The Barcelona of British Basketball

Is time almost up for Newcastle’s dominance?

British Basketball has many problems. Only a negligible minority of fans would argue otherwise. Over the years, fans have put up with a lot — from financial insecurity and under-developed infrastructure, to institutional inefficiency and the consistent lack of a clear strategy to build the game’s presence and commercial clout in this country. For many, the governing body’s failure to build a basketball legacy on the foundation offered by the 2012 Olympics in London was a failure too far.

But whilst the international team continues to be hampered by a lack of money and an over-reliance on junior players who have yet to earn their stripes as professionals, in recent months the flagship domestic league has made some tentative steps forward.

Hope for the BBL?

The recent BBL Cup final between Newcastle Eagles and Leicester Riders attracted close to 10,000 fans, and thanks to a partnership with video production company Hawkeye Innovations and WebcastSport, the BBL is now back on Sky Sports, with games being streamed for free on and via the Sky Sports app. Leicester Riders will play the first game in their new purpose-built arena this evening, and Sheffield Sharks expect to do the same next season.

Chester Phoenix upgraded their arena at the start of this season, and in recent months, we have heard cautious but positive noises about a potential return to European competition for BBL clubs in the future.

Among all of this, caution is perhaps key.

Commercial frustrations

The BBL’s 28-year history is spotted with ill-fated (and costly) attempts to bring the game to a mainstream audience in the UK. Fans of british basketball continue to dream, but given the historical context, optimism is indelibly tempered by realism.

Sadly, the BBL remains far from a commercial draw. Clubs are underfunded, players come and go with alarming regularity, and the quality of the on-court product continues to frustrate by virtue of its inconsistency. Over the years the BBL has played host to some excellent basketball players, but it has proved incapable of harnessing and packaging these talents in an offering that can retain fans in droves.

Despite the perennial dominance of football as our primary sport, Brits are keen basketball fans — our sellout attendance at the NBA’s annual showpiece games in London do enough to evidence that. But the public’s interest in basketball has not yet been translated into a commitment to our national league. And without a significant body of public interest, the professional game in Britain has been unable to establish itself on a financial footing that would support development and progress.

Without this security, and with a lack of financial clout, the professional game in Britain is strikingly transient. Players come and go, and in the case of some teams (for example last season’s Cheshire Phoenix, or this year’s Plymouth Raiders), multiple players are cut and replaced on an almost monthly basis. In the main, consistency and progress are far from synonymous with the BBL.

Except of course, in the case of the Newcastle Eagles.

Newcastle Eagles, at home at Sport Central

From consistency to success

The most successful team in British men’s basketball, Newcastle have won 24 major trophies in their history, and topped the league for 6 of the last 8 seasons, including the most recent 2. Since 2005 they have won the BBL Championship 7 times, the BBL Playoffs 6 times, the BBL Trophy 6 times and the BBL Cup 5 times, a remarkable, Guardiolian haul of 24 trophies in just over 10 years.

In the 2011–2012 and 2014–15 seasons, the Eagles won a clean sweep of all four major trophies, and they have already won the first title of 2015–2016 by retaining their BBL Cup title with a 94–82 victory over Leicester Riders on January 17.

Helmed by American player-coach Fabulous Flournoy since 2002, Newcastle have been consistent winners and remained consistently brilliant for the majority of that period. Rivalries with the likes of the Scottish Rocks (now the Glasgow Rocks) have flickered — the well-coached and well-run Leicester team constitute their current closest challengers — but none of their rivals have been unable to maintain the same consistent high standards as the Eagles.

So how have they been able to continue to win, when others have found it so difficult? Doubtless the coaching and galvanising effect of Flournoy — who holds a career coaching win record of close to 80% — has played a large part, but a key area where Newcastle has bucked the general BBL trend is in retaining its players and ensuring consistency across its organisation. Like the successful Phil Jackson teams of the nineties and noughties, the Eagles have a defensive system and offensive philosophy that doesn’t change. The players have been doing it for years, and in many cases doing it with the same players. They get out in transition, they defend as a team and they trust whoever on their roster has the hot hand on a given night — rather than continually putting the ball in the hands of the same stars, like so many other teams in the league.

The club has built a dynasty on the shoulders of regularity and repetition, whilst others have floundered, often in the case of financial uncertainty.

Whilst the stability at Newcastle has engendered huge success, it has also allowed the club to develop a larger, and arguably more committed fan base than other clubs in the BBL enjoy. By maintaining commonalities throughout the club’s development, fans have been able to build a relationship with their team, and to contextualise their strengths and weaknesses from season to season — although admittedly at times it has seemed like Newcastle have no weaknesses.

Not only does a stable fan base give the team invaluable support down the stretch in close games, it also makes the club a more attractive proposition for the media, for sponsorship, and for its clout in attracting good players. The value of this has not been lost on Eagles owner Paul Blake, who has steered the club to the brink of a return to European competition.

The comparison is perhaps not apt, but if you were a footballer, and with all else being equal, would you rather play in front of a few thousand at Eibar, or close to 100,000 at Barcelona’s Camp Nou? For the players, money talks, but once it has said its piece, attendance figures pipe up with a persuasive line or two as well.

Newcastle Eagles’ player-coach Fabulous Flournoy in action in the 2016 BBL Cup Final

The league needs its fans; the fans need a connection with their club

In recent seasons, team rosters in the BBL have become more transient than ever before. The teams that have taken this approach have seen little success, and those operating revolving-door recruitment policies have generally seen the approach go hand-in-hand with poor results and dwindling attendances. This hurts the league as a whole.

To be a credible commercial proposition, the BBL needs fans and it needs to show growth. This starts with the teams themselves, as inevitably a fan of the BBL will start off as a fan of one of the league’s teams. Individual teams succeed when the league as a whole succeeds, and above all else, the commercial product here is the league.

