BBL INSIDER: BREAKING GROUND

Home comforts spell a step up for the BBL. Plus Hodge’s tumultuous exit from Cheshire and moves, and non-moves.

Through the highs and lows, the heydays and the dark days, Kevin Routledge has seen enough of the British Basketball League’s various stages of evolution not to get swept away by needless hyperbole.

Majority owner of Leicester Riders, past chairman of the BBL itself, he has had a seat at the table when harsh and pivotal decisions have been taken, to grow and to contract, to be ambitious but quite often, simply to survive.

Yet today, on the site of an old gas works in the city that the country’s oldest professional club once called home, the Canadian-born businessman sensed a turning point, a moment in time that in due course may be recognised as a step in a new direction. The cold winter’s morning when work began on what will, within 12 months, provide a permanent home for the Riders back where they belong: in the heart of Leicester.

Largely funded with public sector investment, the potential effects of this £4.2 million-arena will be felt far beyond, Routledge claims.

“It’s an absolute game changer. Because if you think about basketball and try to compare us with other sports like football, cricket and rugby, it’s inconceivable that you could have one of them without its own venue, where you can’t pick the dates, where you don’t get the secondary income. Basically, where you’re not in control of your own destiny.

“For us this is the solution to developing a sustainable indoor sport. We’ve always been treated as a sport that has to muck in with everyone else and play second fiddle to what else is going on. Owning an arena is the thing we’ve been seeking to do for 20-odd years. And finally we can do it.”

Sited adjacent to Leicester College, and officially constructed under the umbrella of the Riders’ community foundation, it will end a long road trip for the 2013 league champions as nomads. When the doors shut on the decaying but atmospheric Granby Halls almost 16 years ago, Loughborough University provided the sole alternative to oblivion.

Leicester remain ambitious for more trophies

Leicester remain ambitious for more trophies

Subsequently, DeMontfort University spirited them closer to their origins but, with finances on the precipice, Loughborough again was designated as the most viable abode. Packed out for last Saturday’s visit from Leeds Force, it is dressed to deliver home comforts, with banners and trimmings laid down in the hours before tip-off by an army of dedicated volunteers.

Yet it is the best of a bad job, in myriad respects. 30 minutes drive from the county seat and a larger population base, the Riders – already one of the more astute off-court operations in the BBL – believe there is much more goodwill into which they can tap.

“To have a venue, it changes completely our existence,” Routledge declares. “Everyone will know where the games are. We’ll be able to play when it suits us. We can think about European competition. It changes everything. And the only way the sport will succeed in this country is when we have 10-12 clubs with a degree of control.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to mean ownership. But you need to maximise that secondary spend, that ability to have a base for community work, all of those synergies.”

Others, he confirms, are watching closely and taking notes. Newcastle Eagles are well down the track on a similar adventure, their proposals for a £9m arena in Elswick ambulating through the approval process.

“We are offering any help we can to anyone else who wants to do this. I think it’s the only model that can work. We’re not ready for big arenas again. We’d always play second fiddle to the ice show or whatever else goes on.

How the arena will look (courtesy: Riders)

How the arena will look (courtesy: Riders)

“Now we need to look at getting more of these over the next 7-10 years. And if we can prove this one works, where instead of having badminton and netball bundled up as well, you can have professional basketball, with women, with wheelchair, with community, and you share the overheads.”

Its capacity of around 2000 still represents a huge regression from the halcyon days when BBL games attracted crowds into the five-figures in places like Manchester and Sheffield, aided in no little part by deep pockets of owners with grand dreams.

Pragmatism rules OK. The Riders plan represents realism but also some proof, their long-standing cheerleader declares, that the league is no longer on its painful descent but accelerating cautiously upwards.

“We’re well off the bottom, if you look at any of our metrics now,” Routledge enthuses. “Four years ago, if you’d said we’d be taking our (playoff) final to the 02, it would have seemed ludicrous. We’re doing it now because we know we can fill the Wembleys and NIAs. But The 02 has a cachet. We’ll be taking the sport to where it’s never been before.

