Stu Jackson, the new President of Basketball Operations for Elan Bearnais, shared his vision with BasketNews regarding the new era of the historic French club, after its takeover by an American investment group.

Over the last months, a renowned albeit struggling French club has been enjoying some media spotlight. Elan Bearnais Pau-Lacq-Orthez, formerly known as simply Pau Orthez, has a new ownership scheme. In contrast to the overwhelming majority of basketball organizations in the "old continent", their management is not populated by Europeans.

The American-based company Counterpointe Sports Group (CSG) has taken the reins and is aiming to not only restore the club's past glory but also to lead the squad to new heights. Elan Bearnais finished 11th in the French League's regular season last year. For a club that has won the championship nine times and has recorded 31 consecutive participations (1977-2008) in Pan-European competitions, registering only 7 wins was nothing short of disappointing.

But now there is a new boss in town. Counterpointe Sports is a for-profit privately owned company headquartered in Seattle, Washington that provides finance, management, marketing, and real estate development services to maximize the value of professional sports organizations. Its management consists of a team of executives who have more than ninety years of collective experience in the professional sports industry. Among them, legendary coach Rick Pitino, Stu Jackson, former coach, GM, and NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, and Jamal Mashburn, ex-player who had a successful NBA career spanning 12 years.

The three men have been close for more than 30 years. Pitino (68) a two-time NCAA champion with Kentucky and Louisville, made his way to Europe and Panathinaikos for two separate stints between 2018 and 2020, before returning to college ball with Iona. Jackson (65) worked as an assistant to Pitino from 1985 to 1987 at Providence and followed him to the New York Knicks in 1987. Two years later, he succeeded his mentor, becoming the second-youngest head coach in NBA history at 33. Mashburn (48) played under Pitino at Kentucky from 1990 to 1993.

This development marks the beginning of a new cycle for the French club, now partially owned by the American group of investors, which is not the only "overseas" ownership in France. The Paris Basketball club has been under the control of former Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations David Kahn since 2018. While Paris Basketball had to return to France's first division, Elan Bearnais seems in a much better position. "The tradition and legacy of success in Pau were very attractive to us," Stu Jackson told BasketNews.

The experienced exec flew over to Pau on August 26, to meet players and staff of Elan Bearnais during their first week of training camp and familiarize himself with the city. He will be back in the States shortly and from this point forward, he will be traveling to France "as much as my schedule will allow, or as needed. I've been very involved with the club for the past four months, digitally and virtually. I will continue to do so, but I'd like to travel here as much as possible. Actually, Greg Heuss, our CEO and co-founder, and David Otto, our president, are planning to be here for the opening game on October 2. They will be going back and forth between France and the States during the season."

In terms of the persons involved in the project, the former President and General Manager of the Vancouver Grizzlies will oversee the basketball operations. Tom Huston from CSG is the new GM, while two Frenchmen, David Bonnemason-Carrere and Dominique Loueilh will act as president and sports director, respectively. As for the other two significant players, Rick Pitino and Jamal Mashburn are there to consult with the club's board on an as-needed basis.

"One of the key areas that we would like for Rick Pitino to consult with us is the youth academy in helping us develop and implement a players' skill development program. He is the best skill developer on the planet, which speaks to the fact that regardless of where he is and what players he has, they tend to perform at a much higher level than people think. Actually, we intended to get Iona for a game or two in France, but it became logistically problematic because the trip was originally scheduled for Greece," Jackson confided.

Taking over a professional team in France was not a hard task for the investment group, since they were searching and evaluating various international sports properties. "When the opportunity with Elan Bearnais presented itself, we felt it was a good project. We signed a letter of intent to undergo our own due diligence and a month later, both sides agreed to close on the deal," a backstory that led to an investment explained Jackson.

