Rebuilding an empire: How the Kings are winning Sydney back

The trendy Azure Café, located within the bowels of Allianz Stadium, is abuzz with the early morning hustle-and-bustle of Sydney’s elites, making their everyday coffee run.

I'm ordering my coffee too, but it's no ordinary day. This morning, I’m picking the brain of Craig Meagher, CEO of the Sydney Kings. I’m curious to know how the Kings work, and how the organisation plans to return to prominence within the NBL.

We make small talk. We chat about our favourite NBA teams; on growing up with the Bulls in the 90s, and how Steph Curry is revolutionising the way the basketball is being played. We talk about my work with The Pick and Roll, and a little bit beyond that.

“Craig!”

Former NRL star, Braith Anasta, walks over towards Meagher enthusiastically, extending a firm hand in greeting.

“G’day mate,” Meagher says, whilst reciprocating the energy with a warm handshake. “How [are] you going?”

They talk briefly about the rugby league preseason before Anasta bids his farewell. Meagher briefly explains the backstory on his relationship with Anasta, before finally returning to our conversation.

“Now, where was I?”

It’s clear that Meagher values relationships. And it’s this emphasis that underpins much of Meagher’s vision for the Sydney Kings.

Family

“Definitely. We’re family.”

Family in the sense that the Kings value and practise the core values and virtues inherent within a real family throughout the organisation: trust and accountability. But on a more pragmatic level, family is their primary target market. The Kings organisation is marketing themselves as the preferred choice for family entertainment.

Whilst parents may reflexively consider the potential dangers of contact injuries synonymous with other codes, such as league, rugby and Aussie Rules, the Kings believe their on-court product caters for a friendlier environment, one that doubles as an entertainment package suitable to the entire family.

But Meagher is realistic enough to understand that the Kings brand is not merely competing against other sporting codes.

“We’re competing with Gold Class movies,” he says. “We’re competing against going to the zoo, or going to the beach, if we have a day game. Or just people going on holidays, kicking back and not wanting to leave the house, plasma TVs and sitting by the pool, and all of that sort of stuff.”

When I recently caught up with Sydney Kings co-captain, Tommy Garlepp, on a separate occasion, it was a notion that he concurred with.

“It’s tough,” Garlepp commented.

“When you think about it, there’s a lot of things to do in Sydney. Sydney’s expensive to do anything. It’s hard to get around. And it’s a pretty awesome city in terms of what you can do on a Saturday or a Sunday. It’s a tough market.”

The Kings are competing for the hearts and minds of potential fans, ones with competing priorities and tantalising entertainment prospects. What is the point of differentiation that the Kings experience makes for the casual fan, who has a smorgasbord of options on the table? What makes the people of Sydney choose a Kings game over, say, taking the family to watch the cricket, or to the next Hollywood blockbuster?

Success

And that brings us back to the on-court product. It hasn’t been great this season.

At the time of the interview, the Kings were [5-18], and ensconced at the foot of the league, having struggled to put together a consistent product and identity on the court. They would ultimately close the season with a 6-22 win/loss record, and finish with the wooden spoon.

Heart-warming victories have all too often been followed up by gut-wrenching defeats. Their ridiculous injury toll certainly hasn’t helped matters.

“Injuries have taken its toll, we’ve changed coaches, and we’ve changed venues. So, we’ve pretty much had it all this year,” says Meagher.

Josh Childress, the Kings’ star import, has had another injury-ravaged season. Steve Markovic, slated as the starting point guard for the season played a grand total of three games before succumbing to a bout of tonsillitis, and subsequently took no further part. Star center, Julian Khazzouh had his quadriceps ripped off the bone in late December, ruling him out for the remainder of the season.

With that amount of talent off the court, the Kings have predictably struggled. Rooted at the bottom of the ladder for much of the regular season, it ultimately cost head coach Damian Cotter his job.

“I just feel at the start of the season, that first month, we weren’t quite ready to go,” says Garlepp. “And we weren’t quite ready to cover the loss of [Josh] Childress as a group.”

As much as basketball is a team sport, the NBL is a player’s league – a team’s ultimate success is intrinsically linked towards the number of stars you play. Lose enough star players through injury and the odds of winning are firmly stacked against you. Lose enough games, and you risk losing the public.

Success also has a symbiotic relationship with appeal. That lack of winning has ultimately placed an artificial ceiling over the Kings’ ambitions to expand their fan base.

“Sydney’s a fickle market,” says Meagher. “When you’re winning, everyone’s on board. When you’re losing, it’s like, 'give me a call when you’re winning again'. We’re not like Melbourne. You could lose every game of the year and they’ll still turn up.”

The Kings often struggled to fill the Kingdome, a venue that packs in ten thousand spectators at its capacity. And it was often a catch-22 situation: A half-empty venue won’t intimidate the opposition and inspire the home team to victory, whilst the club won’t be able to attract new patrons without a winning record. Who wants to come and see their team lose?

“But everyone loves a winner,” says Garlepp. “A lot of the time, that’s all you really need.”

And that’s the crux. Distilled within the complex mechanisms of commercial viability, sustainability and corporate governance in the day-to-day running of an NBL club, is the simplest of objectives: build a winning culture.

