It’s fast approaching the twentieth anniversary of professional football in New Zealand. The Auckland Football Kingz played their first home match on October 1st, 1999 up at North Harbour Stadium. They competed in the old National Soccer League (NSL), which soon dissolved into financial insecurity and Government inquiries – eventually leading to the creation of the beloved Football Federation Australia and the A-League.
The Kingz rebranded as to the New Zealand Knights and came rock bottom of the new A-League table two years in a row, suffering from a range of issues both inherited from the NSL days and with Football Federation Australia – as outlined here by the excellent Terry Maddaford. Professional football departed New Zealand’s largest city and headed for the capital where, save for an annual trip north with variable results, it has remained.
The 2018/19 season has been a relatively successful one for the Wellington Phoenix, who technically still operate on the same license as that of the NZ Knights. By successful, the club have recruited well, present a coherent face to the media through their coach Mark Rudan and have managed to avoid some of the off-pitch issues which have clouded the last two or three seasons. Current assistant coach Chris Greenacre must be relieved to find himself approaching the end of the season without taking over as caretaker.
February’s record regular season attendance at Eden Park, a magnificent and vocal performance from 23,000 Aucklanders, has amplified the never-quite-gone-away whispers for Auckland to be given a third chance at having a professional football team. Phoenix Chairman Rob Morrison has also spoken carefully about the population base of Auckland being ‘the largest in Australasia without a license’ when interviewed about his role in the New Leagues Working Group – the body which hopefully will secure the long-term future of the Wellington Phoenix in the coming months.
An Auckland A-League team would face some significant challenges. Most obviously, there’s the question of finance. Rob Morrison, Gareth Morgan and others have funded the Phoenix at a loss since taking control from Terry Serepisos in 2011. Start-up capital for a professional football team would be significant, and the tragic cases of the Kingz and the Knights demonstrate what happens when the economic fundamentals of a club are not secure.
Then there’s the question of branding and identity. Auckland City F.C has the most visible NZ footballing brand after the Wellington Phoenix, in part due to their incredible successes in both domestic and continental football. However, the club itself leans heavily on its amateur status and trust funding for this. The step up to professional football would require the replacement of this funding, plus multiples more in order to establish itself as a club and then go on to be competitive in the league. There’s also the question of whether ACFC, deeply embedded in Central United, could appeal to supporters, players and those involved in other NRFL clubs. A fresh start eliminates this as a stumbling block.
Then there’s the population base. Auckland has been one city since the Super City amalgamation in 2010. While it has over a quarter of the New Zealand population within its boundaries, within those boundaries are still quite distinct groups. South Auckland, based around the old Manukau City borders, is a separate place to the old Auckland City region. Waitakere and the West have their own identity, as does the North Shore. The East of the city has grown by the population of Dunedin on the last decade, creating a suburban sprawl out towards Beachlands.
In short, Auckland isn’t one city. It’s about five. And the unconscious borders of each region affect the movement of that population. The North Shore might as well be Whangarei to some in the South, and the reverse the same. The thought of battling the traffic over the harbour bridge to head to a game brings out a cold sweat in Aucklanders who’ve spent hours of their week stuck in traffic. So wherever the new team is based, it’s got to be accessible by public transport.
Which brings us to where to play. North Harbour is being turned into a baseball ground and has drawn poor football attendances over the years. Eden Park can’t host too many night events because of the militant residents which surround it. Mt Smart is the right shape but is due for a major downsizing under the planned stadium reorganisation. The idea of a new stadium in Auckland appears every six months or so, but the sheer cost involved is madness (and that’s before you add the obvious overrun which occurs in every single major stadium construction project anywhere in the world).
Given Eden Park is slightly too large for every team that plays there that isn’t the All Blacks, and its night event limitations, we’ll put it aside. Ideally, a 10,000 capacity Mt Smart stadium would be the best place for a new Auckland side to play. It’s accessible by rail from the North and South, you’ve got Ellerslie and Sylvia Park bars nearby for some pre-match conviviality – and it would meet the current realisation within the A-League that boutique grounds that are full beats big stadia that are at 20% capacity.
Funding. Identity. Ground. What else does the new Auckland team need? A player to build around. In fact, two players to build around. One should be an established All White. The other should hail from the Pacific. Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world. Given that the expansion of the league is sorted for next season and the year after, any potential Auckland side would probably enter after 2022. I wonder what a 31-year-old Chris Wood would think of captaining an Auckland A-League team in preparation for the Qatar World Cup?
These are just some of the more obvious surface questions surrounding granting a license for a team in Auckland. Underneath lie some more complex ones. If Auckland City went into the A-League, would their reserves continue to compete in the ISPS Handa Premiership (and therefore be ineligible for OFC competition)? How would the appearance of a professional club affect the ISPS Handa Premiership as a competition, given it already appears to have significant viability issues?
It’s unquestionable that football culture has grown in New Zealand after 20 years of professional football, and that Auckland has shown the occasional sign that maybe it’s deserving of a professional side. But there are so many elements which need to come together for the Super City to truly live up to its role in NZ football history as the place where professional football began.