Daniel Richardson

Daniel Richardson is a Wellington-based sports journalist for NZME. News Service.

Soccer: Welnix group making big strides

Paul Ifill and Vince Lia of the Phoenix celebrate. Photo / Getty Images.
Paul Ifill and Vince Lia of the Phoenix celebrate. Photo / Getty Images.

Sunday marks a year ago to the day since the consortium of Wellington businessmen known as Welnix took control of the Wellington Phoenix from former property tycoon Terry Serepisos. APNZ's Daniel Richardson takes a look at the impact they have had during their first year in charge.

Sydney FC will have Alessandro Del Piero, Newcastle have snared Emile Heskey and the Western Sydney Wanderers appear to be on the verge of signing Michael Ballack for the upcoming A-League season. The Wellington Phoenix have the lesser-known Stein Huysegems.

The Phoenix owners could afford to stump up the cash for a marquee signing. After all, they're some of the wealthiest men in the country - Gareth Morgan even donated his $47 million share of the Trade Me transaction to charity in 2006.

However, it's just not their style. For them it's about sustainability, not showability.

It might not be something all fans want to hear but the Welnix consortium who took over from Terry Serepisos 12 months ago are treating the club like any other business, and chairman Rob Morrison believes the club can even turn a profit in the near future.

Serepisos couldn't do it, and estimated he poured $8m to $10m into the Phoenix during his time at the helm.

The Welnix group have already made big strides during their first year in charge, notably setting up a school of excellence for promising players, filling out the playing roster and cleaning up the club's off-field administration.

Morrison is adamant, however, they won't head down the same path as the likes of Sydney FC - who have spent A$4m luring former Italian striker Del Piero to the A-League, or Newcastle who have tied up former England striker Heskey for seven figures - because it's not sustainable.

"There are different models out there, that's clear. There are some models which say you should go out there and open the cheque book, sign big; that's not our model," Morrison says. "We've said all along the club has to stand on its own feet and people like the Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar have shown they can be successful without opening the cheque book. They operated in or around the salary cap last year.

"Signing a big marquee player doesn't guarantee on-field success but it also means that it's a one-off payment that's relying on somebody associated with the club but external to the club [paying it]. It's not money that the club is generating to pay for those players. The club will get benefit from it, that's for sure, but in the end is it long-term sustainable? Probably not.

"It's wrong for people to think that's the only way for sports franchises to operate. In the US the professional sports franchises over there operate as businesses. First and foremost they're businesses."

The club intend to operate within the salary cap - A$2.48m this season - put bums on seats and further enhance sponsorship and commercial opportunities as part of their long-term vision. They have also tried to recruit smartly and sign players who can still perform in their early 30s.

Paul Ifill has been worth every penny since he arrived in 2009 and the recent acquisition of 30-year-old former Belgian international Huysegems looks to be a crafty play.

"We've done what we said we would do," Morrison continues. "We've invested in the franchise both on and off the field. We've certainly invested in players, as you've seen this year. So we've done what we said we would and I think it is beholding on the public to stand up and say, 'OK, let's back this'. You can't have professional sports anywhere unless the public are prepared to back it."

The New Zealand Breakers have shown that a combination of winning and producing an intriguing product will see fans flock to home games, while the Hurricanes enjoyed a spike in crowd numbers during this year's Super Rugby campaign as the team was re-energised under Mark Hammett's coaching.

Wellington Phoenix general manager David Dome, who has worked for the club in some capacity since 2008, says they need to improve on last year's crowd average of 9000.

The club has always taken on a community focus and continue to capitalise on the rise of football, which is the most popular team sport among youngsters in New Zealand.

"The players actually enjoy doing that sort of thing and it's important we continue that momentum and people realise the Phoenix is very approachable as a club," Dome said. "We don't want to be like the All Blacks where you can't get near them and that sort of stuff."

They also hope to have new and improved training facilities at Newtown Park, add another lower tier of development sides to work under the school of excellence, and establish coaching networks throughout the country. There have even been whispers of entering a women's side in the W-League in Australia.

The issue of whether the Phoenix can play in the Asian Champions League or Oceania's O-League still hasn't been resolved and Dome said they hoped to have that sorted this season.

Throughout it all, the Yellow Fever fan group have been omnipresent. They have experienced a lot since their creation with the establishment of the Phoenix but are encouraged by what has happened in the past 12 months.

"It's probably been better [than expected]," group member Guy Smith says. "When they took over we were probably a little bit concerned about a lack of football knowledge, and about what they were saying about being keen to break even and not make signings.

"I think they've been brilliant. The signings that have been made have been good. The stuff they've done with the young players has been great and they've taken to owning a football club really, really well. I think we are probably lucky to have one of the best ownership groups in the league."

- APNZ

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