The new ownership has set the bar high, as one would expect. However, there are also some short-term goals to be accomplished: "For the basketball team, our primary goal is to improve on our performance and standing of last season. Secondly, from this point forward, we want to be able to be in the hunt for the French championship. Thirdly, our more lofty goal is to have a team participating in European competitions: Champions League, EuroCup, EuroLeague, the highest level that we can attain."

Apart from the sports factor, it's a project based on site management and real estate development as well. It includes the complete management of the Palais des Sports in Pau (with a capacity of 7,700 spectators), which will not only enhance the basketball experience but will also host events and activities throughout the year. Not too bad for this humble club from a village of 12,000 people at the foot of the Pyrenees, credited for the formation of former NBA players Boris Diaw and Mickael Pietrus.

"The arena and the opportunity to build a project based on sustainability was a strategy that the mayor, the city, and Counterpointe Sports Group were aligned with. This is more than simply purchasing a basketball team. It's about developing a project that will enhance the sports area around the arena. It wasn't simply about the basketball team," Jackson explained.

The initial press release of CounterPointe Sports Group mentioned that "while we cannot guarantee the number of victories the club will receive, we will significantly increase the club’s budget and strive to recruit the best possible team." Francois Bayrou, the mayor of Pau, recently said that the club's budget will be increased to seven million euros.

Nevertheless, Jackson provides a more general outline: "I don't want to talk about specific numbers, but by way of example, this year our budget significantly increased over last year's. Because of that, we could attract more quality players to the club, which we hope will result in better performance over the course of the season."

The CSG will invest heavily in the youth academy to attract and develop the best young talent from France, Europe, Africa and the United States. "If through that development, they develop into NBA players of the likes of Diaw, Pietrus and Mahinmi, even better," he said.


One of the most interesting aspects of this venture is its participative nature. CounterPointe Sports Co-Founder David Otto is an advocate of tokenization that could provide liquidity to minority owners and enable a broader range of investors to secure an ownership interest in a professional sports team. The concept is simple: creating a digital version of one's interest in an asset allows it to be transformed into a liquid, tradable digital contract. These digital contracts are referred to as tokens that are kept and transferred from user to user on a designated blockchain platform.

Otto believes that tokenization enables fans, sponsors, communities, and other interested parties to participate in the growth, development, and value derived from professional sports franchises, including those in the NBA. Not only because it grants access to economic benefits of any given sports team, but also because it "creates liquidity for both minority and majority owners by allowing market participants to buy and sell team tokens."

Stu Jackson is another avid supporter of the idea. "We want to utilize crypto-currency as a mechanism to not only engage fans but provide them with the opportunity to have ownership. Fans in Pau are very loyal and enthusiastic, but to give them partial ownership of the team, we feel will raise their level of emotional and practical investment in the club. After we clear the regulatory obstacles in the country, we're hoping to issue tokens by the time of this calendar year or the beginning of next. Up to which percentage, we do not know just yet," he conceded.

Some weeks ago, Rick Pitino told BasketNews that he had looked into the ownership of certain teams in Europe. Jackson confirmed that "over the course of the past year we've looked into football clubs in Germany and Italy, even low-level cricket clubs. Our group is a sports management group, not simply for basketball. We feel that we can transplant our group and our skill in projects of various sports. For the last 12 months, we've been primarily zeroed in on our club here in Pau."

Pitino also stated that the group first tried to find a team in Greece but was unable to spot the right one. Jackson added that he couldn't name the club out of respect, but originally, their first evaluation of a basketball club was in Greece. "It was 15-16 months ago. But because the team decided not to sell its interest, we moved on to other opportunities. With that being said, we haven't given up on any market throughout Europe. Our focus is to take our ownership model (of permitting fans to have ownership in the team by the distribution of digital tokens) across various sports after we implement it successfully in Pau," explained Stu Jackson.

