A few months ago, Hunter Sports Group had a great idea.
They invited all their ‘‘major stakeholders’’ – sponsors, members, Old Boys, the media and whoever else – to a series of brainstorming sessions to ponder a simple question: how can the Newcastle Knights become an outrageous success story?
When this columnist was asked to speak, I told the room I thought Nathan Tinkler already had the perfect blueprint.
He had signed the most successful coach in history, several top-tier players, slashed ticket prices and employed a host of experienced management types to ensure all was running smoothly behind the scenes.
I said that with Newcastle’s proven track record as a nursery, Bennett’s expertise and the club’s new-found capacity to supplement the ranks with big-name imports, there appeared no reason why the Knights could not establish themselves as a juggernaut.
‘‘If you can put a team out there who win premierships, that stadium will be sold out most weeks and the rest will take care of itself,’’ I said.
But the more I think about it, the more I realise it is not that simple.
And that fact was rammed home last week when I attended the club’s Hall of Fame dinner and watched a big-screen video that included footage of that 1997 celebration at Civic Park after the greatest grand final of them all.
The overwhelming passion and pride of the estimated 100,000 fans sent tingles down my spine. Again.
Such joy was not just the euphoria of victory. It was because supporters had forged an emotional attachment to the players who represented their community.
They did not just admire their achievements as a team, they loved them all as individuals.
Fifteen years down the track, can the same be said of their modern-day counterparts?
I have my doubts. Because fundamentally, before you grow to love someone, you have to get to know them.
And here we reach a dilemma that, with the utmost respect, can only be solved by one person.
Bennett’s reluctance to deal with the media is well documented and, if he doesn’t want to talk to us, that’s his call and I lose no sleep.
But when he tells Knights officials to restrict media access to players, and they comply, we have an issue.
I’m assuming it is a rare event for the great man to encounter someone telling him he has made a mistake.
But without wanting to appear rude, Wayne, you’ve got this one wrong. Big time.
For $1million a year, plus bonuses, there is an unwritten obligation for you to not just win games, but win hearts.
That won’t happen until the community grows to love the players. And nobody falls head over heels without first getting to know the other party.
Which is where the media come into the picture.
The Newcastle Herald and the Knights go way back, through good times and bad.
Before a ball was kicked in 1988, the Herald ran a promotion known as ‘‘Meet The Knights’’, introducing a motley crew of reserve-graders and bushies to the Novocastrian faithful.
The 1988 Herald Challenge Cup, in which the Knights famously beat premiers Manly, was the club’s first famous victory.
When Mark Sargent became the club’s first Kangaroo, it was the Herald who phoned him to break the news.
In 1997 and 2001, it was the Herald who followed the Knights every step of the way to the grand final. Same, too, in 2005 when they collected the wooden spoon.
When Kurt Gidley was chosen for his NRL debut, it was the Herald who captured the moment by visiting the teenage apprentice butcher at work.
By the same token, after the 2009 drugs scandal that led to Danny Wicks being jailed, it was the Herald who hammered Knights officials over their handling of the affair.
Every win, loss, triumph and tragedy. For 25 years.
You’d like to think that counts for something, but apparently not. These days, like everyone else, we stand in line waiting for whichever player has been allocated to talk to the media.
It’s like show and tell.
One week, for some reason, it was assumed we would have some interest in interviewing two reserve-graders. You can imagine how such contempt has gone down with every media organisation in town, especially when Knights officials still expect saturation coverage – and whinge when they don’t get it.
Bennett is apparently sticking to the mantra that he knows what it takes to be successful and players don’t need any distractions. I don’t buy any of that, unless someone can explain to me how a player – or a coach – doing a two-minute interview on a Monday will hinder on-field performances.
What seems to have been forgotten is that when a coach or player talks to the media, they are actually talking to their fans.
Stick a road block in front of the media, and you are actually dudding the people who pay their money at the turnstiles.
Remove that road block, HSG, and it is only a matter of time before the Knights become an outrageous success. Otherwise, they are just a team in blue and red trying to win games.
And the coach is just some bloke pocketing an absolute fortune before he heads back to his real home town.