arenas, that were fit for community delivery, and had a suitable number of seats then the answer would be yes, but it didn’t.
    • On whether he thinks European competition is realistic for BBL clubs: “I do. The main issues from the one or two clubs that might want to take the opportunity to play in Europe, are actually more down to regionalisation of the competitions moving forward.”
    •  Blake on whether there’s a conflict of interest with him being Chairman and owner of a club: “I don’t believe there is conflict of interest, I do believe, that at some point the league needs an independent chair but it’s unfair to ask somebody to step into that role on a voluntary basis.”
    • On the current financial status of the league: “The commercial income streams at league level have to improve. Believe it or not they’ve been at a low ebb for 4 years, 5 years nearly, and the income at for the last 2 years at league level has increased five-fold. We’re not quite, we’re nowhere near, where we were 10 years ago at league level but we’re certainly moving toward it at a rapid rate.”

The Interview

UK American Sports Fans (UKASF): I’m very pleased to welcome BBL chairman and Newcastle Eagles Managing Director Paul Blake to our BBL podcast this week. Paul, I’ll just start with this question for you; the BBL has recently appointed a new commercial director in David Leyden Dunbar, what can you tell us about his role and objectives?

Paul Blake BBL ChairmanPaul Blake (PB): Thanks for having me, Darren. The priority for David’s role, and this is a role the league has been desperate to have in place for all of 8 years since the departing of the Commercial Director at the time of the ITV digital collapse, David’s role is very simple, it’s a case of generating income at league level. Whether that be via sponsorship, whether that be via increased ticket sales from the league events, which have been growing year on year, without that resource.

It’s all about building capital at league level and trying to get the income streams back up to where they were for a short period of time 8 or 9 years ago. We’ve obviously gone through a low ebb at league level in terms of the operating turnover of the league.

It’s fair to say that you don’t sell anything in life, whether it’s in sport or any other industry, unless you have somebody full time in your office, with the staff base to make those sales.

So, for me it’s an absolute key building block to re-building the league’s income streams to where they were, as I say only for a short period of time, 3 or 4 years, but where they were for those 3 or 4 years in the late ’90s early 2000’s.

UKASF: The league’s currently without a major sponsor, it’s something that people have mentioned regularly over the years, is there anything in the pipeline that you know?

PB: Well, it’s early days. Obviously David’s only been in the role for two weeks. The whole prospect of selling sponsorship at league level is an entirely different scenario than selling sponsorship at club level. They’re two very very different things.

I think where we are as a league at the moment from a tv position, from a community position, David’s very clear that we have a sell-able product. That said, we’re in a very very depressed sponsorship market.

I’ve sold sponsorship in sports other than basketball, and I still talk to people that are still operating in those sports. Even for sports that we believe are majority sports in this country they are struggling to sell sponsorship. David needs to be a bit creative in the manner of approaching commercial sponsors.

My feel is, and I think he’s absolutely aligned with this, it’s a case of building a community of mid-range sponsors in the early days, and trying to get a number of partners on board, as a number of clubs have done, to be honest, build a portfolio of brands if you like, that gain an experience with the sport, and hopefully a positive one.

UKASF: Much has been made of the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics, but do you think British basketball in general, and the BBL in particular, can capitalise on this?

PB: If the London Olympics had left us with a legacy of 16 small arenas, that were fit for community delivery, and had a suitable number of seats then the answer would be yes, but it didn’t.

What it’s done is obviously helped to raise the profile of basketball in the UK, yet again, for a period of time. I always struggle with this area and how the media portrays any sport other than football, to a lesser extent rugby and clinic because it’s not what happens in the rest of the Europe.

I can’t help but smile at how amazingly the BBC covered the Olympics for that period of time, then ask questions about where these sports are going post-that phase of delivery, when the simple answer is, well, can you please just continue to cover those sports in the manner you just did!

They don’t go to sleep for 4 years like people seem to be portraying that they are. I even see a BBC show that’s on at the moment talking about what athletes do for the 4 years that the Olympics aren’t on. It’s just incredible you make a show about that. Well don’t make the show, just show the sports!

It’s very very frustrating. In terms of legacy, the bottom line is, it comes back with our sport, or any other sport, we need more media coverage, we need better facilities, and we’re doing what we can in those areas, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little more.

UKASF: This season we’ve seen the return of an iconic BBL name in the Manchester Giants, and a move to London from the Lions plus the prospect of a Birmingham franchise joining in 2013. You must be excited for the potential for growth in these major cities?

