New £4m sports arena 'within reach' for Sheffield Sharks - but political support is 'needed for final push'

A focus on community work and an eye for an opportunity have brought Sheffield's premier men's basketball club to the brink of a new £4 million home.

Sunday, 22nd October 2017, 7:09 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 4:24 am
Sheffield Sharks are 'within reach' of a 4 million arena.

Sheffield Sharks players have travelled across the city since the club's formation in 1994, with home games taking place at venues including the Arena and the English Institute of Sport.

But the Sharks could soon take full control of their own destiny with a move to the Olympic Legacy Park in Attercliffe.

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The club has already secured 70 per cent of the £4 million in needs to build the 2,500-seat indoor sports arena on the old Don Valley Stadium site.

That money comes from one investor, the Unity Trust Bank, and talks with others to fill the remaining 30 per cent are ongoing.

The venue, known as the Park Community Arena, will also be used by pupils from the neighbouring Oasis Academy Don Valley, in order to fill Sheffield Council's legal obligation to provide sports facilities.

But the authority is keen to see progress, and on Wednesday cabinet members set a deadline of the end of this month for an agreement 'in order to guarantee progress'.

The arena will be built at the Olympic Legacy Park in Attercliffe.

What this means for the Sharks is unclear. Director Sarah Backovic said the project was 'within reach' but needed the backing of the city in order to make it happen.

"What we need to do is galvanise support," she said.

"We just need some profile and help to get it over the line. We need the councillors involved in that ward to really get behind it and support these sports. We don’t want to see the Sharks or the Eagles disappear.

"It’s political support that we need."

Director Sarah Backovic

Sheffield Eagles rugby league club confirmed its return to Sheffield and the Olympic Legacy Park, or OLP, earlier this month. The Eagles had hoped to build a stadium around the outdoor 3G pitch in order to maximise potential revenue, but the OLP board and the council decided instead to go with Sheffield United owner Kevin McCabe's Scarborough Group.

The Eagles will still play at the McCabe-developed stadium but will be a tenant and will share with Sheffield United Ladies.

Ms Backovic said the Eagles 'shouldn't be disappointed' with the stadium plan. But she said it was key for the Sharks to be able to build and operate the indoor arena.

"We have played at EIS and the Arena. But we are just customers paying for the use of the court," she said.

The club is focusing on its community work.

"It’s not inexpensive. It’s making money for other people and not being able to make money for ourselves."

Despite the relative popularity of basketball in the UK, the Sharks have never been able to rely on ticket sales or television income to keep the club going long-term.

Their British Basketball League matches were at one point shown on Sky Sports 1 on Saturday nights, but that collapsed when the rights were sold to doomed broadcaster ITV Digital.

That took the sport into 'shaky times', said Ms Backovic.

"We decided that we needed to focus much more on the community than we did," she added.

"We knew it would be the only way of surviving and sustaining a way forward.

Players at the site before work began.

"We don’t have the capability of football that we expect people to buy a ticket and we don’t have the marketing ability of the Steelers (ice hockey team). For us the community was the answer.

"We had to get out and do projects to engage with the community and get people to watch the sport. Our problem was getting people to spectate and enjoy it.

"All clubs in the Premier League adopted the same strategy.

"It’s the best way round to doing it."

That community work has included employing a teacher and setting up a classroom, which now operates five days a week from Wosskow Brown's office in Attercliffe Road.

The club focuses on 'disengaged' youngsters from poorer backgrounds - something many of its players can relate to.

"For us it was a perfect fit," said Ms Backovic.

"Basketball is mostly played by black and ethnic minority kids. It’s mostly American-based athletes. As a consequence their struggle has been real to get to where they are. They come from poorer areas, where the only way out is to play sport.

"We got into the philosophy and used it to engage disengaged people.

"You don’t have to be academic. You can be whoever, and you can get through this and contribute positively to society."

The aim is to include the classroom in the new arena, overlooking the court to give an obvious route of progression.

And although the continued success of the Sharks' first team is one factor in the move to a new home, the club's directors have a broader vision for the future.

"What we really want to achieve is a legacy. But we want a real facility for community-based clubs," said Ms Backovic.

This could also include Sheffield Hatters, the city's biggest women's basketball team.

"If you are not football, the chances are you are not going to own your own facilities," she added. "A lot of community-based clubs can’t afford to operate.

"We wanted to provide a facility that could sustain those clubs - including the Sharks."

The club could have sought grants but did not want to be tied down by caveats, so chose the private funding route. Of the £4 million cost, £2.8 million will come from Unity Trust Bank, a lender initially backed by trade unions that supports community projects.

"We are trying to create a commercially-viable community sports-based facility that offers the community that it’s in a real place to go and enjoy sport," said Ms Backovic.

"It’s about drawing in other clubs. We know they want it because they have spoken to us. Every sport you could think of has made contact.

"We tried to strike a realistic business plan that would give an affordable rate and accept that elements of it are going to be free to use to the community, because they wouldn’t be able to afford anything.

"It has to work."

The club is also keen to work with the other OLP partners such as Sheffield Hallam University, which is building a £14 million research centre, and Toshiba.

Ms Backovic said the work done at the OLP would be 'phenomenal'.

"And what we could benefit from in terms of research and development for athletes is mind-blowing," she added.

"Identifying what injuries could be before you have got them. It feels like Star Trek.

"We are partnering with Toshiba in a community project. We are talking about putting players through heart testing for the deficiencies that are showing up in more athletes."

Don Valley Stadium, built for the World Student Games and the first attempt to regenerate Attercliffe after the steelworks closed, is still mourned by some. But Ms Backovic hopes the OLP will have an even bigger impact, both on the local area and Sheffield as a whole.

"We have taken Don Valley down to create something better," she said. "Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get behind that as a project?"

The arena will be built at the Olympic Legacy Park in Attercliffe.
Director Sarah Backovic
The club is focusing on its community work.
Players at the site before work began.