Saturday, April 11, 2015

1-on-1 with Richard Petko of the Niagara Basketball Group

On April 8th, the NBLC and the Niagara Basketball Group, made up of Richard Petko, Michael Skrtich and Jeff Sotiriou, met with the media in side the Meridian Centre to announce the awarding of a new franchise to St. Catharine's Ontario and the Niagara region.

NBLCNet's Chris Croucher sat down with Richard Petko to get some more details on the NBLC's newest team.

Where did the idea come from to start the process of getting an NBLC franchise?

Richard Petko: "2 years ago when Mississauga got a team, I bought season tickets, went to a couple games. At the same time, myself and Michael Skrtich had been working in real estate development in Thorold. After doing this for a couple of years, and we were transforming the downtown, because we’re buying up all the old buildings, and Thorold is, you know, typical small town Canada, with one main street, and it had about a 25% vacancy rate among the downtown store fronts. It was at one of the games, and having spent a couple of years in the Niagara Region, we knew it was a good population centre, and from following CIS basketball I knew that Brock basketball, and basketball in general was popular. So as part of our plan to help rebuild Thorold, we thought why not look into getting an NBLC team there. Thorold has an older downtown arena complex, and there had been rumblings that there might be renovations of some sort, and that’s when we approached their City Council about a year ago. We came up with a proposal that if we brought a team, could we play in the arena and maybe we could share some of the renovation costs, as part of our urban revitalization. That’s how it all started."

What brought the change from the Thorold arena to the Meridian Centre?

"The change came from the fact that after checking out the arena a few times and pricing out the possibility of turning it into a basketball venue, and it would have been quite costly and unwieldy, there weren’t many good dates available because of the way the schedule was set up. At the same time, we went to the games in Brampton, London and Mississauga, and the arena just wasn’t up to the standards of a modern arena. We knew the Meridian Centre was around, we were there during the construction phase of it, and we were blown away by it. We did go to Niagara Falls and the arena there, but it doesn’t have a floor, doesn’t have a jumbotron, and was booked pretty solid with hockey, and the location just wasn’t same, the vibe around the arena wasn’t the same."

What were some of the pros and cons of the Meridian Centre?

"Well we’re very excited by arena, but also a little scared. I think realistically we’re not going to sell 5,000 seats per game, our goal is to get that 2,500 average. Obviously we want the first two games to be sold out, and have an action-packed environment and have entertained fans, but the numbers are nicer when you’re in a smaller venue. We’ll see what we can do, and who knows, maybe we can build this thing to where basketball can be a top drawing sport in the region."

Was there a certain game or a moment that spurred you into getting a team, or was it more of a thought that grew?

"It was a thought that sort of grew, there wasn’t a “Euereka!” moment. We went to the first gameof the year in Mississauga, there were about 1,500 people there, there was a buzz, an excitement, and really it just grew from that."

Does the group have any sort of a background in basketball as a business, or is this a sort of uncharted territory for you guys?

"As a business, completely uncharted territory, basketball wise. I’ve been involved in retail, sales and real estate. Jeff (Sotiriou), the President, has been involved in sales, and has been a consultant to the call centre industry for the past few years and Michael has been re-developing real estate for 19 years in the Thorold region. So the basketball business, for us, is completely new. One of the reasons we joined the NBLC after this 20 month period is that they have been so open to us. We shadowed the Power during their training camp and the first few months of the season. Vito Frijia, the owner in London, has been unbelievably helpful, everyone on his staff has been available, they’ve sent us e-mail responses to even the smallest questions. Whenever we’ve asked for help, it has been given to us, and that has provided us confidence that this would work. And obviously we’re confident in ourselves that we can make this work."

Have any current NBLC teams set a blueprint for what your group would be looking to do?

"Well, in London you have the most successful franchise. I’m always impressed by the group sales that Vito can pull off. I’ve been to a couple of the games where the upper bowl has been opened up to accommodate the companies that come in, and that’s where we saw the opening. Every company has an employee day, and there’s lots of large companies, and they can bring their husband or wife and kids, and the way Vito has made Lightning games a destination for those employee days, and a treat for companies to give their employees, that’s something we will look to do to help our sales. In Niagara, there are a few head offices of Canada there, and other larger businesses. And there’s even the Niagara Regional Health Centre there, which is a huge facility with a lot of employees, and they’re always having different employee days and events. Other than that, we obviously a great corporate partner kind of program, season tickets for fans, 4 game ticket packages, and our other goal comes from seeing a company like National Bank on Lightning jerseys, and even like what you see in soccer now, where it doesn’t say 'Toronto FC' on the jersey, but has a sponsor. We aren’t going to be shy about that. The front of our jersey is for sale, we want a corporate partner that works with the team, and we work with them."

What sort of a relationship will you have with Brock University’s basketball program?

"We have already been in contact with Coach (Charles) Kissi, the coach of the Brock Men’s program, and we both feel that this will work as a compliment to Brock’s team. He can use as a bit of a recruiting tool to say ‘Hey, if you come to Brock, a pro team’s going to be practicing here, and if you want to play some pick up ball against pros’. We know we have to the 4 Canadians on the team, but I would love it if we could have 6 Canadians on the team. And it would definitely be complementary to us if those players came from Brock, or even Niagara college players, because they come from the community, they know the community and they have some name recognition here too."

As of now, your group has begun the search for a coach, but is there a certain style of coach, or play style that you are looking for?

"We aren’t the (Dallas Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban’s of the world, we aren’t going to dictate everything. I stay up until 10:30pm to watch the Golden State Warriors and I’m a fan of their style, I love that get up the floor, make four or five passes, set up the open shot way they play. As for defense, this is professional basketball, you throw a little bit of zone in there, but for the most part, it is man to man. I think a coach will have to respect that. Some of these players do want to go to Europe or the D-League, so they will want to be in a position to show off their talents as well. We will want the team to play up-tempo, we want it to be exciting basketball, but at the end of the day, we will defer to our coach."

Is there an internal deadline for when you will have that coach?

"Our deadline internally is by May 15th, we would like to have a coach hired and announced, so everyone will know about this within a month. We don’t want to let this drag on, and the last thing we want to do is not have a coach by June or July, as it won’t give the coach enough time to scout, watch video and decide which free agents we should pursue. That’s our absolute deadline."

Who got to keep the NBLC Basketball after the press conference?

"Yeah, the Niagara Regional Chair had it and almost walked off with it (laughs). It’s in our offices, we draped the NBL Canada banner across the window, and we have the ball in the window. Actually we have to get a picture of that and put it on the website."