“Now we have to realise we’re in a competitive market. Rugby has professionalised and it’s sucking up huge amounts of money. Football just goes stratospheric in sucking up cash. We’re in a tough market. But if you look at what we’re doing now in communities. Look at our credibility with Sport England who gave us £2 million. When did we have that before? We didn’t.

“We still have a long way to go. We need to get many more fans who support basketball. We’ve never had that. We’ve always been a bit like a Chinese meal: nice to have sometimes but not every night. We need to make the sport more passionate in big numbers and that’s the difference.

“But if people in Leicester know we’re open 24/7 – and we have no neighbours, so we can do that – I think they’ll come.”

The Hodge Hangover

The soap opera surrounding Cheshire Phoenix continues. And like any compelling drama, it is a concoction of twists and turns.

Which brings us to the departure of Julius Hodge, messy in the extreme and which could yet come back to bite the Nix in the future.

Hodge, once a NBA Lottery pick, had been a solid contributor since his arrival, fitting in with his team-mates, and contributing to eight successive wins in addition to the status he brought to the undoubted ambition injected by chairman and chief benefactor Andrew Donaldson.

Yet when it was decided over Christmas that Hodge would make way for one last upgrade, the exit became anything but simple.

The ex-Denver Nugget’s representatives claimed his contract was fully guaranteed after playing the minimum two-month spell. The Phoenix, citing contractual breaches involving two missed community appearances, sought to cut ties.

With discussions fractious and a stalemate reached – and with prior hopes of keeping Hodge until the visa was secured to bring in a replacement no longer a possibility – MVP understands that team officials opted to take the drastic decision to change the locks on the house where he, along with coach John Coffino and Adrien Sturt, was residing.

It led, almost inevitably, to an escalation of hostilities.

On Sunday, with Hodge already on a midday flight back to the USA, Cheshire issued a statement justifying his sacking, prior to their game with Manchester Giants, which read: “There have been a series of misconduct-related incidents during the course of Julius Hodge’s tenure with the club,” it claimed.

“Cheshire Phoenix have tried to orchestrate a constructive solution but unfortunately following the most recent events, the club was left with no alternative but to dismiss him with immediate effect.”

Players come and go. Contractual disputes and the level of settlements paid are an ever-present part of the landscape of European basketball. However a stream of Tweets has suggested that Hodge – with a high profile, and a 20000+ stream of social media followers – is not going quietly into the night.

“We must make decisions to preserve the integrity of the club,” Donaldson, speaking to the Cheshire Chronicle, said. “The matter is now in legal hands to find a solution.”

Reached on Monday at his home in North Carolina, Hodge declined further comment, other than to confirm he is still considering action against his now-former employers.

Regardless, the tumultuous nature of the episode will surely make it a little harder to persuade others of similar standing to sign on at the newly-built Cheshire Oaks Arena when it opens its doors next season.

“It could have been all handled quietly,” one Phoenix official regretfully reflected.

Already a drama, they must hope it will not become a crisis.

Comings and goings

Eric Boateng’s protracted move to London Lions is off, MVP has learnt. For this season, at the very least. The Great Britain centre was one day away from signing a contract at the Copper Box a month ago when he broke his toe in practice.

Coach Vince Macaulay expected he would join up in the New Year but, as with Paul Guede before him, London’s pursuit – which was also to involve third-party backing – has hit the rocks, in another blow to their hopes of making an impression on the capital.

Expect Surrey United to try to cement on a deal for former Cheshire guard Dominique Coleman to re-ignite their chances of, well, not finishing bottom.

The Guildford outfit, now overtaken by Leeds Force, still have a vacant non-permit slot and fielded just seven players in their hammering by Newcastle Eagles last weekend – with Coleman top of their target list.

Likewise Manchester Giants are also closing in on an extra forward to make a push into the play-off places.

Outside shots

A look at the positive changes in the works for Cheshire at their new home.

Some fighting talk from Paul James on Worcester’s hopes.

Old but worth a read, how Leeds Force forward Rickey Fetske ended up across the Pond.

From across the border, but a tale of triumph and no worries of adversity from one of Ireland’s junior stars.

BBL Insider appears every Tuesday on MVP

Main Pic: Leicester Riders

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