Mercury basketball writer TIM KEEBLE caught up with Hawks owner James Spenceley for a one-on-one chat before Friday's season-opening home game against Townsville.
HOW HAVE THE LAST FEW MONTHS BEEN AS THE CLUB'S OWNER - MORE CHALLENGING OR EASIER THAN EXPECTED?
It's definitely more challenging, but the results we've got are better than I expected, so a bit of both really. We've put the club together in three months really. That's going from no players signed, no sponsors signed, an all-new office staff. It's been a heck of a whirlwind, but the results are good, we've signed some excellent players and we'll be exciting to watch.
Jahii's [Carson] a pretty impressive player and Luke's [Nevill] going to fix what has been a fundamental problem with the side for a number of years from what everyone tells me. Having that proper big in the mix, rebounding well and being able to post up and score from inside the paint.
HAS IT BEEN DIFFICULT TO JUGGLE YOUR OWN BUSINESS AND WORK COMMITMENTS WITH NBL OWNERSHIP?
It has been difficult juggling. There's been a lot of late nights, but in general we've seen a good result. We've fixed a few of the front office positions with people who've got energy and drive, and we're really getting there. [Marketing manager] Courtney [Beaton] was the longest-standing employee of the Hawks and she'd been there 10 months. We've brought in [newly-appointed general manager] Kim Welch from the Perth Wildcats, who was effectively the 2IC under Nick Marvin. He has a huge amount of basketball experience and that's going to mean I have to get less and less involved in the day to day because he's really on top of it.
DO YOU FEEL THERE'S OBVIOUS PROGRESS AND THERE'S ALREADY REWARD IN THE WAY THE TEAM HAS COME TOGETHER?
With [coach] Gordie [McLeod], we've worked out how to scout and recruit and work together from the business side as well as the on-court side. That's come together very well and that's probably going to be the most important relationship. We make sure we match the budget with the results and the type of people that he wants.
HOW MUCH HAS THE CLUB CHANGED IN TERMS OF STAFF NUMBERS AND GOAL-SETTING?
It's almost complete change. What we're trying to do is put in people who have a passion and have something to prove and have a lot of energy. I'm not speaking badly about any individual, but the Hawks have always been in survival mode, just keeping it alive and putting a team on court. We're approaching it in reverse, getting people in there who are driven with lots of energy. Our internal goal is to win a championship within three years.
WHAT SORT OF IMAGE DO YOU WANT THE CLUB TO PROJECT TO THE COMMUNITY?
The club has had this persona of being a survivor, and it's almost semi-pro with a bunch of friends playing together. That's great, but the league is getting more and more professional every year and the quality of the league this year is outstanding. If we were putting the same side on last year that we've got now, we would've been clear winners of the championship, I feel.
HAS THAT IMAGE STARTED TO TAKE SHAPE?
Absolutely. The culture internally with Kim on board, we're moving in the right direction. The fact we secured Luke Nevill is a sign that people are really taking us seriously. He had offers from almost every other club in the league and he picked Wollongong. One of his key reasons was that he really liked the direction the club is going, having someone from a business background backing the club. It's a great sign that we're not being seen as that semi-professional community club anymore. We're real contenders.
WILL GAME NIGHT ENTERTAINMENT BE DIFFERENT EVERY WEEK?
We're bringing first and foremost a much more professional approach to game night. We've got Bonnie Anderson on the first night and other big names planned throughout the year. You'll just see a generally more exciting night with pyrotechnics and lasers and that sort of stuff.
HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO HAVE A WINNING TEAM?
It's massively critical. The Sydney Swans are the best example. When they're winning they're the talk of the town. Everyone's going to the game and their membership swells. When they're losing nobody wants to know about them.
As always, it's hard at the start of the year to say how we'll go. Pre-season was pretty bad, but we came pretty good in the last game against Cairns. It was like a different team compared to the first game against Cairns, so the team has really gelled in the last two weeks. With Jahii back [from a brief injury layoff] and the addition of Luke, we're looking pretty strong.
Other teams have had their rosters more established, whereas we're coming in a bit late. We'll take a little time to warm up, but you can't rule us out especially at home.HOW CONCERNED ARE YOU WITH THE PRE-SEASON RESULTS?
We were missing two really key players. Larry Davidson is massive for us on defence. He co-ordinates the defence. We weren't getting any rebounds and we were losing the games based on second-chance points. Larry has a massive influence at the defensive end and Jahii gets 20-odd points a game, and there's the difference we were losing by, so I'm not at all concerned. The thing that was worrying me was how the team was working together, and they really fixed that every quarter along the way. We talk about the new talent we've brought in, but that core group is strong. Tim Coenraad had a fantastic end of last season. His numbers improved every game and he's played well in the pre-season. People aren't rating us very highly and I think that's a real easy bet to put some money on us at 24 to one. You have to back Gordie. He's got a lot of talent this year and you know this team is going to get better every single game throughout the season.
YOU'VE GOT 11 CONTRACTED PLAYERS BUT NBL RULES STATE ONLY 10 CAN SUIT UP FOR EACH GAME.
WILL THERE BE SOME SORT OF TEAM ROTATIONAL SYSTEM? That just works to our advantage. The season's really condensed with a lot of back-to-back games, so having that squad is going to work in our favour in terms of injuries and player maintenance. It gives us a lot of flexibility. We'll rotate in and out what we need against each team. I think it's the right thing to do with the season and timetable we've got.
WHAT WILL YOU MEASURE THE SEASON ON IN TERMS OF SUCCESS OR FAILURE?
For me it's crowd numbers. The big thing is that we're investing in this side. You can see it in the players, you'll see that on game night. We've got TV and radio commercials and big poster ads in bus stops.
The thing that will be really disappointing for me is if the people of Wollongong don't get behind it and we don't get a lot of people coming to the games. It's almost like a binary thing.
If we do everything right and the same amount of people turn up as last year, then there's really not the scale in Wollongong to have a national sporting team.
That would be really disappointing. If people get to the game they're going to love it.
They'll have a fantastic experience and they'll come along again.