Credit Elan Bearnais

Stu Jackson has become familiar with the European basketball landscape. He believes that describing it as a place that does not encourage investment is only partially correct. "The overwhelming majority of sports franchises across the planet, including the NBA, don't make money. Most teams only realize the benefits of their investment only after many years of increasing the team's evaluation and when they sell. But selling a team to take advantage of the current evaluation is not a great way to run a business. When you get into professional sports ownership, you're doing it for the love of the game and you'll hopefully break-even as to make a little money and steward a franchise at a level where it becomes better than when you acquired it. That's why you get in. We're not going to get rich off of it."

Before the chance to invest in the French club, the group had some "exhaustive conversations with many people, including EuroLeague, EuroCup, and Basketball Champions League teams to just learn and listen how to approach our project with our best foot forward," Jackson recalled.

One potential problem for any investor was the fact that the EuroLeague has turned into a largely closed-off competition, featuring almost the same teams every year. This particular factor, which can limit some clubs' ambitions and aspirations, does not deter Jackson nor the group because "opportunities change, the sports landscape changes. One day, we will have to prove ourselves worthy, but the upside is that by that time we're going to be a pretty good basketball team. While today we may say the EuroLeague is closed off, no one knows what tomorrow holds. If you wait until the EuroLeague is open - and your aspirations are to join- it's too late! We have to start building now," he pointed out.

In this vein, the recent example of ASVEL Basket becoming a member of the EuroLeague and raising the stakes provides a beam of light for any up-and-coming team that wants to aim higher, according to Jackson. "Congratulations to them, I admire how they've built themselves over the past five years. They are an inspiration to us. I knew Tony Parker as a player and I always admired him greatly. But I also came to know him as being a very smart man. His competitiveness, his perseverance, and his savvy have really shone through at Lyon. They are a club that we aspire to be."

Another issue is how Elan Bearnais can aspire to greatness, beginning from such humble origins: "By making decisions very diligently, having the perseverance over years to improve," Jackson replied. "That's what we intend to do; not only to improve the team, but build a project, which is a wonderful opportunity, and improve the facilities over time. We will then have an asset that's worth more than in the beginning. If the basketball portion of that continues to improve, we believe that we can be the gold standard, throughout Europe, of franchises and their relationship with the city."

Stu Jackson had been on the Board of Directors of USA Basketball’s men’s national team committee for several years, until 2012. Almost ten years after his term was over, he acknowledged that his most important takeaway has been "the meteoric improvement of basketball around the world. The rest of the world is getting better - and that's good for the game. The USA had dominated basketball globally for many decades, but as you look forward - and the recent Olympics is evidence- France is the biggest threat to USA dominance. It's because of the large number of young, athletic, and skilled players that France has."

After the advent of the three Dream Teams from 1992 through 1996, international competitions have treated USA Basketball with a lot of upsets. The 65-year-old executive thinks that the rest of the world is not looking at the USA team in awe anymore. "Since 2004, there hasn't been one World Cup or Olympic Games competition, where the USA have not faced some pretty serious adversity, as opposed to 1992 when the Dream Team ran through the entire competition, beating everybody by 30 and 40 points. Eventually, one of the other countries will beat the USA. It may be Greece, Italy, Turkey, Spain, or France. Each one of those countries used to come with their NT void of NBA players. Now, they have multiple NBA players who are familiar with USA players. Another advantage is that many of them have played together on national teams from their youth days. That's not always the case with US teams."

Credit Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Despite the fact that the USA have always been primarily focused on the Olympics, some interest in the World Cup still remains, according to Stu Jackson: "There's a cultural difference. In the USA, while I was growing up, the Olympics were always the most highlighted competition and the World Cup was not. That's slowly changing. For example, players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and LeBron James have played in both competitions. So, there's a recognition of how important both competitions are on the world stage. That cultural divide is now closed."

Last January, Rick Pitino said that the group was looking for a way to bring back the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA. Jackson revealed that the venture is "no longer in our sight. Who knows when that will happen? The NBA has neither made the decision to expand the number of teams nor have they made a decision that any of the current teams would be eligible for moving. Right now, a team in Seattle - at least, for our group - is nothing more than a distant dream."

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