“People don’t want to associate themselves with losers,” says Meagher. “When we win, my phone’s literally beeping from people I hardly talk to.”


PERTH - APRIL 6: Shane Heal of the Kings holds aloft with teammates the NBL trophy after their victory over the Wildcats after game two of the NBL Final series between the Perth Wildcats and the Sydney Kings played at Challenge Stadium in Perth, Australia on April 6, 2003. (Photo by John Buckle/Getty Images)


Identity

“I mean everyone knows who the Sydney Kings are,” says Meagher. "Everyone.”

The Sydney Kings brand was once synonymous with winning.

The club won its first championship in 2003, on the back of a dominant team headlined by Australian icons in Shane Heal and Matthew Nielsen, and American import and MVP of the league, Chris Williams. That team was also coached by the legendary Brian Goorjian, who subsequently led the organisation towards unprecedented success – the league’s first ever three-peat, and ultimately five Grand Finals appearances in a 6 year span.

Those days are long gone.

After being stripped of its license in 2008, and a subsequent readmission in 2010, it’s fair to say that success is not the lexicon that immediately comes to mind in describing the club’s brand.

Despite the general awareness of who the Sydney Kings are, what does the current day Kings’ brand actually stand for? It’s something that the organisation itself is likely grappling with.

“I’d like to think that our players become heroes,” says Meagher. “And they became great models in society, in the community.”

“I’d say perseverance and determination,” Garlepp suggested, when I asked him about the culture of the club, and the playing group. “And desire. The desire to be mentioned amongst the respected clubs.”

Yet all those are aspirational ideals, and not the sorts of values that you associate with the attainment of the ultimate success; certainly not the sort of values you associate with the Perths and the New Zealands of this league.

It’s not surprising that the club’s external brand, and its internal culture, is still a work in progress. Annual roster churn, as well as a revolving door of four coaches in six seasons have deprived the club of continuity, a critical ingredient in developing a successful culture.

The organisation has received plenty of criticism and commentary over their decisions, but it’s also important to balance that out with the voices from within the inner sanctum.

All Craig Meagher wants is for the Sydney Kings to have an opportunity to have their say.

“We probably haven’t been at the forefront of getting our story across. So other people have put a story across and that becomes what’s happened,” says Meagher. “If we’re making a decision, let us be the ones to tell why we’re making that decision rather than other people interpreting the decision, and coming up with their own reasons, which may or may not be right.”

Those criticisms have centered on the club's rotating cast of players and coaches, but there is also a perception from the outside, an element of concern hovering over the club, that there has previously been a mandate of style over substance, particularly within the player recruitment space.

It's an interesting dilemma. On one hand, there is an acknowledgement that basketball is entertainment, and that is a crucial cornerstone in which to build your fan base. But "flashy" doesn't necessarily mean winning. It's tough to strike a balance along the spectrum of spectacle and downright pragmatism. The Perth Wildcats aren't considered a "flashy" team, and yet they are universally regarded within the NBL landscape as custodians of success.

Of course, winning cures all.

Speak to Craig Meagher, and the Kings organisation, and you get the sense that they understand what it takes to obtain long term success; a winning culture is underpinned by a set of beliefs and practises that you adhere to.

“I think you want to build a culture strong enough to stand for something, and whoever you bring in to be a coach, or a marquee player, they buy into that, and they’re part of that,” says Meagher.

“It’s something that you have to live and breathe,” says Tommy Garlepp. “Being around the New Zealand team during the off-season [whilst playing for the Rangers], and seeing the way their culture is, they live and breathe it every single day. It’s kind of the mantra by which they live and that’s why they’re so successful.”


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The fan experience

Whilst the creation of a successful culture is still in flux, there are many things that the Kings are doing right in the meantime.

I've previously written how the fan experience is, as Craig Meagher puts it, “one of their key strategic pillars”.

“I think fan engagement is massive,” says Meagher. “That’s what we are – we’re basketball, we provide entertainment.”

The Kings also pride themselves on their accessibility to the community.

Meagher is adamant that his club is either the only one, or one of the very few in the league, who do the following: Win or lose, at the conclusion of each home game, designated Kings players remain on the court to greet and mingle with fans. The public are invited to come down onto the playing surface, to share an experience with the players, and to cultivate lifelong fans. The Kings are here to form long term relationships.

“You can’t find someone who’s been to a Kings game and not had a good night."

You can picture Meagher’s grand vision of positioning the Kings as family-friendly entertainment; you can see his penchant for developing relationships, and the value of such relationships, coming to the fore.

His Kings actively reach out to the community across a variety of channels; kids’ basketball clinics, hospital visits and even through mobile apps. Meagher eagerly shows me a newly developed Kings’ player app, where information of a favourite player is quite literally at the touch of the young fan's fingertips.

Photo - ChrisLaneSuthoLeader

Sustainability

Now, the challenge is to make all this sustainable.

“I think our biggest challenge is repeat visitation,” he says.

