Longing for Eagles to take flight again

May 1, 2020

Sport across the North East is in limbo as the suspension of mass gatherings looks set to last long into the summer. Simon Rushworth catches up with Paul Blake, managing director of Newcastle Eagles, to find out how the region’s most successful sporting organisation is adapting to an uncertain future

This week, like every week, Paul Blake is unlocking the doors to the Eagles Community Arena and embarking upon what has become an eerily familiar tour of a mothballed base bereft of activity.

Where there was once a constant stream of busy staff and beaming visitors, nobody has been in or out of a venue without purpose for weeks. A focal point for the local community lies helplessly dormant.

And, just two months after a capacity crowd roared Great Britain to a nail-biting victory against Germany in front of a global audience, that bristling atmosphere and a rocking full house has given way to unnerving silence and a sense of utter emptiness.

“From a Newcastle Eagles basketball club perspective I’ve been furloughed,” explains the club’s managing director and co-owner. “However, I’m allowed to give the venue a weekly once-
over due to the fact that I’m a volunteer with the Newcastle Eagles Foundation.

“I’ve just had a delivery of limescale treatment for the pipes, so that should keep me busy for a while.”

At least until the next call to the bank or another round of crisis talks with fellow British Basketball League bosses. For Paul, the new normal is a constant reappraisal of his club’s finances and of the Foundation’s dwindling income stream.

May should have been the month Newcastle Eagles followed up on their BBL Trophy triumph with a trip to London’s O2 Arena and a second final appearance of the season. Instead, Paul’s overseas players have long since returned home and his staff have been sidelined for six weeks.

“There was no movement on any of the Government initiatives for weeks,” he adds. “It was hugely frustrating having to wait until the fourth week of April before we could even register for the
coronavirus furlough scheme.

“We’ve furloughed everybody on both sides – the club and the Foundation. We don’t have anything going on business-wise.

“Everyone was hoping that the job retention scheme payments would come through before the end of April. Otherwise, it was going to create some sizeable problems.

“But it’s a big system and a new system and it didn’t come as a surprise that there was very little movement early on. I can only imagine how tough it was to get things off the ground.”

Furloughing aside, Paul made the difficult decision to apply for a bank loan. No stranger to loans and overdrafts during his two-decade tenure at the helm of Newcastle Eagles, a necessary step was, nevertheless, tempered by a reluctance to accumulate additional debt.

“The loan scheme relies on the banks, but that process was incredibly slow too,” he explains.

“I first got in touch with our bank in the third week of March and it was the third week of April before I was able to speak to anyone.

“But we’re not alone and at least things are moving now.”

In keeping with the Eagles’ proactive approach on and off the court, Paul is leaving no stone unturned in his bid to keep British basketball’s most successful organisation in business during the coronavirus crisis.

Far from burying his head in the sand, the former BBL chairman is doing everything in his power to ensure top-flight sport returns to the Eagles Community Arena later this year.

“We’re looking at whether the Foundation can benefit from the charity scheme,” adds Paul.

“The Sport England fund is great, but it doesn’t really apply to professional clubs and foundations.

“As far as the Small Business Grant scheme is concerned, neither of our organisations can apply for that.

“I don’t want to be overly negative, and I know we’re in the same boat as a lot of people, but our situation hasn’t improved in real terms. We have to be realistic about that.

“We haven’t reached a point where we are in a ‘no way back’ situation…yet.”

And the grim reality for sport organisations across the region is that many could reach that desperate point of no return whether or not Government support offers a period of short-term respite.

Within days of the BBL announcing that the Championship season had been postponed indefinitely, Paul and wife Sam, chief executive of the Eagles Community Foundation, faced the toughest challenge of their careers.

With no time to celebrate a record-breaking seventh Trophy win in Glasgow on March 15, attention turned to salvaging the future of a famous name and its state-of-the-art home.

“We’d only just celebrated the first anniversary of the Eagles Community Arena being opened to the public and successfully hosted GB’s international against Germany,” recalls Paul.

“We were gearing up for the traditionally hectic final two months of the season knowing that we were looking secure off the court and we had a team capable of winning silverware on it.

“Within the space of a few days our world was turned upside down, but before we were forced to furlough our staff everyone put in one final effort to try and put something positive in place for the future.”

Honesty, it was decided, was the best policy. Paul penned an emotional open letter to supporters outlining the severity of an unprecedented situation and made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Newcastle Eagles’ future was on the line.

“I had to think very carefully about how I worded that letter for all sorts of reasons,” he admits. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do at all. But I wanted to call on the basketball community to do whatever they could to help us through this.

“People are coming together and doing whatever they can.”

Setting the tone, the Eagles redistributed catering stock to local food banks and the club continues to surprise NHS staff and community groups by delivering boxes of sweets and snacks that would otherwise have been sold on match nights.

Former players have been checking in to live video streams – offering a timely reminder of the key contribution Newcastle has made to the North East’s sporting landscape since 1996.

And although Paul appreciates the positive effect of pure nostalgia, he craves a return to normality and the chance to plan for the future.

“Health comes first for everyone in this situation,” he insists. “Hopefully we’ve passed the peak of this virus and we can begin to find a way back to how things were. But we can’t move too soon, and we can’t plan ahead.

“It will be interesting to get our heads around what a return to normality really is.

“Firstly, we don’t know how long that will take,” continues Paul.

“Secondly, if and when we are in a position to open our doors again, we have no idea what the public’s perception will be in terms of how safe they feel it will be to attend large scale events again.

“That’s a genuine fear for everyone involved in the entertainment industry.

“Our supporters have been fantastic,” he says.

“Many fans and long-term friends of the club are, quite rightly, being careful about their money right now. They should be.

“However, those who can afford to buy their 2020/21 season tickets early have done so and for that we’re extremely grateful. It’s an invaluable income stream.

“As far as games are concerned, playing matches behind closed doors to finish the season isn’t really an option for the BBL; it’s of no real use,” adds Paul.

“We don’t have big TV deals and guaranteed audiences like football does. There are ways that we could try to monetise our fixtures by broadcasting them more widely but, without a fixed timeline, it’s just another unknown.

“We need the tap turning back on, but until then we can’t make any firm plans or predictions.

“It is 100 per cent about the health and wellbeing of the country right now, and I’m like everyone else in terms of hoping that the trend is towards a lessening of COVID-19 cases and a gradual return to life as we knew it.”

Newcastle Eagles

To support the Newcastle Eagles Foundation and purchase season tickets in advance, visit the club’s website for more information.

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