After a difficult 2019/20 campaign disrupted by Covid-19, the Wellington Phoenix face another harsh possibility for the next A-League season. Jason Pine reports.
The Wellington Phoenix may have to emulate the Warriors in next season's A-League football campaign.
The Phoenix spent the past nine weeks in Australia to complete the 2019/20 season and there's no sign yet of a transtasman bubble ahead of the scheduled restart for the new campaign.
Club general manager David Dome says one scenario would be spending next season based in Australia as the New Zealand Warriors have done in this year's NRL competition.
"We're preparing for every eventuality," said Dome.
"Whether that's a normal home and away season, whether it's half home, half away if we can potentially do that, or whether it's a full season in Australia. We have to prepare for all of them."
The past two months have taken a significant toll on the Phoenix, both on and off the field, and the side failed to recapture their sizzling pre-Covid form, dipping out in round one of the A-League finals series.
Dome admits it would be immensely challenging for that exercise to be repeated for more than twice as long.
"To ask a playing group and staff to be away for potentially five to six months is a huge ask and we'll have to look into that very carefully," said Dome.
"Of course, we've never done it before so we don't know exactly how we set ourselves up for that. We'll take some learnings from how we've done it this year, what it's meant for the players, how they reacted and what we have to do better next time."
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Having the team based in Australia would also have a substantial impact on the Phoenix's income, with no ability to sell season passes or match-day tickets.
And that's just one of the financial challenges in a post-Covid professional sporting world where money has dried up and broadcast contracts – the single biggest stream of revenue for clubs – have been renegotiated. The A-League's deal with Fox Sports in Australia has been slashed, with a flow-on effect to the clubs.
"The salary cap will have to be reduced," said Dome.
"Those numbers are being worked on now but it will be significantly reduced and that will inform the negotiations with the players union and how much money we can spend on players, but it will be less, no doubt about it.
"And it's not just the players; it's the staff as well. We all have to go through a process of rationalisation and how we make this work with much, much less money coming into the game."
But Dome can see a silver lining in having less cash to splash in the immediate future.
"It potentially opens up spaces for young New Zealand talent coming through," he said.
"If we can't afford the high-priced imports that we've balanced our squad with over the years, what's the alternative? It's young New Zealand talent. We've talked with our academy guys, asking about the next young Kiwis coming through, not just from our academy, but good young players from elsewhere in the country.
"Do we end up looking like the Baby Blacks from the 80s where the young New Zealand boys become the backbone of the team?"
Plans for the 2020/21 A-League season are still to be confirmed, with December suggested as a start date and a finals series slated for June 2021. But Dome feels that might be optimistic given the work that still needs to be done.
"December is one of the options, but I think it's more realistic it'll be early next year," he said.
"If you were taking odds on it, it's probably looking more like January than December."