If Wellington Phoenix co-owner Gareth Morgan is looking for a blueprint for improving the fortunes of his struggling team, he need look no further than New Zealand Breakers owner Paul Blackwell.
The Phoenix have endured a frustrating season and are likely to finish last in Australian football’s A-League in spite of their recent surprise victory over the Perth Glory.
This is in stark contrast to the Breakers, who won their third straight Australian National Basketball League minor premiership with a 24-4 record that included a 16-game winning streak.
They now have the chance to become just the second team in NBL history to win three consecutive championships, although they will face a tough test if their predicted grand final re-match with the Perth Wildcats eventuates.
Regardless of whether they win it all this year, the Breakers have staged a remarkable turnaround from the early years of the franchise, when wins and fans were hard to find.
The media-shy Mr Blackwell, who owns a Pak‘n’Save on Auckland’s North Shore, does not want to take the spotlight away from the players.
However, he and his wife Liz deserve plenty of credit for creating a winning culture at the formerly moribund club.
Here are some of the lessons the Phoenix ownership group can learn from the Blackwells:
One of the hallmarks of the Blackwells’ reign has been their patience, which has allowed general manager Richard Clarke and coach Andrej Lemanis to plan long-term, without the constant threat of being fired if the team hit a rough patch.
Not all basketball coaches are blessed with this sort of stability; for instance, the Los Angeles Lakers fired Mike Brown only five games into their 82-game season.
However, the coach and management must earn that patience by producing success or at least continued improvement, which hasn’t been the case with the Phoenix.
A team can only “rebuild” for so many years and some teams like the Perth Wildcats, who have made the ANBL play-offs for a remarkable 27th year in a row, never need to rebuild. The Breakers are aiming for consistent excellence.
Train them young
In order to achieve success year after year, the Breakers have to ensure they have a steady supply of young talent coming through the pipeline, particularly given the league has a points system that favours using homegrown players.
And the Breakers development academy has been as much of a success story as the team itself, producing a number of players currently starring for the Breakers including Thomas Abercrombie, Alex Pledger and Corey Webster.
The academy has essentially privatised the development of basketball in New Zealand and as well as helping the Breakers it also provides young players with an alternative career path to toiling at US colleges.
With this in mind, the recent creation by the Phoenix of an academy for young footballers is a good sign for the future of the club.
Dr Morgan and his Phoenix co-owners have been criticised for being too hands-on with the team, including participating in training sessions and pushing for the team to play a more exciting brand of football.
Mr Blackwell, who owns a Pak ‘n’ Save on the North Shore, leaves the Breakers’ game plan in the capable hands of ANBL coach of the year Mr Lemanis, although he might grab an occasional rebound for players practising their shooting.
And when it comes to the selection of the team, Mr Blackwell applies only one criterion: the “no dickheads policy” that excludes players of questionable character, irrespective of their talent level.
This has ensured the team has a great reputation off the court as well as on it, enhancing its image as a family-oriented club.
Unfortunately, being a bunch of nice guys won’t get you very far if your team is under-performing like the Phoenix.
Earn your fans’ respect
Mr Blackwell knows from experience that convincing people to pay to attend a sporting event is much harder than getting them to walk through the doors of a supermarket.
It’s even harder when your franchise is operating in New Zealand in a sport that doesn’t involve an oval ball, so the Breakers have had to create a compelling product that combines a quality team with quality entertainment.
This has seen them go from struggling to fill the 4000-seat North Shore Event Centre to having so much demand for last year’s finals at 9200-seat Vector Arena they could probably have sold 30,000 tickets.
Dr Morgan has criticised Phoenix fans for not showing up in enough numbers, but few people attend sports events because they’ve been berated into doing so.
Like business, sport has some universal management principles that separate the winners from the also-rans.
And the Phoenix owners should be picking the brain of the man who owns what has arguably become New Zealand’s most successful sports franchise.
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