Live: Q&A with Paul Blake, managing director of Newcastle Eagles

Newcastle Eagles is the most successful basketball club in Britain. Managing director Paul Blake is determined to keep it that way

It’s a year since you were last able to welcome supporters to the Eagles Community Arena. How do you feel that the organisation has faced the challenge of a global pandemic?

The club has found a way through the last 12 months but it’s been more difficult for the Eagles Community Foundation. The club — the playing side of the organisation — has benefitted from significant government support. However, the Foundation pathway has been more difficult to navigate in relation to funding. Both sides of the organisation have benefited from the job retention scheme but it’s been a very strange year and an experience none of us could have imagined or planned for.

What is the financial situation you’re facing right now?

Although there has been significant financial grant support there has also been a need to take out loans. Those loans need to be repaid and so the legacy of the pandemic will be that debt. It’s something that will impact upon the club for the next decade and a situation we simply can’t ignore. The repayment terms are generous and it’s not something that we need to worry about in the short term but that’s not really the point. Leading up to the pandemic, Newcastle Eagles had been debt free for almost three years. It had taken 17 years to reach that position and now it almost feels as if we’re back to square one. Managing the debt will be the first thing that we need to include in our annual business plan and I hoped and believed that those days were gone – especially with the opening of the Eagles Community Arena and the various opportunities that presents.

What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced since last March?

Guaranteeing the survival of both the club and the Foundation has been a full-time challenge in itself. Both sides of the organisation had to make redundancies last year and that was extremely difficult. We’re a small and close-knit group and some tough decisions had to be made. Suddenly that small team was even smaller. We had to muck in and find a way of operating the venue — alongside everything else — with a reduced staff. Dan [Black, Newcastle Eagles Marketing and Communications Manager] and I volunteered for the Foundation to help run the building and we we’ve been doing what we can on the club side, using flexible furlough, to ensure that the elite teams can fulfil their fixtures. The venue side of things has been a steep learning curve for both of us. In the future, I think we’ll look back on this last few months and realise that both of us have benefited from getting to know the venue inside out. But it was a difficult transition.

What’s the current situation with the ECA?

It’s still closed most of the time but when the arena is operating as a vaccination centre — or when there’s an elite basketball fixture or practice sessions taking place — there’s a great deal of responsibility attached to getting everything right. We’re about to open our doors to students again and education is a big part of what the ECA is about. That feels like progress. I think we can finally see a way of navigating a route out of this situation. It’s going to be extremely difficult and from a business point of view we’ll have to take a very lean and sensible approach to what we do and how we do it — that will be the case for a few years. We need to look at how we can replace lost income streams and ensure that the ECA remains at the heart of the local community.

Although Newcastle Eagles has been able to stage elite basketball since October what, if any, activity has the Eagles Foundation been able to engage in since March?

It’s been very limited. The Foundation is so closely bound to schools and community clubs that it’s been unable to do most of the work that it’s renowned for during the last 12 months. There was a period of four to five weeks in October and early November – just before the second lockdown – when things briefly returned to normal. Clubs were back and our successful Central Venue League made a much-needed comeback. The Foundation was quick to get back up and running and I think that’s one of the few positives we can take from the last year. The Foundation team knows that it can react quickly to changing circumstances and be ready to meet the needs of the community as it comes out of lockdown again. Within a few days we had 700 school children playing basketball again and the only barrier to everyone being back was that some facilities just weren’t in a position to reopen safely. This time I think there will be more confidence and more certainty around a return to school and community sport. But it’s been a tough 12 months. Apart from that brief return in October the last year has been a write-off. For anyone involved with sport below elite level — and anyone who sits at the heart of school sport and community sport — it’s been a desperately difficult time.

Have you been able to run the nationally renowned Hoops For Health programme at any time during the last year?

This time last year the Foundation was just preparing for the last of the regional Hoops For Health finals. Every year schools from across the North East enter mixed teams with the aim of reaching the annual Hoops For Health finals. The Newcastle Eagles players support the competition by visiting schools and of course that hasn’t been possible. However, we were able to visit more than 35 schools virtually before the latest lockdown and the Foundation will be looking to reintroduce those sessions just as soon as schools are properly back up and running. Beaming our players direct into classrooms is the next best thing to them being there in person and it’s proved to be a really effective approach. It’s given us food for thought in terms of expanding our reach as a club and a Foundation and connecting with schools and communities further afield as part of a future online offering.

Are you concerned that North East sport will be slow to recover from the pandemic with fewer players, coaches and volunteers returning to sport?

I think there’s a real risk that could be the case. If you get out of the habit of doing something for any length of time then there’s always a danger you might not return. However, I’m hopeful it will be the opposite. From what I can see there’s a huge appetite for participating in community sport and a genuine demand for watching elite sport in person. Of course, the pandemic has posed a threat to sport at every level but we also have to look at it as an opportunity. I think people have realised how important sport is — and can be — to their lives. As far as our own community coaches and volunteers are concerned there’s a real desire to get involved again as soon as it’s safe to do so. Anecdotally, I’m not seeing any drop-off but I do accept that we’ll have to work hard to ensure all of the young people who were playing basketball before the pandemic get back to doing what they love sooner, rather than later.

In spite of the pandemic basketball in the UK appears to be on the cusp of a breakthrough. Do you agree?

Definitely. I’ve been in the sport long enough to have seen a number of peaks and troughs but right now the stars are aligning and we’re in a better position than ever to capitalise on a very positive situation. There are a number of factors that underpin my optimism. On a wider level, the elite side of the game has been able to survive the pandemic and that was by no means certain 12 months ago. In actual fact, the BBL (top level men’s game) has thrived. It’s back on Sky Sports, the league is more competitive and, crucially, a number of franchises now play out of venues purpose-built for basketball. Newcastle Eagles is one of them and that is a key difference from 10 or 20 years ago. We are able to host BBL and WBBL (elite women’s basketball) matches and look after the community all under one roof. Beyond that, Marc Steutel, who has been a big part of North East basketball for many years, has led Great Britain to next summer’s Eurobasket tournament and to have homegrown players enjoying success on the global stage is a key part of the jigsaw.

Newcastle Eagles announced North East-based sport organisation GiveToLocal as its main sponsor six months ago. How important is that relationship?

First of all we were able to partner with a like-minded organisation at a time when it was very difficult to source sponsorship and external support. Fortunately, both sides could see the long-term potential in the relationship even if it was always going to be difficult to achieve short-term gains. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that there would still be no fans inside the ECA six months down the line and of course that’s been a frustration for all of our sponsors. On the upside, GiveToLocal has been able to enjoy the benefit of regular exposure on Sky Sports and their name is regularly featured in the local media. As a club we’ve always benefitted from the support of the Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun, as well as BBC Look North and Tyne Tees, and it’s great to see GiveToLocal’s name everywhere right now. They are a proactive main sponsor and want to get involved at every level of the organisation. That’s fantastic from our point of view and we can’t wait to be able to do more with them moving forward.

GiveToLocal has also signed a partnership agreement with Basketball England. Can you see the service making a positive difference to community basketball clubs across the UK?

I was very pleased to see that happen. I’m 100% confident that GiveToLocal can have a positive impact on basketball at a national level. Everything I’ve seen so far suggests that they are perfectly positioned to help community clubs recover from a challenging year. Their messaging is very clear and they know where their help is needed most. It’s going to be a tough few weeks and months for a number of sports and governing bodies and GiveToLocal can play a key role in terms of building for a brighter future.

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