Consortium with strong NFL links only party near owner Watson’s $20m asking price.

A Tongan-American consortium with strong NFL links is now the leading contender to take ownership of the New Zealand Warriors NRL team.

The group, which has representatives here and in the United States, has been negotiating with owner Eric Watson and his appointed representatives since last November. If a sale is to happen before the start of this season, which is the soft deadline set by the owners, it will likely be with the American group.

The group is believed to include former NFL players, and others who have been associated with the game, who think they can inject all the glitz and glamour of American sport into the NRL. They want to bring sports marketing ideas from the US, which they hope can add another dimension to the Warriors' offering.

The group of investors includes a couple of families, with some members based in North America and others in Auckland.

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The Weekend Herald understands they are the only party prepared to meet Watson's asking price, believed to be around $20 million.

The Auckland Rugby League, represented by the Carlaw Park Heritage Trust, remains in the picture, but it looks unlikely it will gain control of the club under existing conditions.

The ARL had previously come close to concluding a deal, after undertaking due diligence and meeting with coaching, management and staff at the Warriors. It had planned to take a 55 per cent shareholding in the Warriors, with three corporate partners taking 15 per cent apiece.

The ARL had exclusive rights of negotiation, but couldn't agree terms with Watson, mainly because there was a significant difference in the value parties put on the club. They were believed to be at least $5m apart.

The Herald revealed last August that Auckland businessman Paul Davys had made an approach to Watson to purchase a controlling interest in the club. Watson confirmed he was open to selling the franchise he has owned for almost two decades.

While the Warriors remain in the fragile state on the field - they haven't qualified for the top eight since 2011 and endured a nine-game losing streak at the end of last season - there is plenty of appeal for prospective owners.

They have a strong sponsorship base and consistently lead the field in merchandise sales, though their membership numbers have dipped ahead of this season.

But the new funding model put in place by the NRL means an extra $3 million into each club's coffers from next season, virtually guaranteeing a healthy annual profit each year at Mt Smart.