Newcastle Panthers: New venue. New members. New dawn.

30th March 2020

Newcastle Panthers: New venue. New members. New dawn.

‘Bittersweet’ – that’s how Sue Sowden describes the decision Newburn Volleyball Club took in 2019 to relocate after 14 years. Newburn Activity Centre, a sports hall set on the edge of a country park, had been known by members as home since the club’s early beginnings. The 1-court venue was small – but so was the club –and the facility owners had always been accommodating and supportive.

“Newburn had really helped us out,” says Sue, Club Secretary, who, with her husband Keith, established Newburn VC in 2005. “When we first set up the club, I contacted god knows how many venues and I heard back from 2 – and Newburn was one of them. It was hard to leave, we’ve been there for several years and they’ve been really good to us, but we knew we had to grow as a club.”

And it wasn’t any old venue the club settled on moving into. Professional basketball side Newcastle Eagles, the most successful team in British basketball history, were building a multi-million-pound sports arena, and they wanted to share the space with Newburn VC.

Another big draw was the opportunity to move closer to the city centre. To attend a match or training session in Newburn, a semi-rural parish on the outskirts of Newcastle, members travelling from the city without a car had to either take a 25 minutes bus journey followed by a 15-minute walk or rely on someone else to pick them up and drop them off.  Not the biggest of barriers, you might think, but nevertheless it was still an issue.

Thanks to a Sport England grant, the club successfully moved into its new home when the Eagles Community Centre opened in January 2019, slashing the previous journey for members from the city in half while also increasing their playing and training space. To mark this huge milestone and better reflect its new home, the club was renamed Newcastle Panthers VC.

Growing pains

It’s fair to say the decision to move 5 miles down the road has been an overwhelmingly successful one. In fact, it’s caught the club a little off guard and presented them with a string of new – though not altogether unwelcome – problems.

Instead of 3 teams, the club now has 5: White Panthers and Black Panthers (both men’s sides), Scarlett Panthers and Pink Panthers (both women’s sides) and Panthers Cubs (junior men’s), all of which meet on Tuesday nights for training. Add those squads together and there are more than 100 club members, which is double the size of the membership at Newburn.

“We’re not panicking, but we’re already outgrowing the space we have at the Eagles Community Arena and are having to think about how we’re going to cope with all of this demand,” says Sue. “It’s a 3-court venue but currently we’re not able to put volleyball holes in the middle court because that’s the Eagles’ basketball show court for big matches. They’ve got netball posts at either end, so what we’re doing at the moment is using the netball posts to put up a longer net.”

Asked what’s led to the influx, Sue says the club hasn’t been actively recruiting new members. “A lot of it is through word of mouth,” she adds. “Also, when you google ‘Newcastle Volleyball’, we’re the first one to come up, so we’ve been contacted by people looking for Newcastle Staffs VC in Newcastle-under-Lyme and even clubs in Newcastle, Australia!

“I think the reason our club works and others are struggling is that we have never allowed people to be precious about their place on the team. So, anybody that’s coming to us knows that we’re going to feed juniors or beginners in, whereas other clubs are set with their 6 or 8 players. We’ve never been like that. Our mission statement has always been about bringing players through.”

This welcoming approach has led to the club attracting players of different backgrounds. The youngest member is 10 years-old, while the oldest is 60, and there are more than 40 different nationalities represented in the membership including Lithuanian Paulius Rasiukas.

“I would definitely say the club has made me feel part of the community,” says Paulius, who has always played volleyball, but never with a club, prior to joining Newcastle in September. “Even though it's my 8th year in the UK, I’ve mostly been studying or working at university as a researcher. I’ve always felt welcomed and part of the Newcastle educational system, if I can say like that, but Newcastle VC has made we feel part of the city itself. I’ve got to meet a lot of new people and appreciated that a lot of different people can be brought together by the same passion – volleyball.”

 

Nations represented in the Newcastle VC membership:

Algeria, Belarus, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Ecuador, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sudan, Taiwan, Uganda and USA.

 

Another ‘growing pain’ caused by the club’s growth spurt is the access to enough coaches and referees. As well as organising Level 1 Coaching and Level 4 Refereeing courses, the club has found success in putting the onus on players to step up or find someone to fill their shoes if they’re unable to.

“Rather than me being the person in charge of it all, what I’m trying to do is to make it a club that belongs to everybody,” says Sue.

Tips and takeaways

One of the biggest headaches that had to be overcome in the planning stages of moving venues was raising enough funds to finance it, particularly as facility hire costs were significantly higher.

A club committee was formed to oversee the project and support decisions and, as well as introducing standing orders for member fees – a change of approach from the weekly cash payments – the club decided to apply for a Sport England grant.

Sue adds: “We found the process of an application for a Sport England small grant quite a lengthy and detailed task. We read every piece of guidance we could find and kept returning to the application again and again.

“We found writing and completing the delivery plan provided by Volleyball England to be a huge help and would advise anyone to do this if they are thinking of applying. Also, make sure you have all the necessary paperwork, sponsors and letters of support in place before you start the application. There are a lot of guidance notes provided and most councils and Volleyball England are experienced in the process.”

With the help of Rob Payne, Core Market Coordinator at Volleyball England; Vicki Carr, Project Delivery Team Lead at Volleyball England; as well as local representatives from Tyne and Wear Sport, Newcastle VC successfully applied for £9,125 for promotion and publicity, facility hire, equipment, and coaching and refereeing course costs.

“Applying for the Sport England grant took a massive amount of work,” says Sue. “And the move was a big risk too, but sometimes you have to take that risk.”

Helping further with club finances, Newcastle VC recently welcomed Gateshead-based office equipment supplier SOS Group on board as a sponsor thanks to the company’s connection to a club member. This partnership has already allowed the club to provide its 5 teams with new kit.

The next chapter

The Newcastle Panthers may have only recently celebrated the 1st anniversary of the move into its new home, but it is already planning for what comes next as the club seeks to grow further.

“Initially, we are trying to secure more time at the venue, so that we can develop the junior side,” Sue adds. “Before we would just integrate the juniors into everything that we did, now we’ve got quite a few of them we need to do something specifically for them.

“Another thing is to form a better link with the National Volleyball League to show the journey that the kids can make, that they can get to that level.

“We also want to set up a sitting volleyball team, but we haven’t got to that stage yet.”

Things have significantly changed for Newcastle VC since their move to the Eagles Community Arena and, if the momentum they’ve built up continues, the club could yet soar even higher.

Newcastle Panthers: New venue. New members. New dawn.