To be fair, none of these engagement initiatives and community outreach programs are unique and quintessentially a Sydney Kings thing. Meagher knows this. He knows that all the NBL clubs do this, and that all sporting clubs across all codes accommodate fans, one way or another. What differentiates the Kings’ experience will still ultimately be determined by results. But it’s a good first step.

Says Tommy Garlepp, “if you’re winning, and you put yourself out there in the community, and earn their trust through your character, and then you can get the results on the court, then I think that’s how you can get it done.”

Despite all the good vibes created within the community, it’s clear that the battle for the hearts and minds of Sydney-siders will be decided on the hardwood.

Since their inception back into the National Basketball League in 2010, the once proud organisation has featured in the postseason once.

Meagher is realistic about the challenges that the clubs faces.

“It’s a massive challenge,” he says. “We haven’t been as successful off the court as where we need to be. And we haven’t been as successful on the court as we need to be. We need to get both right, because they’re both broken. And that’s not skating around the issue, there’s things we need to do – clearly.”

Despite the challenges, he is optimistic that the club can reverse its fortunes quickly. That’s in part due to a blueprint that has already been established elsewhere in the league.

“If we look at a team like Illawarra, in one year they have turned it around. We’re not that far away – I really believe that.”

Those 2014/15 Hawks finished with an identical 6-22 record to this year’s Kings. That they were able to ascend to title contenders the following season is a testament to their culture established by championship-winning head coach, Rob Beveridge, and the recruitment of proven winners in Kevin Lisch and Kirk Penney. It’s the sort of turnaround that the Kings are banking on, to keep them relevant within the competitive Sydney market.

“I think you have to have that belief,” Garlepp shared. “Why not, if you make the right decisions? Why can’t you be up there? Why not the Sydney Kings?”


The final home game

A few weeks pass before I meet Craig Meagher again.

This time, it’s at the final Kings’ home game for the season. The Kings matchup tonight against one of the title favourites, the Perth Wildcats, and a bastion of strong club culture that, along with the New Zealand Breakers, is the envy of the league.

At the pregame corporate function, Craig Meagher is busy addressing the audience of sponsors and corporate box types with an announcement of a Sydney Kings Academy in April. The community will be able to enrol aspiring ballers into the academy and have access to Kings coaching personnel, players, and health science staff, another show of the club's accessibility.

Meagher sees me, and he's very obviously occupied. After a quick “hello”, he races off to another function. This time, he’s presenting Sydney Kings stalwart and current assistant coach, Ben Knight, with a framed jersey to commemorate his contributions to the club. I can’t help but remember that term, family, again, something that Meagher referenced a few weeks ago.

Still, no matter how busy the job of leading the Kings organisation is, that innate streak of hospitality never leaves him.

"Make sure you catch me during the game," he says cheerfully, while rushing to his next engagement. "Behind the goals, home team side of the court. We'll hang!"

And with that, he strides off to the next thing on his radar.


The game tips off and the Kings start off strong, keeping pace with the Wildcats.

"We're in it,” says Meagher. He’s behind the basket, home team side, just as he said he would be. “I mean we've always been in it." He goes on to cite the injuries that the club has faced this year, but reserves special praise for interim head coach, Joe Connelly, for what he has been able to do with a makeshift roster, cobbled together at short notice.

"[Connelly] wasn't originally brought in to be head coach. He was brought in to support Damian [Cotter] and be an assistant.”

Meagher pauses.

"I just gotta see this," he says, as Josh Childress backs Jarrod Kenny down on the left block. You can't help but be reminded of the Dallas Mavericks' owner, Mark Cuban. Like Cuban, Craig Meagher is the leader who’s into the game, just as much as his players are.

In between chatting with patrons within the corporate boxes, Meagher is also hanging out with me, reaffirming the messages from our previous meeting a few weeks ago. The Kings always strive for the fan experience, but it’s also important to work with the sponsors and build positive relationships.

He’s clearly in a good mood. The Kings are blowing out an undermanned Wildcats squad.

"Come back in the third or fourth quarter - let's see if I'm in a good mood then!" he says with a grin.


Finale

The Kings take out the game, 103 – 77.

The near-capacity crowd at the State Sports Centre stands as one to cheer the victorious Kings. It’s been a long season. Even though there are a few games remaining, this is the final time the Kings will be playing at home for the 2015-16 season.

Tommy Garlepp, the Sydney Kings co-captain, addresses the crowd. He thanks them for their support this year, and encourages them to come back next season. He too references the Hawks, and how it’s possible for the Kings to turn things around just as quickly.

"It can change just like that. So stick with us!"

It’s a message that cuts through, and the crowd roar their approval. The cheers continue as the players file off the court, one by one. These fans who have stuck by the team, through thick and thin, have established a personal connection with the Kings.

And you can bet that Craig Meagher is in there somewhere, cheering them on, encouraging the very kind of relationships that he envisaged. Those are the building blocks you need when you're rebuilding an empire.

Special thanks to Craig Meagher, Tommy Garlepp and the Sydney Kings organisation for their time and assistance with this piece.

[Editor's note] This story originally cited that Steve Markovic was released from the Sydney Kings after his bout of tonsillitis. Markovic in fact stayed with the Kings until the end of the season. The story has been amended accordingly.