By any measure, Bill Foley is the angel investor that football in this country – and specifically Auckland – has been crying out for.
The American billionaire, who is the preferred bidder to run the new A-League franchise, will make his first public pronouncements this afternoon at a press conference at Mt Smart Stadium, which will be the de facto launch of the new venture.
That should help to clear up some of the mystery surrounding his bid, which appeared to come from left-field and was relatively late in the process after a local consortium had reportedly held the inside running for months.
Foley’s introduction is both an end and a beginning. Having a professional football team in Auckland again has been talked about for years, though it long seemed a pipe dream. After the demise of the Football Kingz (1999-2004) and the New Zealand Knights (2004-2007), no one was interested, as those inside the game were burned and broken.
It was revived again slowly. Auckland City FC chairman Ivan Vuksich – one of the best sporting administrators in this country – has been a driving force behind the scenes, often single-handedly, as he strived to find a higher platform for his club. But there were numerous obstacles. The biggest was apathy across the Tasman, as for a long time, Football Federation Australia (FFA) wasn’t interested.
At a time when the transtasman relationship wasn’t particularly strong, the FFA’s main objective was to grow the sport in Australia, and a second local A-League franchise wasn’t up for discussion. That picture changed when the Australian Professional Leagues (essentially the owners of the existing clubs) took over the running of the league at the end of 2020.
Their overriding focus was making the competition bigger, better and more profitable. Auckland, as the largest untapped market in Australasia, suddenly became strategically important. But then came another stumbling block: the expected licence fee of $20-27 million.
On top of annual operating costs that start at $5m, that took it out of range of most, especially with uncertainty around possible returns. But the process continued, with APL confirming in March Auckland was one of two targeted expansion cities for the 2024-2025 season. Behind the scenes, discussions had been taking place for some time. A bid involving Zuru toy magnate Anna Mowbray and former All Black Ali Williams was discussed, though it didn’t eventuate.
There were other local footballing and business identities, which eventually led to a high-powered consortium fronted by American tech entrepreneur and Breakers minority owner Marc Mitchell and former ASB Classic tournament director Karl Budge. They garnered significant support, including three former All Whites captains (one was Allbirds founder Tim Brown), and had also extensively consulted with those involved with the local game, including club and regional bodies.
They had an extensive business plan, with separate football, technical and administration committees and provisional agreements in place with the stadium (Mt Smart) and potential sponsors and partners.
It seemed the ideal bid and was close to being announced in September. Then something changed. It’s believed talks broke down, for an unspecified reason - despite the lengthy exclusive negotiation period.
Soon afterwards, rumours began to surface about a mystery American bid, which the Herald confirmed as Foley on October 10, the 78-year-old who owns English Premier League club AFC Bournemouth and NHL franchise Vegas Golden Knights, along with a controlling interest in Ligue One team FC Lorient.
It was a late play, but seemed to accelerate quickly before Foley was confirmed as the preferred bidder later in October.
Foley has entrenched business interests here – with wine, hotels and hospitality – but no apparent sporting links. While the Auckland team isn’t on the scale of his previous sporting ventures, it is complex.
The NHL team was years in the making and Foley had a background in the sport, while Bournemouth was purchased as a going concern. Auckland is a new venture, with limited time and the target kickoff of next September.
Before then, they’ll need to assemble an entire backroom operation, a commerical team and football staff, along with men’s and women’s squads. They’ll also need to build connections with the local landscape, from a standing start, at a time when the Wellington Phoenix are thriving, as their academy system has probably never been stronger.
Money will help. Foley, who has a net worth of around US$1.6 billion ($2.65b) according to Forbes, has deep pockets, so there will be none of the issues that plagued both the Kingz and the Knights, such as the infamous stories of airport cheques being written to allow the team to fly to Australia for away fixtures.
But Foley and his group will also require significant expertise, a lot of which will need to be acquired at short notice.
They need the right coaches and quality players, which are ideally built around local talents.
It’s a significant undertaking, with a lot to do in a short time.
But it is happening, and that is the main thing.
Michael Burgess has been a sports journalist since 2005, winning several national awards and covering Olympics, Fifa World Cups and America’s Cup campaigns. A football aficionado, Burgess will never forget the noise that greeted Rory Fallon’s goal against Bahrain in Wellington in 2009.