Having discovered a love of basketball at school, Paul Blake is now committed to ensuring as many youngsters as possible can experience the same opportunity.
Growing up in Bristol, Paul admits that basketball was far from a mainstream sport and something he hadn’t previously considered getting involved in, but he was encouraged to give it a go at secondary school.
He remembers: “I had a very supportive teacher who really helped me develop my basketball. I was a keen footballer too, but that fell away in favour of basketball. Through being introduced to this new sport and being encouraged along the way, I found a real love of basketball and probably knew even at that stage it was going to play some kind of role throughout my life.”
Indeed, that turned out to be very true – Paul is now known throughout the world of sport as the owner and chief executive of Newcastle Eagles, the most successful team in the history of the British Basketball League (BBL), winning 24 trophies in the past 12 years.
But equally, Paul is also known for his genuine desire to promote participation in basketball from the earliest ages, an approach probably based on his own discovery of the sport. The Eagles are known far and wide for their community commitment, which first began – at Paul’s instigation – in Newcastle’s West End almost two decades ago, and the nationally renowned Eagles Foundation now works with scores of schools and community groups across the whole North East region.
Having achieved so much since becoming owner of the club in 1999, Paul is now set to achieve a long-held desire to build the Eagles’ own stadium. While currently playing matches at Sports Central at Northumbria University, the new 2800 seater stadium – which will be built just off Scotswood Road in Newcastle – represents a huge investment for the Eagles and will signal the start of a new era for the club as it looks to build even further on its success.
“We are in the last stages of finalising everything so that the build can go ahead; it’s a very exciting time. This will be our very own home which will underpin all of our work and commercial opportunities. It will be an amazing facility for the club, our foundation and the whole wider community,” says Paul, who has secured Newcastle College as its anchor tenant to use the facility for students on non-match days.
“It will have several very important roles – firstly, as a base for the Foundation. We currently have to hire about 40 facilities every week so we can hold our sessions, which is a huge expense, so now we will have our own base. Of course as it is an outreach programme, we will still be getting out into communities across the North East, but this will help to centralise our work; it will be a focal point.
“We also want it to be a community facility and want to encourage participation in sports like netball and volleyball – they are sports we have affinities with and are hoping to develop, but we’ll also be encouraging all kinds of other sports the community has an appetite for – things as diverse as dominos for over 50s. There really is such a huge variety of things we can offer.
“And from the club’s point of view, this is the next step for us on our journey. Unfortunately, we can’t currently play European games at Sports Central, but in our own home we will be able to host and play in European competitions. That is obviously going to be huge for us.”
The new stadium project is Paul’s latest big contribution to developing sport in the city. Having moved to Newcastle in 1989 to
study sports studies at Northumbria University, and going on to achieve a masters in marketing, Paul helped to establish the origins of the first-class Sports Central facility, and also set up what is now Team Northumbria – the men’s and women’s basketball teams run in partnership between the university and Eagles.
While deciding against a career in playing basketball – although he continued to play on evenings and weekends for a team in Sedgefield, County Durham – Paul’s first role after leaving a post as a lecturer in marketing at Northumbria was, unsurprisingly, within the domain of sport. He took a job with a sports video analysis company, which used video and computer software to analyse the performances of some of the world’s top sports teams.
“It was great, and at the time quite revolutionary. I got to work with the British Lions on their 1997 rugby tour, the England cricket team during the Ashes, and various football and rugby teams. It was a great job to have,” Paul recalls.
While, by now, working around the world, his return to his basketball roots would come probably much sooner than expected, through a surprise phone call mid-way through the Ashes in 1997.
“This was at the time the Newcastle United Sporting Club was being established – the dream was to build on the success of the football club, Barcelona style, and create a sporting organisation for the whole city. It would take in the Falcons rugby team, Vipers ice hockey team, and the Eagles,” says Paul.
“I was asked to be the marketing manager for the Sporting Club, which was a big decision to take, especially during such an important time in my new career – the Ashes is one of the biggest events in sport – but ultimately I decided to return to Newcastle and joined the Sporting Club in August 1997.”
However, less than two years later, the ill-fated Sporting Club had disbanded, having failed to achieve its ambitions and making a significant financial loss. A new opportunity arose for Paul – who had already contributed so much to basketball in Newcastle during his Northumbria days – and Ken Nottage, a fellow basketball player and former chief executive of the Sporting Club, who remains Paul’s business partner to this day.
“Buyers had already been found for the ice hockey and rugby teams – this was during the time when the Falcons brand was flying with the success of Rob Andrew’s team of stars – but no-one had come forward to take on the Eagles. Having looked at it with Ken and my wife, Sam, it was clear the desire was there and we needed to take the club on,” says Paul.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Paul set about transforming the Eagles, making numerous key additions to his playing staff – including basketball legend Fabulous Flournoy, now the Eagles’ head coach – and establishing the hugely successful Eagles Foundation.
“As well as the fortunes of the club on the court, it was the case right from the very start that there was a need to address the lack of infrastructure, particularly at junior level. Community engagement was clearly part and parcel of growing the Eagles’ set-up and the sport in general, and it’s something that Sam and I continue to feel very strongly about,” says Paul.
“The new stadium will be a huge step forward for everything we have been doing here for a long time, and will allow us to take it to the next level. The ambition is to continue to do what we’ve been doing, really. For the club to continue to be successful and for our work with the community to grow even more.”