NRL: Financial muscle for Warriors

By Steve Deane

Billionaire businessman Owen Glenn, now 50 per cent owner of the Warriors with co-owner Eric Watson, is known for his sports philanthropy but says his investment in the rugby league team is strictly business. Main picture / Paul Estcourt
Billionaire businessman Owen Glenn, now 50 per cent owner of the Warriors with co-owner Eric Watson, is known for his sports philanthropy but says his investment in the rugby league team is strictly business. Main picture / Paul Estcourt

A couple of months ago, Owen Glenn and Eric Watson were chatting on the phone. Watson was in Cape Town, Glenn was in Sydney. Glenn remarked that Sonny Bill Williams had been offered $5.6 million by a Sydney league club.

"Should we top it?" he asked Watson. A day later the pair had cooled on the idea.

"[Eric] said no and I said no. Let them have the show pony. He's not a bad player, he's a bloody good player. But you'd be looking over your shoulder all day."

Welcome to the new world of the Warriors, an NRL club now with some serious financial muscle behind it.

Yesterday Watson confirmed he had bought out the 24.5 per cent holding in the club formerly owned by trusts associated with Mark Hotchin, ending Hotchin's association with the club. Watson then sold a 50 per cent stake in the club to Glenn, setting up a new joint venture.

Watson declined to reveal the amount he had paid Hotchin's trusts, or the amount Glenn had paid for his 50 per cent stake.

A 72-year-old billionaire businessman and philanthropist who shoots from the lip, Glenn has poured millions into several sporting ventures.

He and Watson already shared interests in thoroughbred racing, property and oil and gas. Although he payed hockey in his youth he professes to be a league fan who remembers watching "many a game at Carlaw Park in the mud growing up".

"This is a wonderfully exciting thing for me," Glenn said.

While gestures like the $1 million he put in hockey's endowment fund two days ago are an act of philanthropy, Glenn's investment in the Warriors was a business decision.

"[The club] is profitable and has got a very strong balance sheet. Hockey is the opposite."

Happy to muse on matters such as signing Williams, Glenn insisted he would leave the running of the team to coach Brian McClennan.

"I'm going to be a very active shareholder but I'm going to leave the playing to Brian - he's the coach."

Glenn said before announcing his investment in the club, he'd asked McClennan to name any four players in the world he'd like to have. McClennan responded that he already had the team to win the competition. While he and Watson insisted the major area of investment would be in the club's youth development, Glenn did concede the club was now well placed to take a plunge on superstar players.

"I guess so, if I'm persuaded to do that."

Watson said the day-to-day running of the team would be left to a new board, with an independent chairman and directors answerable to him and Glenn.

"We have significant other business dealings together and we talk all the time," Watson said.

"We're both smart enough to know we're not good enough to make the decisions about who is on the field. I mean, I'm an investor in lots of different businesses, as is he, and I've never ever said anything about any particular player. I've never professed to have that ability."

New financial doors have clearly opened, but the club will continue to be based at Mt Smart Stadium.

"That's the $400 million question," Watson said. "Why doesn't Auckland have an Otago-like stadium downtown? This city, it's sad that we don't have a proper sporting venue in the centre.

"I don't have the answer to that. Somehow Auckland should get the stadium it deserves and the Warriors would love to be a part of that."

While it's hard to assess the level of investment Glenn will make, Watson said the club had invested around $5 million on player development in recent years and that figure would likely be doubled in years to come.

"We've always been in very strong financial shape," Watson said. "We'll be even more so now with a partner like this on board."

Watson has been little seen or heard recently, but he admitted Glenn would be a different type of owner. "You might get more head-lines. He enjoys that, so why not?"

Ownership twists and turns

1995: The Auckland Warriors entered the Australian Rugby League's Winfield Cup as the first, and still only, foreign club to play in the first grade competition. The club's initial owners were the Auckland Rugby League, who administered the sport on behalf of 35 clubs.

1996: The Warriors sided with the Super League raiding party which ravaged the ARL's competition, and competed in the breakaway league the following year. The game was reunified in 1998.

1999: The financially troubled club was sold for $3.75 million to a consortium bankrolled almost entirely by Tainui. The Waikato iwi took two-thirds ownership, the rest going to former Kiwi coach Graham Lowe and Malcolm Boyle, who each put in $50,000.

2000: With Tainui in financial strife and the poorly performing Warriors bleeding money, the NZ Rugby League stepped in. Financiers Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin won a bidding war for the club. The next year, the club was renamed the New Zealand Warriors.

2006: Watson and Hotchin bought out the minority owners who were the NZRL and Wellington businessman Ramesh Dayal. While the exact mechanics of the new Warriors ownership was obscured by various companies and trusts, Watson owned three-quarters of the club and Hotchin the rest.

- NZ Herald

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