PB: Yeah, it’s very important that we have that spine of Manchester, Birmingham, London back in place in the league. It’s something that we’ve missed for quite a while now.

It’s particularly hard to build franchises in the bigger cities. It has been hard because of the issue with lack of facilities of the appropriate size and appropriate availability.

We thought in the late 90’s that the arenas that were being built in this country were going to be the answer for, not just basketball, but ice hockey too, and it’s turned out not to be the case. I know all the reasons why because I spent 14 years in one of those facilities.

You know we took the decision as a club to move away from Newcastle Arena two years ago, and I can say point blank that the 7 arenas that have been built in this country are not appropriate for delivery of sport for lots of lots of different reasons, no faults of their own, they’re just in a different business model market to the one that we are in.

So for me, the importance of having the franchises in the key cities is paramount to the league, but they’ve got to be in the right facilities at the same time.

That’s going to take a bit of time to happen, no fault of the clubs, or the sport, or the franchises that are looking to start up. I think, well I don’t think, I know, that when those clubs are in suitable facilities in those franchise areas with the backup of the league and the new commercial director driving the league forward, things are in place to develop quite nicely, I would say.

UKASF: There have been many examples of boom and bust in the BBL over the years, with clubs over extending themselves for short term gain, Mersey Tigers being a recent example of this. Are you confident that the BBL is moving in the right direction in terms of financial responsibility?

PB: Very difficult one because I own a club that was financially irresponsible between 1996 and ’99 (I took the club over in ’99). As in all sports, policing the financial responsibility of owners of clubs in sport is a very difficult scenario.

I use Manchester City as a great case in point, it was only 3 or 4 years ago that they were owned by a chap from South Asia who’s now in jail, (Thaksin) Shinawatra. And obviously things have moved on quite suitably for that club!

That’s with the Premier League having a suitable person and set of procedures in place for ownership of clubs at that level. So, it’s very difficult. I’d love to hope that we’ll be in situation moving forward that every club, not just BBL, but the tiers below the BBL, that we have fit and proper ownership and responsibility for running clubs.

It can only be done, absolutely only be done, on the basis of spending what you have. My own club was a spectacular case of spending what it didn’t have for three years in the late 90s, it lost three quarters of a million pounds a year for 3 years. It’s not sustainable, if an owner’s happy to lose that sort of money for 1 or 2 seasons that’s all well and good but it won’t last much longer than that.

I’ve seen the same happen in Rugby Union, in the time I worked in Rugby Union myself, and unfortunately, to a point, these things have been happening for years in football, and to a lesser extent in Rugby Union, and those clubs could get away with it because there were a queue of potential owners. But that queue has disappeared now, I think, pretty much in all sports, but it’s never been a long queue in basketball.

We just need clubs to be operating within the budgets that they can generate, and if it takes time for those clubs to build, as I have to say it did with us – it took 5 seasons for me to get the Eagles back online, between ’99 and 2004, everybody seems to have forgotten those sorry season, and believe you me they were sorry, 1 or 2 in particular – but if owners and volunteers and directors in clubs have gotta focus on building slowly and surely there’s a way to make it work. There are models there that show how it’s done.

UKASF: Accusations of unprofessionalism in the BBL have been thrown at the BBL, they’ve been ongoing really. High profile critics include British ex-NBA player John Amaechi. What are the next steps to increase the professionalism of the BBL and what is the time scale for their implementation?

PB: It’s an interesting question. Basically the level of professionalism of any league is very much based on the income that it generates and then how it chooses to spend the income that it has generated. The most important thing for me, if we draw a line under where we are now and where we want to be moving forward, is that at league level, the commercial income streams at league level have to improve.

Believe it or not they’ve been at a low ebb for 4 years, 5 years nearly, and the income at for the last 2 years at league level has increased five-fold. We’re not quite, we’re nowhere near, where we were 10 years ago at league level but we’re certainly moving toward it at a rapid rate.

It needs the likes of our commercial director and a team behind him, all things being well, in the next 2 to 3 years to build those income streams and give the league, if you like, some tools, to be able to positively, for want of a better word, carrot and stick the clubs along to build that level of minimum operating standards and the best way to do that is to tell clubs you need this level of staff base, we can distribute these funds to you because we’ve raised them now, but the funds have to go into a back office, they have to go into a marketing team, they have to go into developing your social media.

