FFA v Phoenix: Time for Trans-Tasman Transparency


“Is it getting colder

Or is it just me

Who’s taking the control of this frivolity


Am I getting older?

A little run down

Or maybe I’m tired of being pounded into the ground”


The Adults – Nothing to Lose


New Zealand A-League team, Wellington Phoenix, appear to be on borrowed time after a maelstrom of activity behind the scenes and in public in the last week culminated on Monday when Football Federation Australia confirmed the club’s owners (the Welnix group) would not be granted the 10-year license extension they had applied for. Currently only licensed to the end of this season, concerns about the future of the Phoenix were heightened when it was reported on Wednesday October 21 that the Phoenix’s licence extension could be denied with the side from the New Zealand capital to make way at the end of this season for another, Australian-based side, most likely from southern Sydney.




The licence saga has been ongoing for some time, with the Kiwi side never having the surety of other clubs in terms of their duration, but now time is of the essence as contractually Phoenix players could start signing elsewhere if the dispute is not resolved by the new year. However, a resolution, one way or the other, seems likely to occur well before then.


On Tuesday morning, the Welnix group confirmed they would be seeking an explanation which outlines the reason for their rejection with “game development, player pathway, commercial factors, broadcast rights, and the long-term success of the Hyundai A-League” the highlighted points.


The FFA’s own release on Monday stated “the application for a 10-year extension to the licence does not meet the requirements we see as fundamental to the future growth of the Hyundai A-League,” but that is where the release ends – it does not detail the requirements.


Whilst I would be upset as a fan if the Phoenix were axed, if the business case/game development aspect was made it would make the blow more palatable. At the moment, it’s a collection of excuses from ‘the TV deal isn’t enough’, ‘the AFC/FIFA doesn’t like it’ and ‘the Phoenix add nothing to Australian football’ aren’t enough as the relative importance and business aspects of each requirement haven’t been outlined.


Despite the fact the FFA’s Whole of Football Plan alludes (somewhat loosely) to A-League requirements for new franchises, the details around current franchise requirements are not spelt out. Broadsides thrown by officials of football tournaments which try to bully people in potential new markets to go to other football events to ensure they get an A-League side at some undetermined time in the future have been the only statement made recently on new teams. The only aspect from the WFP that new A-League sides must meet is that they must be made up from areas with a population catchment of 500,000 people. Clearly ‘commercial in confidence’ and business aspects are in play but the outline of the requirements should be known in a more detailed form.


We will look at the aspects the Welnix have identified and how they related to Wellington’s status in the A-League.





A constant of the Phoenix ‘adding nothing’ to the A-League hones in on the fact they reside in New Zealand, which is in the Oceania Football Confederation and not the Asian Football Confederation where Australia currently plays, and does quite well in. Now the confederation structure aside (my short view is Oceania shouldn’t exist as a confederation, it should be merged with Asia) if this status was such a show-stopper how exactly have the Phoenix clung on so long? If the AFC or FIFA (under whatever regulation) didn’t like it surely they would have vetoed anything no matter what agreements were in place when Australia moved to the AFC? What’s changed? The Phoenix, for the integrity alone of the A-League, should be allowed to compete in the AFC Champions League if they qualify. The AFC also want promotion/relegation and that won’t be viable in the A-League anytime soon, most likely decades. How does the AFC feel about that?


The lack of ACL participation opportunities already restricts the Phoenix’s chance to make money via not having the ability to win the ACL, so in affect they already pay a tax for the privilege of the playing in the A-League. That puts to bed some of the argument Phoenix should pay to be in the competition. In a way they already do.


Of the Phoenix themselves, Welnix underwrote two English Premier League clubs – Newcastle and West Ham – touring New Zealand in 2014. An international event, and financial risk, no other A-League club has done to date. They have taken Aelsewhere-League games to Auckland, Napier, Christchurch, and Palmerston North. In terms of game development, they have done a lot of growing elite level opportunities. New Zealand will never host a Real Madrid or a Liverpool any time soon so the EPL tour should have been applauded.



The Phoenix have a junior Academy with essentially their reserve side playing domestically in New Zealand, and have seen several players elevate from this to the senior team. As recently as Monday morning, New Zealand’s Under 17 side actually gave Australia a massive leg-up by beating Paraguay, which vaulted Australia into the knock-out phase of the Boys Under 17 World Cup. That youth Kiwi side has three players – Logan Rogerson, James McGarry, and Sarpeet Singh – who have senior Phoenix deals. A further three – Joe Bell, Ben Stroud, and Sam Wilson – are in the club’s Academy, so in a short period of time they are giving opportunities to local young players – the essence of player development.


