Hawks mean business: new owner James Spenceley

New Hawks team owner James Spenceley with chairman Peter Bahlmann. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI
New Hawks team owner James Spenceley with chairman Peter Bahlmann. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI


James Spenceley is confident his second foray into the basketball world will turn out better than his first.

"I was terrible at basketball," the Wollongong Hawks' new owner said.

"All the other kids were bigger than me."

Spenceley might not have been a giant on the court, but the Hawks are suddenly in a position to make some monster strides on and off the hardwood with the Sydney-based multimillionaire in their corner.

The 37-year-old came in at No 81 on the BRW's Young Rich list for 2013 after his telecommunications company, Vocus Communications, raised its annual revenue to $67 million.

But while his financial backing is an immeasurable boost for the Hawks, Spenceley can provide the club with much more.

Earlier in the week, Hawks chairman Peter Bahlmann said he was "floored" by Spenceley's brain for business.

Spenceley wants to share his expertise and is driven by a vision to make Hawks basketball the best show in town.

He has extensively researched the club's previous ownership models and firmly believes his plan can - and will - work.

"I just approach business really simply," he said.

"At the end of the day, whether it's telecommunications or basketball, you have to give people what they want. If you have to turn up and explain to people why they should sponsor or why they should buy a ticket or buy some telecommunication services, that's not scalable. But if you create a product that people need and people want to go to, the rest just falls into line behind that.

"It's not hard. You keep it simple. If you've got a good product, you let people know about it, they turn up. You manage the finances to that budget, it should work."

Luck played no small part in Spenceley committing to the Hawks.

A close friend of Melbourne United (formerly Melbourne Tigers) co-owner Larry Kestelman, he was bitten by the basketball bug as a spectator.

Kestelman put Spenceley in touch with the cash-strapped Hawks two months ago and informal conversations about ownership soon became formal.

Spenceley believes he has already identified some of the Hawks' problems.

"I can see there's a lot of false economies," he said.

"If you can't access money you can't spend it, and the Hawks haven't been able to access the money to spend it.

"Right now it's about sustainability and stability, so it's not a Save the Hawks situation every three or five years. The community has done a huge job saving the Hawks, but what we want to do is set this up so it's around for another generation to come.

"There's huge opportunity there. I wouldn't invest in this if I didn't think there was a way to get it to profitability and secure it.

"It's the right town, there's a lot of value there for sponsors. I don't think the Hawks have necessarily gotten the interaction probably that they have expected for the sponsorship. We need to get the fans behind it to turn up to games and get the sponsors behind it and give them real value.

"We want to create that business networking environment before the games. We'll get guest speakers in and do a lot of exciting stuff, really revamp it, not just for the fans but also the sponsors so they get behind the team and get value."

Some of Spenceley's remarks might sound like the same old rhetoric about the need for more fans and sponsors, but he promises to put his money where his mouth is.

He understands it's a two-way street when it comes to fans and sponsors and intends to keep everybody happy.

"I've seen how much fun Larry's having and the difference he's making with the Tigers," he said.

"Basketball's a thing that's often run by people who are just into basketball and, while I love watching basketball, my primary skill is business, so hopefully I can marry the two and bring a business sense to the Hawks.

"Most people don't turn up to Hawks games because they don't know when they're on, so that's a total false economy. Not spending money on marketing means you don't get the ticket sales. If you don't get the ticket sales, the atmosphere's not great, and if the atmosphere's not great people don't come back. It's just a spiral. Even just the little things like that will make a big difference.

"We're changing the game night because we have to make this a real experience for people. If they go on the first night and have a fantastic time they're going to come back. We want to get all the fun stuff they do in the NBA into our game night.

"The [front office] guys have got huge ideas. They're already excited by what we can do in terms of the entertainment side of the game."

The Hawks are expected to roll out announcements on player signings next week.

Re-signing most of their Australian free agents shouldn't be too problematic, but the club might have a battle on its hands to retain star import and reigning NBL MVP Rotnei Clarke.

Wollongong's opening game of the 2014-15 season is against Townsville on October 10 at WIN Entertainment Centre.

Spenceley said the Hawks were preparing for what is shaping up to be the most explosive night of entertainment in the club's 35-year existence.

"The first game is going to be very, very different from the previous games, just for entertainment value and enjoyment," he said.

"We're not going to break any secrets yet. You'll have to come to the first game to see.

"My goal is that I'm taking on the challenge and investing my money in this club, and I want to put it out there and put a challenge down to the people of Wollongong - let's sell out the first game.

"If we put on a good show for that first game and sell it out, people will be coming back."

The Hawks are the last remaining original team from the NBL's inaugural season and have historically survived on a shoestring budget.

John Carson owned the club from 1997 to 2003 before selling to a group of Illawarra businessmen.

That consortium relinquished ownership in 2009 and the club barely avoided folding.

Indian businessman Arun Jagatramka rescued the Hawks with a million-dollar guarantee, while the club itself became "community-owned" through its members and partners.

But the community model has been under strain in the past couple of years, particularly last season when crowd attendances occasionally dipped below 2000.

Spenceley's depth of business expertise - and even deeper pockets - should alleviate most if not all of the Hawks' financial pressure.

"Larry called me up two months ago and said the Hawks were looking for investment and a change of direction ... it's just progressed incredibly quickly from there," he said.

"This is not a vanity thing. This is purely about business. I do my due diligence. I researched the team and researched the old owners, spoke to people about why they failed.

"The most successful period was under John Carson. John was a sole owner, and that means he can react quickly, make decisions and take the business side into the team.

"Then it was a period of 20 or 30 owners, and that's going to create all sorts of problems when you have that many business people who've all created their own businesses.

"The community model was great to keep the team alive but I don't think it's sustainable. The NBL is investing and becoming more commercial, so if we're going to take this to the next level, both the league and also the teams, it needs to be a private ownership model."

Coach Gordie McLeod is the NBL's best. He has won two NBL Coach of the Year awards in five years and guided the Hawks to the semi-finals in three of the past five seasons.

Not a bad effort considering the Hawks only spend about $700,000 on their playing roster annually - $300,000 less than the NBL's million-dollar salary cap. That should change.

Spenceley said there can't be false economies, and if the sponsors get behind the team and the fans come to the games, there is no reason why the cap shouldn't be fully spent.

"What fans are going to see this season will be a lot more fun and entertainment. It's the perfect balance of sport and entertainment. I'm not a huge soccer fan. You watch 90 minutes and there's often little action. You go to a basketball game and it's the other extreme because it's all action," he said.

"This is really a turning point for the Hawks. We're using this as an opportunity to say that it's going to be fresh, it's going to be new, it's going to be exciting. You don't get opportunities like this every day. We can't do this again and say those things next year.

"I know Gordie's working very hard in getting the right team on the court and hopefully we're going to do really well this season."


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