The NBA understands this, as does the Premier League. As of yet, the BBL hasn’t been able to bring together all of its teams to offer a compelling, collective product for both fans and sponsors.

Is a lack of competition killing the league?

So has Newcastle’s dominance been a good or bad thing for the BBL as a whole? With a more competitive league, would we have seen more committed audiences? Is there an element of potential fans never becoming hooked in the face of a perception that screams ‘we know what’s going to happen — Newcastle will win again, just like last time’?

It’s difficult to say, but one thing’s for sure: a more competitive league across the board would make for more exciting match-ups, closer games and a stronger sales proposition for teams pitching a spot on their roster to potential signings. The incremental benefits here could be a game-changer for the BBL. If a more competitive league resulted in a better quality of import player, the on-court product and highlight moments would be expected to improve, and with it the potential to recruit new fans. With more consumer interest comes more lucrative sponsorship, and with public interest comes the prospect of broadcasting revenue. Comprehensive television coverage would be an even more powerful draw to potential sponsors, both of the league and its teams.

Whatever the effect the league’s lack of competition has had, we can hardly blame the Eagles for their success over the years. And whilst up until now, the rest of the league has been unable to match the Eagles on-court performance — is that about to change?

The end of a dynasty…

Coming as they are, off an exceptional 28 game winning streak stretching from April 2015 to January 2016 it seems strange to suggest it, but is Newcastle’s dominant run over, is the mantle slipping?

Toppled last Friday by the revitalised Worcester Wolves, and then again last night by the Riders in a league re-match of January’s cup final, we are perhaps starting to see chinks in the Eagles’ armour.

In of itself, the Eagles’ first defeats of the season are not much to write home about — it was bound to happen; it happens every year, and a season record of 18–2 is not just exceptional, but as of yet entirely unmatched by the rest of the BBL. Only 4 of the 11 other teams currently sit above .500 for the season. But perhaps, this marks the opening of a real opportunity for the chasing pack to finally make a bit of noise on the big stage.

Ominously for Newcastle, in recent weeks both Worcester and Leicester have cast a light on how to beat the Eagles. If you can take away their transition offence, hassle their shooters and focus your own offence on an inside game, some of the Eagles magic seems to dissipate. A week ago, Worcester’s big men Pavol Losonsky and Perris Blackwell combined for 46 of their team’s 94 points, with 62 of those points coming from inside the paint.

With Newcastle’s own centre Darius Defoe seeing limited minutes over the last few weeks, and with ageing forward Charles Smith lacking the mobility to shut down opposition bigs, an area that hasn’t posed Newcastle problems before is starting to become something of a soft centre. Prior to beating them recently, the Wolves also ran Newcastle closer than most back in September, with Blackwell piling up 31 points without stepping outside of the key. When Cheshire Phoenix went down to the Eagles by 7 in December, 46 of their 91 points came from inside the paint.

In light of the Eagles’ weakness inside, it’s baffling that big man Trevor Gruis saw less than 15 minutes of action for the Riders in their Cup final defeat — even more so given that in that time he drew more fouls than any other Leicester player on the night, and went for 12 points on 3/5 shooting, and 6/7 at the line, ranking third overall for Leicester scorers. Last night he was on court for 20 minutes, and whilst he posted an unspectacular 6 points and 6 rebounds, his presence allowed the Riders to outscore Newcastle by 14 points in the paint and spread the floor for guards Neil Watson and Connor Washington to hit key three-pointers that cemented Leicester’s lead in the second half.

Whilst Leicester may now be encouraged that this season’s remaining three titles are no longer beyond them, the Eagles’ traditional strength can surely be recaptured with a few tweaks on defence, and we shouldn’t forget that in Flournoy, they possess the BBL’s finest tactician. But even if the magic can be recaptured this season, the worry for Eagles fans is that he may not be around to make these tweaks for much longer.

What next for Fab?

The sense that we are reaching the end of the Flournoy era in England is unavoidable. Now 42, and coming off a season ending injury last year that has not yet seen him return to the court in a full capacity this campaign, that time could be drawing very near. In a recent interview with the Newcastle Chronicle, Flournoy reiterated his position that when his time as a player comes to an end, so will his time at the club.

That time could be drawing very near, and without Fab, much of the Eagles allure will need to be rebuilt. For many players, the fear-factor will be gone.

Rarely do teams in the BBL stay together for as long as the Eagles have, and having won it all, does the appetite remain with these players? Eagles fans may have considered themselves lucky to see both Scott Martin and Rahmon Fletcher return for their 2015–16 season, having won everything available in 2014–15. They may not be so lucky this summer. A rebuilding job is not beyond Flournoy, but should he depart too, the transition to a new coach and a new squad may prove a hurdle too far for this particular dynasty.

Are the Leicester Riders the heirs to Newcastle’s throne?

It would be foolish to forget that the Eagles are the champions for a reason, and they have proved time and again that they have the deepest squad in the league. Not only that, but on their day they play better as a team than any other in the league. But how much of this is Fab’s doing? Once he goes, he will be one hell of an act to follow.

And for the league?

When Flournoy does depart, it won’t just be a loss to the Eagles — it will be a tremendous loss to the league. The Flournoy-era Eagles have set the bar for structure, consistency, and on-court performance — now it’s up to the rest of the teams to turn the league into the competitive showcase that will take it to the next level.

If the BBL is serious about building on its current promising position; if it is serious about building a product that can attract the support and the investment to take basketball forward in this country, then it must capitalise on the foundation set by the likes of the Eagles and the Riders, and make sure that the infrastructure is in place to support all of the league’s teams in making basketball in this country a viable commercial opportunity. The signs of improvement are there, and fans of the British game would love to see the undoubted potential realised.