As president and CEO of Saint John Pro Basketball, Scott VanWart has a busy and exciting season ahead of him, not only building a team, but also getting the fans out to enjoy what pro basketball has to offer. Photo: Colin McPhail
The social dividend of Saint John’s pro basketball team valued by group
Keeping minor pro basketball alive and well in Saint John is a big job. Luckily, a group of 21 passionate and dedicated residents have stepped up, with Scott VanWart as volunteer leader, to ensure the community has great pro basketball and role models in their midst.
As president and CEO of Saint John Pro Basketball, Scott has a busy and exciting season ahead of him, not only building a team, but also getting the fans out to enjoy what pro basketball has to offer. I started our conversation by asking Scott about the origins of the team and the new ownership structure.
A: The team originally came here in 2010. It was a franchise that migrated from Manchester, N.H. – the Manchester Mill Rats – and (then) the Saint John Mill Rats. It became part of what is the National Basketball League of Canada. Back then, I was just a fan with season tickets. I grew up on the west side and played basketball my whole life.
Q: Tell me about the current owners.
A: The original owners started to look locally for some investments and financial support. A group of 21 local business folks injected some funds into the team. That kept the team going for another two years.
By the wrap of the 2016 season, the organization was in debt with no ability to move forward in its current state, but the local group stepped up and took over because we felt that basketball could survive here in Saint John.
We all felt strongly it was important it stayed here in the city. A lot of positive things are happening in Saint John and we felt the Mill Rats were making a substantial contribution to the community.
Q: Were there other factors you considered when stepping in to save the team?
A: The Mill Rats were having an impact – the president of the KV Basketball Association has noticed that more kids are playing and attributed the rise in the overall level of basketball to having professional basketball locally.
Also significant, there are a number of folks in our business group who grew up here in Saint John and went to the Saint John YMCA. While a lot of their friends growing up went in different directions, they went to the YMCA every day and played basketball. They’re all successful today and a lot of them attribute some of that success to basketball and the YMCA.
Q: So you feel that having a pro basketball team in Saint John also helps inspire local kids in positive ways?
A: What’s great is our players have a unique ability to connect with some of the youth in our priority neighbourhoods. Some of them are from similar neighbourhoods throughout the United States. They’re guys that have been able to continue their education based on their ability to play basketball. They’ve got the cool factor. So kids are willing to talk with them and connect with them.
We know that we can leverage our players, our team and some of that cool factor to get those kids in the door at the YMCA, playing basketball. It’s a positive thing if we can get some of those kids into the YMCA.
Q: What’s different about the team this year?
A: I think just the fact that this is now Saint John’s team. It’s 100 per cent locally owned, 100 per cent locally managed and run. When I go out and talk to our corporate partners, that makes a difference. I think in some ways the old organization got off on the wrong foot.
Q: What makes the experience of watching basketball different than other forms of entertainment?
A: I think fundamentally the draw for us is the entertainment value that basketball games can provide. You can get two feet away from the players. There’s an intimacy you can’t get with a lot of other sports. The big thing for us – and it’s what we’re working on with our corporate sponsors – is that overall in-game entertainment value.
Q: What will you do to build attendance?
A: We have to expand that entertainment value and have a family come and leave not really sure of the score, but having had a lot of fun – and feel excited to come back. So it’s about the half-time show. It’s about T-shirt guns and just making sure that families leave with a smile on their face.
Q: What are you finding is the biggest challenge right now?
A: We need to let folks know and understand that this really is Saint John’s team now and we want their feedback. We want involvement from our fans and we take that seriously and apply that to what we’re doing.
The other challenge is time. I’m a volunteer. The rest of our executives are volunteers. So it’s trying to find that time to go out and connect with the corporate sponsors that are helping us. So, it’s to get out in front of them and tell them how valuable they are to us.
Q: What do you want to communicate to the corporate community?
A: Give us a chance. Reach out. We want corporate and business leaders to look at the contribution we make to Saint John as a whole from an economic standpoint, from a vibrancy standpoint and how we are making this a desirable city. I think it’s broader than that actually, there is a contribution in some of the priority neighbourhoods. We can leverage the sport of basketball and our players to help get kids involved with the sport and more.
Q: I understand that the team is working hard to reach kids in need?
A: The team is partnered with the YMCA on the Basketball and Books program. Last year, the team gave away over 100 brand new pairs of sneakers to kids who spent the day at a basketball camp called“The Rumble in the Station.”
There are lots of things that we want to do and we think we can be a vehicle to reach kids in need and connect with them. Of course we do need corporate support to do these things effectively.
Q: What are your fans saying about the team?
A: There is one constant reaction I get from our fans, it’s that they love the product. The quality of basketball is unparalleled in New Brunswick, probably in Canada, honestly. We need to get more folks to come out and at least try it. Give us a shot, come out try it and support what we’re doing. As investors, we never talked about a financial dividend or return. It’s the social dividend – it’s about seeing the team just stay here.
Q: What is the best way for people to learn more?
A: On Facebook, you can find us under Saint John Pro Basketball and our website is up now, SJProBasketball.ca. dave Veale
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This article published in the Telegraph-Journal on Saturday, October 28, 2016.