In less than a year, if Donald Sampley’s masterplan is executed as he hopes, a professional basketball team will run onto the floor inside Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Arena and make its debut in the top-flight league in the United Kingdom, the BBL.
The American’s grand scheme calls for a supportive ecosystem forged in the community, as much for self-sufficiency as altruism, as well as a marketing pitch which he hopes can recapture some of the audience lost when the Rocks decamped for Glasgow a decade ago.
Sampley was awarded the franchise – known provisionally as East Scotland Warriors – earlier this year. The genesis of his dream began long before. He had come to Scotland on holiday, played a few games for sheer enjoyment, then had what seemed like an outlandish thought of translating the skills he had acquired back as a coach in Missouri into a business proposition across the Atlantic.
Investors were sought, and sold on the idea. “Basketball is the fastest-growing sport in the UK,” he says. “If you look at where the other teams are in the BBL, all the other great locations are taken. Edinburgh was out there on its own. It’s the Scottish capital. And I just thought that this would be the perfect place.”
Going from drawing board to reality is no mere formality. Negotiating the initial bureaucracy has, he confesses, proved more arduous than expected. Plans to launch a skills academy for both young and old have been pushed back but it remains a central plank in his conquest. So too will be a foundation that can use sport to reach out into the city and beyond. Plus Sampley envisages an exchange programme that will bring over compatriots to work and play.
In unison, all might cultivate a revenue stream that feeds through into the team itself. Having hired a general manager this week, the commercial imperatives are a foremost priority. The capital, he believes, is ripe for a well-run side despite the fluctuations in fortune of the sport itself since the Rocks took their leave.
“You have to look at how you define the market,” Sampley states. “Do I expect 2400 fans at Meadowbank every Friday night? No. But I do think basketball is strong enough in the Edinburgh area to get a decent number of fans to support a team.
“You look at the Scottish League. Boroughmuir Blaze are very strong in developing players. Edinburgh Kings have always been strong. Both programmes have youth systems with a lot of kids involved. I think I can run an academy that will complement that and we can grow the interest over time. I don’t see any reason why it can’t work.”
The proof, he acknowledges, will be in the pudding. In recent teams, a number of applications to enter the BBL have been approved, only to fall quietly by the wayside. Sampley is confident he will be among those who survive to the starting line, then thrive beyond.
He has already identified a potential head coach, even a possible playing recruit. However, one key hurdle has yet to be surmounted, achieving some backing from the authorities of a city which, most argue, view sport as of secondary importance when the arts and festivals can impact tangibly on the bottom line.
Building that relationship will be vital, he concedes. But there are other paths to explore. “I’m open to any collaboration whether it’s with Hibs, Hearts, Edinburgh Rugby or the national league basketball clubs,” he declares.
“Sport has an opportunity to grow in the Edinburgh area. You look at Glasgow, and all their facilities, they’re really stepping up. Edinburgh could do that. I don’t know when. But plans are in the works for a new Meadowbank. And if you look at the number of kids involved in sport, they are the future.”
Such valiant ambition will surely founder if it is not matched by victories on the parquet. The Warriors would instantly profit from a rivalry with Glasgow Rocks, one feeding off the other for mutual benefit.
“But the Rocks are established,” Sampley notes. “They have great financial backing, a fan base, a nice arena. So it comes down to whether we can compete by getting the same talent. If everything goes to plan, I think that’s possible.” Within 50 weeks, we will find out.