INTERVIEW: Glasgow Rocks owner Duncan Smillie

Adorning the feature wall of his office is a custom designed canvas portrait of Michael Jordan with Glasgow’s skyline providing a picturesque backdrop, hand-crafted by his good friend. At 7x4ft it’s not far off the dimensions of his club’s biggest player.

Overlooking the stadium of his beloved Celtic, Glasgow Rocks owner Duncan Smillie is a new tenant in his glass office on the top floor of the Emirates Arena, but he plans on making it a home as he looks to scale the heights of the British Basketball League.

After taking over Scotland’s only professional basketball team in April, the Glaswegian millionaire has wasted no time in setting the ball rolling on the franchise’s summer of revolution.

Having made his fortune in the technology industry, Smillie looked to sport to provide the stimulus needed to whet the appetite of his business brain after earning his coin down in England.

He said: “I wanted to work in something that I really enjoyed and loved. I knew that was sport, but I would be lying if I said that was basketball. I wanted to get an into a sport and I got a look at the Rocks from a fan’s perspective and absolutely loved it.

“I was introduced through some community work I was doing in Glasgow. I was fortunate enough from a business perspective that I was done with the chief executive and managing director jobs.

“It’s my nature that I can’t just get partially involved in something, I need to go all in. The timing was good for it in that Ian Reid, my predecessor, was looking to sell his shares and retire.”

Smillie is a recent convert to the sport but since immersing himself in the operational side of the Rocks he has developed a passion hitherto reserved for football, saying it is “taking over his life”.

“I don’t have another job. There are a couple of other boards I sit on as a non-executive director but I am here most days and I want to be hands on. The general manager runs things day-to-day and doesn’t need help, so I’m focusing on how we make the club more visible in the city and how we can raise more cash.

“It’s been good for me to come in and get my feet under the table while we’re not actually playing games so my priority was to get some more money that we can put on the court and into the team to make us more successful.”

In a city with two sporting behemoths in Celtic and Rangers, the ingrained culture is difficult to break for teams attempting to challenge the rite of passage between generations by attracting them to a minority sport.

Glasgow Warriors’ profile has grown drastically in recent years, as has Braehead Clan’s, showing that perceived class and geographical confinements are eroding in modern society when it comes to participation in sport.

Glasgow Rocks’ work with Scottish Sports Futures in delivering educational programmes to primary schools sees the club engage with tens of thousands of pupils, a key component of the club’s identity Smillie is looking to nurture.

He said: “It was part of Ian Reid’s philosophy and is part of the club’s DNA. Our players are contractually obliged to deliver a minimum of six hours work a week through coaching, mentoring, fitness, health and diet to kids in and around Glasgow. That is an income stream for us too but any potential player has to sign up to that, it’s not an option.”

Enticing those youngsters to attend games is needed to secure the next wave of Rocks supporters, but promoting to the general public what captain Kieron Achara described as a “hidden gem” is of paramount importance.

The recent £500k deal with Forrest Group Media which will see the basketball team’s adverts beamed on their CityScreens outside places like Central Station and the Hydro is a huge step in increasing the club’s exposure.

“The guys at Forrest have been genuine partners with us. The sort of visibility and advertising they’re giving us, in pure cash terms, is something that we couldn’t afford.  It would be beyond our wildest dreams to have thirteen or fourteen images with our images up there every day is really exciting and that should raise awareness around that.

“Hopefully we should see our number on social media increase but, ultimately, more people coming to games is what it’s been put in place for. If we can’t get more fans in as a result of being in front of the whole city for the week then I’d be both surprised and disappointed.”

A contingent of the Rocks’ fanbase voiced concerns over the motivation of Smillie’s purchase, especially after the sacking of long-term coach Sterling Davis, but the swift appointment of the reputable coach, Tony Garbelotto, has installed renewed belief, with season ticket sales on track to be the best recorded yet.

General Manager for the last seven years, Dan Bajwoluk, attested to the gear change the club has undergone in recent months, outlining how the club has progressed from a basis of simply staying afloat to the current burgeoning ambitions.

Smillie is backing the club to have their own Andy Murray-style breakthrough in the near future after so many glorious failures, but wants trophies on the mantelpiece to show for his investment.

“I hate losing. I’m on record from day one as saying that I want us to win silverware. Anecdotally, we’ve been in nine finals and lost nine finals and that has to change. So, in terms of my expectations this year, I’d be looking for at least a top-four finish in the championship, which gives us a good position in the play-offs to hopefully go far, and to win one of the cups. It’s been too long for us not to win something and I haven’t come here not to be successful.

“I think that’s the next big thing for us, to start winning stuff and for people to see that as we’ll get good media coverage off the back of that and I think that’s when people start getting more involved: when they see us as not just being a nice club doing the right things, but that we’re actually pretty successful, regularly finishing in the top league places.

“We’ve not been able to convert that into silverware, but with the new coach, the back office team and some extra revenue it allows us to put more depth into our squad, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be winning things.

“I’m chomping at the bit to get going.”

Featured image credit – Flickr user Håkan Dahlström