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Q&A with Sydney Kings' Jeff Van Groningen

On Sunday the Sydney Kings announced a new majority owner in renowned stadium management group AEG Ogden, an upcoming move to Allphones Arena and a new Managing Director, Jeff Van Groningen. In a nod to the strength of the rebranded NBL, AEG Ogden – a global organisation with interests in the NBA’s LA Lakers, ownership of NHL team Los Angeles Kings and MLS club LA Galaxy – has chosen to invest in the NBL club with a storied name, with plans to move their home court to the NBA-sized Allphones Arena. Previously known as the Sydney Superdome, the Kings called the stadium home for three seasons between 1999 and 2002 and still holds the record for the largest attendance in a game in NBL history – 17,143 in 1999. This is a record that Jeff Van Groningen, the club's freshly minted Managing Director knows all too well, and he will be tasked with the enormous job of leading the Kings back to a position of strength. Backed by the AEG Ogden powerhouse and featuring a resume that includes stints with the Queensland Government, the Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Tigers and Brisbane Bullets – where he built one of the greatest single season teams of all time in 2006/07 – Van Groningen is the kind of experienced, highly capable and passionate individual required to drive the Kings back to prominence. Van Groningen knows what it takes to build a winning program, and he sat down with Kings historian Matt McQuade to talk about his vision for the club and the challenges that lie ahead. Q: It’s been a bit of a whirlwind over the past few days – how are you feeling about this challenge? A: I’m definitely up for the challenge. AEG Ogden’s purchase of the Kings has created real excitement, and rightly so. It’s been humbling for both me and Harvey Lister to see this level of enthusiasm. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we could add to the overall success of this franchise. We feel like we can make it really successful and we’re grateful for those who came before us and made sure the Kings were here. As Harvey said at the press conference – we just think we can take this to another level.

Q: You’ve been out of basketball for a few years. When you were approached with this proposal to lead the Kings, what were your initial feelings?

A: It’s interesting, because I’ve really enjoyed that broadening experience I’ve had over the last five years. The years I spent with the Broncos were tremendous – I think the club leads the NRL in most commercial categories – and my time as a chief advisor to the Queensland Sports Minister was a real eye-opener. Once you’re in that role you really get a chance to get to know the sporting fabric of the state. So while it was interesting for me to hear there was this potential basketball role and Harvey was keen for me to consider it, I still had to really consider my decision because I was in a phase of my career I was enjoying. But in the end, your first love is usually your strongest love and that’s no exception for me and the game of basketball. I’m glad I’m back in it.

Q: You were the GM of the Brisbane Bullets for six seasons and you were a key in building the championship winning squad in 2006/07 that at the very least was one of the top five single season teams in NBL history. What will you take out of that experience to help you with this new role?

A: Well that team you’re referring to – and rightly so – was the best team we had, but what I’m reminded of was the experience when I first came to Brisbane, six years prior. The team the previous season had picked up some late wins which helped them avoid a last placed finish. The administration at the time then locked in most players on that squad, and that turned out to be a decision that gave little scope for roster improvement. But in the second year, we changed that team and brought in guys like Stephen Black and Derek Rucker that could make that a playoff team. We turned it around quickly after that first year and it was an exciting time. Where I’m going with this is that I’ve come to a situation where there are only two hard and fast contracts in place. And while there are a number of players on last season’s roster that want to come back, and that’s terrific, the point is we’ve got great roster flexibility, with the ability to bring in imports and local players who can really help us turn the team around quickly. There’s also flexibility in that all the coaches are coming out of contract, so what we’ve got really is a blank sheet of paper. In the end, it’s about setting a philosophy – how we want the team to look, what type of team it will be, how it will be coached and who the coach will be. Some of the existing players will fit into that philosophy, and some won’t, so we’ll deal with that on a case by case basis.

Q: It’s fair to say the Kings have struggled for most of the last six seasons, particularly the last two, both on and off the court. What do you see as necessary to turn the fortunes of this club around?

A: I think everyone understands that your structure of ownership and your structure of decision-making are really crucial in any business. It’s broadly acknowledged that if you can simplify that, people can concentrate on the things they really need to do. I’ve been appointed to run the team and run the business by AEG Ogden, and the decisions are up to me. While humbling, it adds simplicity and certainty for both the people coming into the organisation and those that remain. So it’s about stable ownership – which we have with AEG Ogden – and a consistent voice. It’s about a singular direction and good resourcing with the correct amount of money that needs to be spent both on and off the floor. There’s a great deal of pressure on me, but what’s exciting is that the AEG Ogden ownership wants to resource the Sydney Kings strongly with the very fair expectation of real improvement.

Q: It’s also fair to say there has been a disconnect between the Kings and a majority of Sydney basketball fans – even the average sports fan in this city over the past few years. To put the team in front of mind, what kind of resources will the club bring to bear in relation to marketing, media, promotion and the like?

