The FFA aren’t interested in the football played in the A League. What they are interested in is numbers. Numbers of people through the gate, the profit/loss ratio of clubs and the amount they have to pay to keep those clubs going. Their ultimate aim is to have self-sufficient clubs with a wide support base creating profit which can be invested into the footballing infrastructure of the FFA, with the self-sufficient franchises providing elite level Academies and pathways into the senior game for all the other clubs. All of this, of course, for the benefit of Australian players and the Australian game.
Which of course, brings us to Wellington Phoenix. The Nix are a well run franchised club who have survived longer than any other New Zealand cross-Tasman effort, in part because they’re not called the Football Kingz or the NZ Knights. Looking at those names, it’s amazing someone OK’d them. The Nix have an academy, a reserve team playing in the ASB Premiership and are competitive in the A League. They don’t need the FFA to pay wages or run the club, like Brisbane Roar or Newcastle Jets. But what they need is a license. And they’re not getting one.
Other clubs have been granted 20 year licenses, even those being run by the FFA. But the Nix, apparently, aren’t meeting enough of the ‘metrics’ required of them. Because the FFA are interested in numbers, but looking at numbers in isolation often leads to perverse and completely stupid outcomes.
Viewing football as a profitable market does make sense. There’s certainly money to be made from creating a product whose users will purchase a new shirt each year, buy season tickets and funnel money through catering outlets at stadia. Even better, there’s a goldmine in broadcasting rights if you can create a product that stimulates enough demand and interest that, eventually, the balance tips towards the TV viewer and away from the people who actually go to the game.
If you view the A League franchise locations as markets, then it’s clear there’s some imbalance. Sydney, who have just the one Super Rugby side pulling in 27,000 as a maximum attendance in the regular season, now have two A League sides whose combined gates average over 30,000. That’s from a population of 4.2 million people. Football is bigger in Sydney than rugby is. Right?
So, let’s look at New Zealand. Population 4.4 million. Looking at it in comparison with Sydney, the Phoenix average gate last season of 8,639 looks terrible. But that’s a completely absurd comparison. Sydney’s big, but it’s not two big islands and lots of small ones connected by, to be quite honest, far too much beautiful scenery. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Frank Lowy, Lowy Jnr and David Gallop view New Zealand as one homogenous market, and one that the Wellington Phoenix is not sufficiently exploiting for their profit.
It started with a refusal to grant more than a 4 year license to the Phoenix. It turned into accusations that the Phoenix weren’t meeting their obligations, which drew outright fury from their fellow franchised clubs who recognised that the Phoenx are one of the better run clubs in the league. Then the ‘metrics’ argument was launched, citing poor TV revenues (negotiated by the FFA) and poor attendances (based on the overall NZ population, rather than the 204,000 of Wellington). Phoenix were accused of ‘squatting on the license’, which brings us to the nub of the problem.
The Wellington Phoenix, and its owners the WelNix group, have put on an absolute masterclass in running a professional football club to a budget in a country where football has never been the number one sport. They’re a well run club who have excellent community links, a youth structure and a growing presence in New Zealand culture. Except the A League isn’t like the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga. Instead, it’s a lot more insecure. Because the clubs are wholly reliant on the FFA’s blessing for their continued existence, a blessing that is only ensured by keeping the FFA happy. And what do the FFA want? Yes, they want money.
If this is sounding familiar, go and watch the flashback scenes from The Godfather Part 2 and ask yourself, when Lowy next releases a statement, if he doesn’t do a good impression of Don Fanucci asking if he can wet his beak. His statements this week have conceded that Phoenix is a well run club, but then placed the burden on stakeholders to contribute more. His beak must be awfully dry.
Stakeholders in this case include Sky Sports NZ, who hold A League rights in NZ. The terms of that deal were struck by the FFA, but it’s now the Phoenix who has to make it better. It also includes the New Zealand football association, the NZF, putting us in a bizarre situation where the FFA who are able to literally pay for two clubs to exist is asking another football association to pay for a club that is financially sound, in order that the FFA have more money to, probably, prop up the clubs within their association which are failing. This is particularly odd, given that it’d be a relationship that the FFA could terminate at any time, by revoking the license. Would NZF be willing to risk pouring capital into something which could literally be taken from them by a rival football association?
The shift in rhetoric from the FFA is seen as concessionary, but they’ve conceded very little ground at all. From refusing the license based on accusations of not doing enough, only to be met with criticism, they’ve recalibrated their argument to take aim at organisations that WelNix already have dealings with. That’s not a good thing, because it means that they’ve recognised they can’t ditch the Phoenix on the running of the club, but can create impossible demands that must be met between organisations like Sky NZ and NZF and the Phoenix. If the Phoenix successfully renegotiate the FFA’s deal with Sky Sports, and get a commitment of more money from NZF, I worry that Lowy, Lowy Jnr and Gallop have already indicated their next set of demands.
Like I said, the FFA see New Zealand as one market. They want access to that market through the Phoenix, which means expanding the brand. So even if the TV deal is done, the NZF commit to more money there’s a futureghost of the NZ Nix to contend with. Phoenix have, in the past, played games in Auckland, Christchurch and Manawatu. I can easily see a demand being laid down of multiple games being played away from Wellington per season. Which would be terrible for supporters, players and the whole idea of a football club.
If anything the situation Phoenix find themselves in reveals the artificial nature of the A League and the very precarious nature of the clubs competing in it. I say clubs, because they have become clubs, they have grown into being clubs through the hard work of the administrators and the dedication and devotion of the supporters. But underneath all of the passion, the shirts whirling around heads, the emotions of a last minute winner or the fury at a referee’s decision lurk the FFA. They don’t see the blood thumping through the game, the love and hate which accompanies the growth of something you can’t purchase. No, they only see the numbers. The cold, lifeless numbers.
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.