Out of the rubble, something vibrant and enticing has been built.

From the ashes of a vision which crashed and burnt now arises the fruit of a dream made real.

Twenty years ago, Sir John Hall threw millions at creating an all-encompassing Sporting Club that would make Newcastle United a peer with the likes of Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.

Myriad teams, wearing the same colours, under one roof.

Ambitious and adventurous. Until the money pit collapsed under its own unsustainable weight, Hall’s fervour cooled, and the walls came tumbling down.

United, propped up by a long-held love affair with its home city, would never collapse.

But basketball’s Eagles, ice hockey’s Warriors and rugby’s Falcons were effectively abandoned in various states of disrepair.

“The operation was not financially sustainable,” recalls Paul Blake, at one point United’s marketing point man for all three. “The three years under the Sporting Club was not sustainable for all the sports and they all lost significant money.

“But that is historically how professional sport is run in this country: losing money, with the willing chairman covering the hole.”

Listen to the MVP Cast with an extended interview with Paul Blake

From the edge of the abyss, Blake saw a glimmer of potential in the Eagles, something worth saving and cultivating.

The bottom lines were grim. The challenge daunting. This was the era in which hard cold cash spoke loudly in the British Basketball League. Pounds thrown at the league, burnt like the coals which had once been hauled out of the nearby pits.

Blake, by then doubling up as the team’s general manager, was granted control of the Eagles in tandem with former England international Ken Nottage.

The largesse of its rich benefactor was the first asset to exit the building at the close of the 1999-2000 season. “We had to be break-even from day one,” he asserts. “That was very difficult.”

Fast forward 19 years. From an investment of huge persistence and attention will come the return of a bold new chapter on Friday.

The doors officially open at the Eagles Community Arena, a £7 million palace for hoops in north-east England which turns its primary team from tenants into home owners for the very first time.

A 2,700-capacity main court. A gym, café, educational space, hospitality rooms, everything required to stand tall on what was formerly industrial land on the main road adjacent to the Tyne as it darts inland to the city centre from the A1.

It has been, for Blake and his wife Sam, a concept that goes back far beyond when ground was broken in 2017.

“We were trying to work this out ourselves the other week and it’s probably as far back as 2005,” he reveals. “We’d taken on the club on in 1999 and we’d done that first five or six years.

“The first three or four were very tough, Then we started to win trophies and I suppose at that point, we were thinking ‘right, this is a longer term project now’. Until that point, it was really year by year, can this work?”

It took a while. The Project was about survival foremost. For some time, the after-shock of United’s grand folly still loomed, notably the exorbitant rent to play at the team’s former home.

“We still had two years of the Newcastle Arena contract to see out which had been signed by the football club,” he adds.

“I have to say, once we got out of those two years, we had eight or nine years at the Arena and they were incredibly supportive and we just found ways to work together. But it was tough. Absolutely, those first five or six years were very nip and tuck. It was very much a rollercoaster ride.”

On the court, there have been more ups and downs. The Eagles, now by far, Britain’s greediest consumers of silverware under the coaching regime of Blake’s long-time collaborator, Fab Flournoy.

Continuity has been key with the New Yorker a bedrock. Ironically, the time of construction for future-proof foundations has coincided with minor regression in the pursuit of prizes.
Blake has had to juggle, stepping away from his ulterior role as a leading voice of reason within the league.

Building an arena has proven so much trickier than piecing together a roster.

“It’s been an eye opening process,” he admits. “One that I’m not sure I’d want to do again.

“It’s a completely different world to what I’m used to and what the organisation is used to. We’ve effectively run a different project to the side of the club and the Foundation and had to spin three plates without any of them falling and shattering.

“The final 12 months have been incredibly tough.”

The last few weeks until the doors are flung open have been frenetic too. 22 contractors completing their work ahead of the unveil. Then the reality of plotting ahead, not least the small matter of attracting enough users and events to help pay down a sizeable bank loan.

The Nest, as Blake has christened it, offers huge opportunity beyond the BBL and WBBL sides as its marquees, more than was ever on the table at the Metro Arena or their previous home on the campus of Northumbria University.

There is no real model for this kind of development. So it has, by necessity, been invented from scratch.

“We do not have access to some of the income streams that some of those European teams. Some of those, we will never have access to. Mainly coming from government.

“That’s back to the culture of sport in those countries, the sporting club models. So we have to play to our strengths.

“We need to get secondary spend. We need to have the ability to run other events to generate income. We need car park income. We need to have full control over all possible income streams and we haven’t had that for 20 years.”

That should allow the Eagles to kick on again, Blake insists. To increase turnover which can free more investment for the team.

European basketball also perhaps. If, and only if, it makes sense.

The numbers will be crunched. Lessons will doubtless be learnt from the first night (against Plymouth Raiders, a sell-out) and thereafter.

The rubble is now a shiny new theatre, ready to stage performances of the highest calibre.

But it must, Blake asserts, be more than just an expensive showroom or an excuse to preen and pose.

The Sporting Club was bold in concept but meek in what it eventually delivered.

This hub, it is promised, will reach beyond the sidelines and the boundary wall and achieve something as valuable as trophies: all of Eagles works at every level, its basketball community, finally united.

“There’s been no way to knit the story together,” Blake underlines. “Whereas that’s what we have now and hopefully that will embed itself.

“And this building being a beacon for the local community, particularly in the west end for things other than basketball. Sport in general. Education, training, jobs, things in general.

“Just to be part of the area, properly.”

(Photos: BBL/Eagles)

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