In terms of an impact on player pathway for Australia players, yes the Phoenix have a focus on New Zealand Football initiatives with players competing in senior and junior sides on occasion, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t work with the FFA on other initiatives. Maybe, in the absence of A-League sides in their own areas, the Phoenix could offer specific places for elite junior players in the Academy from Canberra and/or Tasmania.



Gareth Morgan is the most significant face behind the Welnix Group, with Rob Morrison chairman. Morgan in particular has well-publicised independent wealth and the capacity to buy a marquee player. However, the club are yet to break open the piggy bank for such a move. Pushing the sustainability component of the business is the reason for this. Some might call this into question, but as I have written elsewhere no club in the A-League has a genuine foreign marquee (playing and off-field profile) this season, the clubs that do are just using the exemption to get a foreign payer off their normal salary cap. If you compare the impact of the Phoenix’s Jeffrey Sarpong to the Wanderers’ Federico Piovaccari, who is a marquee, the performance difference is in Sarpong’s favour three games into the current season. If the Phoenix were offered a longer licence maybe a proper foreign marquee player could be looked at? But again, with lack of tenure, why should Morgan make the investment when he can invest in local charities?


The long-term licence saga, which has meant the Phoenix have never even been offered a 20 year-license like all other clubs, is also worth exploring itself. The lack of long-term planning which would be afforded by a 20 year-license means many possible improvements have been scuppered previously because of short licence the club operates on. Why bother investing in a boutique venue for ten years only to see any return? The costs to update the venue are still the same but the duration to recoup the outlay is reduced. What businessman is signing up to that sort of uncertainty? The low-ball offer of a four-year licence is even more daft. This negates other initiatives the club were looking at, such as a purpose-built training facility or bringing out more European sides. Why go to that effort even if they were willing to accept a four-year deal?


Unlike the former owner of the Newcastle Jets, Nathan Tinkler, Welnix have expanded their sporting portfolio in a successful manner, taking a part share of the Wellington Hurricanes Super Rugby side. Morgan outlined the benefits of the deal on his website and this year the Hurricanes made the Super Rugby final. This sort of off-field relationship is something the FFA considered regarding the Wanderers but didn’t, or couldn’t, pull off. Morgan could.


By not giving the Phoenix a license as long as the other clubs, the FFA are already placing Wellington at a competitive disadvantage in terms of developing the club off the field. So essentially, they are already ‘taxed’ twice by their participation already, can’t play in the ACL, and can’t have the surety off the field to invest in football department etc.



The biggie, we think (although, as has been outlined the importance of this has never been stipulated). The Phoenix are paid, as are the other A-League clubs, $2.55 million in revenue per year from the current TV deal which is meant to cover their salary cap.


Sky TV in New Zealand (who show the A-League on Sky Sports) do have issues with ‘cord-cutting’ (people leaving the provider) amongst other issues and their financial challenges have been outlined as recently as this week. The broadcaster would be loathe to lose the A-League which is their only remaining football product of note, having lost the English Premier League in 2014 to streaming service Premier League Pass. However, as a business, one would think they would consider it if there was no New Zealand-based team in the competition. Sky TV are rumoured to pay one tenth of what they pay for the NRL rights to cover the A-League () so clearly there is scope for more but that’s any business negotiation. You can’t continue to complain after you sign a bad deal. That’s on you. However, as pointed out in the New Zealand Herald article above, pay TV has now hit a level of disruption which means profits and margins will likely contract. By extension, this means the money smaller operators like Sky NZ have to spend on rights probably decreases but the A-League is important for Sky in summer.


What doesn’t seem to be explored amongst TV options in New Zealand is other ‘add-ons’. For instance, the Super Rugby competition has it’s main home of Sky Sports but delayed games, the night of the game, offer some free-to-air coverage on Prime. Has a similar deal been explored around Phoenix home games? Maybe coverage on Sunday nights after the games?


