Paul and Liz Blackwell – "the best owners in NZ sports" (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

The Breakers success came from having the best owners in New Zealand sports

The New Zealand Breakers have announced a new ownership group including two former NBA players. It’s a well-orchestrated transition which only serves to show how special former owners the Blackwells were, writes Andrew Mulligan. 

The Breakers just beat the Warriors to it, again.

They were the first to bring a non-rugby title to the fully professional sports ranks of Auckland. They were also the first to transition from local ownership to a consortium of internationals linked to the upper echelons of sports ownership in the US and the UK.

They also kept said international consortium of interested investors on the down low from the media. Unlike the Warriors.

First of all, I love what Paul and Liz Blackwell have built and fostered at the Breakers since they have owned the club. Never in it for the money, they’ve demonstrated that culture and family values can easily be built through patience and execution. It took a while for former coach Andrej Lemanis and CEO Richard Clarke to fully realise their plan, but there were never the kind of kneejerk reactions that can derail it by owners who probably lost more money than they made in 13 years of ownership.

This is the ownership model that works because it isn’t muddled like having so many cooks pulling players in so many directions. This is of course what happens when there are multiple boards, coaches and CEO’s in New Zealand rugby. The Blues are an example where partial privatisation has made the franchise more open to the regions, not just Auckland Rugby. But it wasn’t like that for a while. Conversely in Canterbury and the Tasman region they know they’re effectively feeders for the Crusaders squad, even though regionalism has mostly been removed from Super Rugby selection.

The Warriors are privately owned and on the market after Eric Watson and former owner, Owen Glenn, fell out with their bold vision not yet realised. The Phoenix are owned by Wellington consortium Welnix. Both these clubs are annually under attack from across the ditch by pundits asking why they’re still in the NRL and A-League respectively due to their lean post-season success.

There was a fear (Ok, it was mine) that Paul and Liz Blackwell, owners until March 1st, would walk away from the club, happy in the knowledge that they helped deliver not only brownies but also championships with a core group of hardened New Zealand international players, excellent scouted imports, and a base on the North Shore where basketball is huge with families. Thank goodness they’re not leaving completely.

These new owners seem nice enough. Matt Walsh, who spoke at the press conference, said all the right things; “I think everyone is well aware in this room of just how wonderful the Blackwell’s are… I read some articles when I first started looking into this and the first thing you read is ‘best owners in sports’.” He also spoke about continuing that success while maximising the commercial potential of the club through their commercial experience and NBA connections, elevating the Breakers even higher. The Australian NBL has experienced fantastic growth since Melbourne millionaire, Larry Kestelman, took control of a listing league in 2015 and has seen attendance levels increase year on year – but not in Auckland.

The one thing that Walsh and the rest of the new owners will battle with will be the family atmosphere that the Blackwell’s fostered over the years, so having Paul still on the board and no doubt at most games will be good. Both of them would walk around the arenas at least a dozen times on game night, talking to everybody who knows them and making sure everything is right. This is the key ingredient that most sports franchises miss. Whether it’s here or overseas, seeing the people that own your team (it’s not theirs remember, it’s the fans) engaging with fans makes a difference, and that’s what the Blackwell’s have made for the Breakers.

Everything from the family feel (the brilliant ‘no dickheads’ policy) to the sustained success on the floor by winning four championships in the last seven years have made the best owners in New Zealand sport by a long way.

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