A: Look, I think all of that is going to be necessary. I think we can do a tremendous job once we outfit the organisation with the right people…making sure that we are completely media savvy and we push the message that we need to. Like the rest of the eastern seaboard capital cities, it’s a crowded marketplace. Sydney is just a greater example than say the other two major cities I’ve had the privilege of working for in Melbourne and Brisbane. You have to do a good job in getting the message out there. We need to be excellent at promoting the sport and the games. In the end, one of the greatest ways you can promote the team is by sheer word of mouth and the buzz that is created by how a team plays, how a team looks when it plays and the effort that it gives. I think that once people see that we are the Sydney Kings, and we are here to win, that will generate greater community excitement and that will assist in people flowing through the door. Resources will be provided to the media and marketing area and in conjunction with the team’s passion and dynamism; our aim is that games become a better place to be.

Q: Following on from that, one of the things many fans have been critical of in the past is the game night experience. The team has lagged behind Perth and Melbourne – as two notable examples – in this area over the past few years. Considering AEG’s involvement with the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Kings, not to mention a host of others, what can fans look forward to in 2016/17?

A: You’ve really hit the nail on the head there. I think the main thing we have to offer is a wealth of experience in venue management and the more than a dozen sporting properties that AEG owns across North America and Europe, including a significant ownership stake in the Los Angeles Lakers. As a company, AEG has a wealth of knowledge as to how to run an entertainment product – they are an entertainment business. There are a lot of things we plan on doing this season, integrating a lot of things that have worked well in other territories into our game night experience. Now, we’re not LA, we’re Sydney, but there’s no doubt we will incorporate things from the rest of the world into what we do here. The game night experience will be a major focus. It’s a major focus of our owner, and it has a tremendous legacy historically back to the Mike Wrublewski days when Sydney did great things with its game night product. When I was at the Broncos, it was something we talked about constantly. Now that you can watch sport at home on a two metre screen and virtually see every blade of grass on the field or drop of sweat on the court, all in high definition, then you have to give people a reason to be at the game. And that is the game night experience. It’s a huge part of our plans. Content on the court is our top priority. Content around the court is a very close second.

Q: Talking about the content on the court – you’ve stated the club is going to be very aggressive in building a winning program and there have been some pretty ambitious goals already set, considering the team is coming off its worst finish in franchise history. What sort of team do you want the club to build and how much will you be involved with that process?

A: I’ll be running the process. Our basketball decision-making structure is remarkably simple, with the managing director overseeing the process and being answerable to the owner. Bottom line is that I’ll make recruitment decisions based on what the Sydney Kings franchise needs and what the overall plan is. Some exciting news will emerge soon, but we believe the Sydney fans will be as enthusiastic as we are about the team next season.

Q: You’ve said that hiring a new coach is going to be your top priority given NBL free agency begins April 1. You’ve been involved with some great ones over the years like Joey Wright for example. What will you be looking for when you go through that selection process?

A: A really good manager of men. Someone that understands what makes players tick. I think Joey does a very good job of that. It has to be a person that understands and buys into the philosophy of the franchise. It can be harder to pick a coach than it is to pick players. Wins and losses tell only part of the story…I mean Brett Brown to me is one of the best coaches in the world. Wins and losses don’t tell a story about him. I’m looking for a really good man manager as a coach. It’s someone that just represents the culture of the club, someone you’re comfortable either rolling into a boardroom or the floorboards on the court. He has to carry himself well, present well on behalf of the club and totally back what you are trying to do. I’ve shortlisted some names, any of whom would be tremendously exciting acquisitions for the league and hopefully we’ll be able to announce something in the next few weeks.

Q: Finally, what’s your message not just to Kings’ fans, but Sydney sports fans as a whole, about the coming season and indeed the future of the Sydney Kings?

A: My message is that sports is an amazing and forgiving place. Things can turn around quickly; fans and media will judge a sports organisation on their commitment to success. Importantly, it’s the commitment to it that’s as significant as achieving it. We are committed to improving the Sydney Kings as quickly as humanly possible. It’s a new start and I know the excitement will return. We are also in a very unique position in that we are grateful to those who have gone before us and made sure that the Sydney Kings are here. Now it’s beyond just keeping the Kings alive. We aim to get the Kings back where we believe they belong. The legacy and history of this club is immense – Mike Wrublewski, Bob Turner, Dwayne McClain, Tim Morrissey, Damian Keogh, the Daltons, the Goorjian era and many more – all made massive contributions to what is a great club. So we feel very privileged to be the group that now has the responsibility to add to that history. We’re incredibly enthusiastic about the Sydney Kings and we won’t rest until we’ve given this our absolute best effort. Article originally appeared via the Sydney Kings.
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