If the A-League has run the numbers and can make up the difference they would lose from Sky (in a worst case scenario) out of any new deal that is probably the difference between the Phoenix been around or not, maybe they are willing to lose both the Nix and A-League coverage in New Zealand. However, it would be bold to risk losing coverage in another overseas market after the news Fox Soccer won’t be covering games this season. Fans can register to watch games online in places like the USA but fringe fans will no longer stumble across them. Sure it’s not a huge market, but you don’t want to go backwards in these sort of broadcast opportunities, even if people can still watch the games on a laptop.



It’s illustrative that the AFC/OFC component of this debate has been long running and is often perceived as why the Phoenix should never have been in the A-League in the first place. In 2012, club chairman Morrison wanted the chance of the Phoenix playing in the Asian Champions League resolved that year. It still hasn’t happened and as Andrew Gourdie pointed out on the 3 News  Online show ‘4 4 2’  OFC President David Chung should be making more of an effort to discuss with his AFC counterparts about what initiatives OFC could be doing to assist the FFA/AFC. Could the OFC Champions League winner get direct entry to the group stage of the AFC CL? This wouldn’t preclude the OFC CL winner from also competing in the Club World Cup but exploring this option, and others, should be looked at. That said. I don’t know what the answer is but there don’t seem to be many solutions from any of the footballing authorities on this. Geographically, it’s to simplistic to say New Zealand don’t play in the AFC so therefore let’s exclude them, and others in the confederation, from involvement in competitions.


It’s worth noting the FFA saw fit to give money to a football centre in Trindad and Tobago once and they don’t play in the AFC either.


Another, possibly reasonable, excuse for axing the ‘Nix would be that at fully-funded and costed franchise(s) which meets the outlined requirements are queuing up to join the A-League. Recent reports had a Southern Sydney franchise as the option to replace Wellington, but like the first attempt at a Western Sydney side, there is no figurehead, or organisation, or financial plan which has been made public.


It’s also worth noting that around April 2009, when one of the first attempts at the Western Sydney franchise was mooted, no-one would talk publically. Whilst at the same time, the potential Canberra bid, which already had bi-partisan territory government funding, had a public face who would happily talk through their potential club’s plans. History shows the A-League eventually made it in Western Sydney, but in 2009 the FFA knocked back a single-city bid which would have been able to harness a population of 500,000+ in the surrounding area which is also home to many of Australia’s biggest companies. By knocking out the Phoenix, they would be doing the same with a similar situation when they ignored the former home of the Cosmos. Again we don’t know how important this is because no-one at Whitlam Street has made this clear.


Spreading the risk amongst a group of smart business-folk should be one of the primary business models for the A-League, especially given the FFA still owns/runs one club and had to drag representatives of Brisbane’s ownership group kicking and screaming, figuratively, to a recent fan forum to allay fears of the club’s viability.


Recently the FFA has (finally) taken the moral high ground on the appalling tenure of Sepp Blatter as FIFA President, largely due to alleged corruption, but also, significantly, because the organisation is run with little transparency. The FFA directly said they would not vote for Blatter at the last tainted election.


They were rightly applauded for this, but if the FFA is serious about pushing transparency at FIFA, they should be doing the same within their own operations and spelling out the A-League requirements in a clear sense. If the FFA truly don’t want the Phoenix, they should come out and say it. The truth hurts but to play a disingenuous game with successful business folk and passionate football fans is not a good reflection on your organisation.


In terms of the next steps, the Welnix group will likely come back with a counter offer which requests an automatic renewal, of say a further ten years, should they meet pre-agreed targets over the course of the next four years. Whether the FFA will be agreeable to that may depend on how fair along the FFA think new franchises could be to replace the Phoenix.


Personally, I’ve watched the Phoenix play live in Gosford, Sydney, Melbourne, Morwell, and Newcastle, plus followed them on TV. Before that, I was a Cosmos fan growing up in Canberra. I’ve paid the over-the-top player registration fees for Emu Plains SC, Belsouth JSC, the UCU Pumas, and Mountain Districts FC, which have supported Australia’s elite footballers and development programs, but I now face losing a second team as a fan in less than 15 years. It would be hyperbolic to say any axing of the Phoenix would mean I am ‘done’ with domestic football in Australia, but after a second break-up I would have to ask the question ‘what do I have to lose?’ by cutting this from my life.


“Falling, breaking up is what I do

And if you didn’t know that you never had a clue

And I can see you talking, talking not the truth

Don’t waste your lies on me

‘Cos I got nothing to lose”


This article originally appeared on https://hamishneal.wordpress.com/


About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.

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