There has to be a reason behind all of this as well, by the way. There’s no point building your social media capability if that capability then doesn’t generate new income streams at club level. If it’s not done the right way it won’t sell tickets I can tell you that as a guarantee, I do it everyday. So there are ways and means about it.

Also for the league level to build some capacity to pass on knowledge and best practice. We’ll hold our hands up, it hasn’t been able to do that post- the ITV digital collapse. I can only say that that collapse and that loss of income and television opportunity was unfortunately brought down by the football league! It wasn’t brought down by the basketball league, wasn’t brought down by ice hockey, it was brought down by football and it’s taken us a very long time to find our way back from that, unfortunately.

But, I think we’re at a point right now where we’re actually putting in place the right building blocks in place.

UKASF: Do you see European competition as a realistic target for a BBL club at the moment?

PB: I do. The main issues from the one or two clubs that might want to take the opportunity to play in Europe, are actually more down to regionalisation of the competitions moving forward which is being talked about at ULEB level. We sit on the ULEB board that has a role in defining those competitions.

Obviously, European games are mid-week, particularly Tuesday nights, it may be that some clubs are in a position they are actually able to compete but can’t get the venue, so again we’re back to (the issue of lack of) facilities in that respect.

I read every now and again the odd comment that talks about the BBL being the worst league in Europe, which is just…staggers me to be honest! If you have any understanding of basketball in Europe, you’ll understand that the league, and the players within the league, tend to move around the leagues that are of parity.

You just need to look at where players have been coming from and where players go to from this league to understand where we are. I wouldn’t profess to say that the BBL is a top 5, top 10 league in Europe, but it’s certainly not the worst. There are 47 plus (leagues), there are countries that have professional divisions running through to division 4 and division 5, so you have to add them in as well, and they’re not part of the 47 they’re additional.

So I think it’s obviously part of the vision for the league, it’s part of the vision for the governing bodies, and also part of FIBA Europe’s vision, very very clearly, that British clubs are competing in Europe sooner rather than later.

But it has to be done on the right basis, it can’t be done somewhat in the same manner that certain clubs are castigated for spending too much money on a tirade to win trophies, well you can do exactly the same at European level you can go and spend too much money on a dalliance that only lasts a season.

We want clubs to be going back in that are playing in Europe sustainably year on year, not playing one year, having trouble for the next 3 or 4 years after that and then trying again. It’s gotta be year on year.

And yet from my club perspective, with my club hat on, yes it’s doable. I’d prefer to see regionalisation of the early rounds of competition, whether that’s Eurochallenge, Eurocup, and to a lesser extent Euroleague and that is what is being talked up at the moment.

UKASF: One final question for you Paul, Do you find any conflict in your dual roles with the BBL and the Newcastle Eagles, particularly taking into account the extraordinary success of your club?

PB: That’s a difficult question. I don’t believe there is conflict of interest, I do believe, that at some point the league needs an independent chair but it’s unfair to ask somebody to step into that role on a voluntary basis. Because, I can tell you now, whoever that person is, won’t be able to put the correct time into carrying that job out properly on a voluntary basis.

It’s a role that has taken up a good deal of my time over the last 5/6 years and to be honest there are a number of other directors that work many more hours than I do at league level right now that have taken the baton on that aren’t carrying a title of any sort.

Chairman doesn’t mean you’re Chief Executive, it means your chair of a board that meets once a quarter and the way that the league operates at the moment by deems of the directors, is one that I can see is a situation where there are a lot of people putting in a lot of time voluntarily to make things better.

As I said to you at the top of this, the thing that will really move the league forward is staffing up at league level and getting professionals in like David Dunbar, like the new Chief Operating officer of the (BBL) Foundation. It’s no surprise we’ve just managed to get our first ever league based grant from Sport England over the line, that’s been by deems of the work of 1 or 2 of the directors at league level, with myself to a lesser extent.

That’s allowing us now to put some resource into that organisation, we can put more resource into the foundation and into the league commercially. It’ll go in the right direction, it absolutely will.

We’ve got a great sport as a product, I believe we’ve got a great product to be fair. The final piece of the jigsaw for me is to get those wheels spinning and then to look very very closely and what we can do both politically and financially to improve club venues across the UK. If we can do that then we’re really going somewhere.

UKASF: Great. Thanks very much for joining me on the UK American Sports Fans BBL podcast Paul, and we’ll hopefully catch up with you again later on in the season.

The Podcast

Once again, huge thanks to UK American Sports Fans for doing the interview, make sure you check their site out for more BBL content.

What do you think of how the BBL is doing and Paul’s thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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