Basketball fans in Cheshire pulled off a minor miracle when they rallied round to save the then-Jets franchise from extinction earlier this season. Now, with the renamed Phoenix on course to make the playoffs against all the odds, the club’s chairman Andrew Donaldson tells CT Sport that “this is where the hard work starts”.
Donaldson, a partner at Big Storage, joined forces with Terry Hearfield of Aspect Construction, Jets’ founder Mike Burton and Cheshire basketball stalwart Andy Green to spearhead the Save the Jets campaign, which secured £50,000 in sponsorship in the space of a month to take over the club after the British Basketball League withdrew the franchise from the previous owner.
“My company Big Storage sponsored the Jets four or five years ago for two years and we found them in not a dissimilar state of health when we stepped up last time,” Donaldson says.
“We left them in a good state of health two years ago but unfortunately, basketball has been hit by the recession just like lots of other industries, so this time around somebody needed to do something and it didn’t look like anybody was going to.”
Save the Jets felt it was essential to keep the team going, even if it meant some frantic fire-fighting, rather than letting the franchise drop out of the BBL with the intention of returning some day.
“I mean Manchester lost its franchise 11 years ago and it’s taken them 11 years just to come back. Some of those Manchester fans became Cheshire fans and it was another reason not to let the franchise die because if we had have done, we might have been waiting as long as Manchester,” he says.
After attracting support from Chester-born Premier League footballer Michael Owen and award-winning chef Michael Caines, Save the Jets launched the Phoenix as a not-for-profit community interest group – a model Donaldson believes is “the future of basketball in the UK”.
“There isn’t money in it to be made. It’s a good product, it’s good for young people, it can make a difference, but we’re certainly not doing it for the money because there isn’t any,” he says.
“Previously, the people who owned the club were looking to make a salary out of the business and there just isn’t that money there. The difference this time around is none of us are paid at the board level; obviously the players are paid. Firstly, doing that significantly reduces overheads and secondly, we’re in it for the right reasons and that’s to make a difference and to get young people off the streets and playing basketball.
“It is about stability. If the club did make a bit of money, it’s about putting that away for a rainy day and trying to get some reserves built up so that the club is sustainable. The only way the BBL can grow is through community engagement.”
The revived Phoenix managed to hold on to most of the squad – including talismanic captain Chez Marks (pictured), who stepped in as interim player-coach prior to the appointment of Matt Lloyd.
Donaldson and co went to some extraordinary lengths to support players left low on confidence when the Jets crashed.
“Three of us picked up the players from the hotel they were living in when the other franchise folded and I’ve never seen such a forlorn set of individuals in my life,” he recalls.
“I’m a great believer in you’ve got to get it right off the court to have any chance of success on the court – I think the two come hand in hand. It’s the same in any business: happy people make for a successful team.
“We actually had three of the players living in our house for a month and I suppose actions speak louder than words in that situation. I think that’s why they all stayed with us because they saw us doing the right thing. We put a roof over their head, we loved and nurtured them and just before Christmas they moved into their own house and we got everything together.”
The players have repaid the support with, all things considered, a remarkable run of results to put the Phoenix in the mix for the BBL playoffs.
“I think when the players moved into our house they’d won one in eight and I know in the last eight weeks they’ve won four games in the last 30 seconds, if not the last ten seconds,” Donaldson says.
“Money can’t buy belief and I think the players have got that belief, they’ve got that winning mentality. I think it’s brought them closer together because of the way everyone’s rallied round to help them and support them and show them that people care.”
But Donaldson stresses that for the owners, who didn’t even expect to be involved in running a BBL club this year, this season has been about just keeping the team on the court.
“All we’re doing this season is about stabilisation and putting some key foundations in place so that next season we can start to run a professional franchise,” he says.
Nevertheless, Donaldson says that saving the club is by no means the end of the story. Rather it is the end of the beginning.
“Cheshire in the past have been a very successful club. To have Mike Burton, the original founder, back on board is a great feather in our cap and is another keystone of our foundations,” he says.
“We’ll be planning before the end of this season [for next season], I think that’s key to success. I’d like to think Matty [Lloyd] will be with us for next season. Despite him probably being the youngest coach in the league, technically he’s very, very astute.
“I would hope we will retain some of the squad as well. Newcastle Eagles have shown what continuity can do but, having said all that, we’ve still got to bring money to the table, we’ve still got to get sponsorships, we’ve still got to game night making a profit because none of this is possible without any money.
“We all want the same thing: we all want to win. We’re in it to win. We’re not in it to be mediocre team and I think seventh in the league and in the quarters of the BBL Trophy, I think we’ve done really, really well from where we’ve come from.”
But the new Phoenix model means is it not just about the business of playing in the BBL.
“We’ve got to get out in the community and get the community programme launched. Although we did a great job, all of us together, to save the club I think this where the hard work starts,” Donaldson says.
“We’re hoping to pilot our first community programme in schools next month. It’s not going to be easy because nobody’s got any money – but it’s a good way of raising the profile and it’s a good way of getting people to the games as well – and that’s got to be a core objective, to increase attendances at games so that they generate some money and some profit from game nights.”
While the focus of the community programme will be on promoting participation in sport and healthy living, Donaldson also hopes that it will help to unearth another Phil Brandreth – the Ellesmere Port lad who grew up watching the Jets before breaking into the team in 2003 and helping the club to a BBL Trophy and BBL Championship. Brandreth moved on in January to take up a playing and coaching role at Sefton Stars but Donaldson says nurturing more local talent will be “essential” in making Phoenix sustainable.
“We need to give youngsters something to aspire to and having young local guys is another key foundation stone for us,” he says.
“It’s a question of getting the right combination of a few imports, good GB players and some good local guys – and we haven’t been far away from that. Before Phil’s departure, we had a reasonable balance there but these things are sent to try us.”
However, in the wider context of the game in the UK, Donaldson says the recent decision by UK Sport to scrap funding for the Olympic team after pumping £8.6m into the GB squad ahead of London 2012 “sends all the wrong messages”.
“You’ve got a sport that’s after football the most played sport in the country, so it appeals to young people, young people want to play it. It’s almost difficult to understand where the missing pieces are, where the sport is falling short in the country because our participation level is strong,” he says.
He also finds it hard to square London 2012 slogans like “inspire a generation” with UK Sport funding being so focussed on the performance of a handful of elite athletes, rather than grassroots participation.
“When we were originally involved in the club three or four years ago, everyone saw the Olympics as the catalyst for the sport in the country and the GB team performed well, yet the message from up high is in total conflict to that now. It’s difficult to understand,” he says.
“It’s totally focussed on performance, whereas actually maybe it should be focussed on participation levels because that’s where you’re going to make the biggest difference in obesity, healthy eating, healthy lifestyles and getting kids off the street.
“I think all we can do is in our own region and locality is to build that community engagement and getting young people playing.”
Of course, the community work will rely on the Phoenix generating income and sponsorship by getting people through the doors for BBL games, or as Donaldson put it, “putting the money on the table”.
“Our message is the hard work lies ahead and we need people to come and see us,” he says.
“If people want to help, that’s the way to help – come and support us.”