By Cordwainer Bull
The WaiBop football federation has reported a record operating deficit of $203,000 to December 31, from expenditure of $2.014 million.
That’s easily the highest loss in the history of the federation, dwarfing the $97,000 of 2003, though in contrast to that year, it drew no brooding or rancour from the floor of its 2016 AGM in Hamilton on Monday.
The variation in response is at least partially due to the fact that 13 years ago the federation was technically insolvent, whereas on this occasion the deficit was comfortably covered by reserves, with the federation still having cash assets of $600,000 (including building and hardship funds).
But it is enough of a financial reversal to concentrate the minds of affiliates about the challenges ahead, even if the message from the top table was “don’t panic”.
The deficit was attributed to declining grant revenue and increasing expenditure on provision of services. Notably, wages leapt $135,000, while a $28,000 grant was afforded to WaiBop United to compete in the ASB premiership. Grants and sponsorship were down $40,000 on 2014. (The federation still received $655,000 in grants from NZ Football, charitable trusts and contract funding, but this was $154,000 less than was budgeted.)
Expenses increased by $279,000 from the 2014 year.
Retiring chairman Bryce Cooper said “resourcing for growth was the elephant in the room”, and observed that NZ Football, federations and clubs were all dependent to varying degrees on “soft money” from grants.
“In WaiBop’s case this was significant,” he wrote in his report. “The risk this poses was sorely demonstrated in 2015, where WaiBop suffered a significant operating deficit whilst still seeking to deliver on our strategies, including continuing to fund the shortfall in the operations of the WaiBop United franchise so that a top flight pathway remained in the region.”
But in off the cuff commentary Cooper added: “It’s not that bad – we did a hell of a lot… We had reserves for such a situation and we did the things we promised to do… I am leaving it in very good hands as I walk out the door.”
Indeed, Cooper reflected upon having experienced far greater frustration from his years on the board at the lack of football facilities within the region. The federation was “way behind the 8 ball,” he said. “Somehow we have got to change that – at the same time as coping with growth.”
There was a “difficult dynamic” at work in a code where there was “high participation, but not high spectator support”.
Chief executive Mark Christie said the deficit was being addressed by the non-replacement of staff, such as football development officer (and WaiBop United coach) Peter Smith and football event co-ordinator Shaun Kipara, who have both resigned this year.
I asked how this might affect the federation’s objectives and goals as laudably set out across 30 pages in the annual report.
Christie said they were staff positions which “would not affect delivery of services” insofar as in the bulk of their work had most recently focused on the national league – which has now been handed to Wanderers Sports Club.
But that rather ignored the fact Smith in particular had been working for the federation in the Bay of Plenty for many years before the national league came along. However no delegates from the Bay challenged on this, so I can only assume that’s all fine.
Christie spoke about the new “Football in New Zealand 2016-2025” strategic plan, under which the two strategic outcomes are “More New Zealanders playing and loving football” and “our elite teams winning at global and pinnacle events”.
On the first count, as one measure, they want participation in men’s football to increase from 90,000 to 102,000 by 2025. But by my count, men’s senior football in the Waikato is declining. We have 10 fewer senior men’s teams than we had 30 years ago – with, alarmingly, most of those drop-offs being at northern league level.
And as a volunteer club administrator I queried the underlying proposition of wanting to increase participation when the meeting had only just heard how badly we were already struggling with facilities, pitches, referees, coaches etc.
While the extra numbers would certainly look good on paper in trying to squeeze grants out of funders, there is little upside or discount to be derived at club level from signing up more teams under football’s financially punitive culture, while potentially diluting the club experience for existing members.
Christie: “Maybe that’s why the timeframe extends to 2025.”
As a curiosity, I was surprised to note in the federation’s report data on its fourth stated goal, “Succeed at the game”, that it feted the selection of Ipswich Town’s Tommy Smith in the 2015 All Whites among its milestones. I queried this, given we know that he was born in Macclesfield (Cheshire) and was a product of the Ipswich Town academy. But the fact he resided in the federation’s hinterland during his youth made him one of “our” successes. So take that, Ipswich academy.
It should be noted the meeting elected NZ Football president and former WaiBop board member Deryck Shaw as a federation life member, on the back of 7-8 years of federation service and significant input in his Rotorua football community.
It did cross my mind that in the annals of the old Waikato Football Association, they didn’t even consider life membership until you’d racked up at least 15 years service. But the federation does need to recognise more of its administrators – referees are almost embarrassingly over-represented in its life member ranks, and Shaw has always been a popular and able figure in WaiBop.
Shaw was present, fresh off a plane from the Fifa Congress in Mexico. He gave a pithy overview of some encouraging features – including a cultural shift in Fifa and more of their money heading our way. But on the national league he said while it had been great to have the domestic game broadcast on TV over summer, there were significant challenges around sponsorship if it was to continue.
Shaw is now also a member of the Oceania Confederation board.
Meanwhile Cooper, former chair Patsi Davies and referee Mark Ball have stepped down from the WaiBop board. Elected board members for 2016 were Rotorua accountant Victor Storey, Te Awamutu AFC life member Dave Ireland, and WaiBop referees chairman Mark Browning.
As I left the meeting, I reflected on how it was over 30 years since I first attended the AGM of a regional body, and how marked the changes have become.
The Waikato Football Association’s AGM’s used to be a real parliament of the game, where remits (including to the New Zealand Football Association) were debated, and finances were forensically examined line by line.
When the association was almost 100 per cent funded by its constituent clubs, there was an equivalent amount of AGM answerability. A budget for the forthcoming year – largely pivoting on affiliation fees – needed to be presented and approved at every AGM.
Indeed, former WFA secretary Ron White once confided how he sweated for weeks in advance of an AGM in the 1960s because he had splashed out on a box of manila folders and a spare typewriter ribbon, which had taken him over budget.
That would be silly these days, but in modern times the federation’s accountability lines – understandably – tend to be more upwards than downwards. They are answerable to NZ Football or regional sports trusts for delivery of service contracts to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, whereas in WaiBop’s case at least, club affiliation now accounts for just 14 per cent of income.
From a simple club volunteer perspective it means there is an other-worldliness to a lot of federation operations. The corollary of this is that AGMs become more abstract every year.
The board vote is done by post. The new chairman is later elected by the board (rather than at the meeting) when nobody else is around to acknowledge with acclamation. There is no budget to approve. There is seldom any general business. Referrals to the pending national body AGM never come into the equation.
In my view, constituent clubs have a far lesser sense of ownership of federations these days.
Exactly how distanced clubs have become is perhaps best illustrated when an AGM reports a $200,000 loss and it barely raises a question.
But if the losses persist, at some stage there will have to be a serious conversation with affiliates about what fundamental expectations they have of federations in terms of the services they provide and the value proposition.
[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato United programme columnist. His hobbies include collecting background information and javelin catching. His favourite player was Billy Ironside.]
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A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.