Phoenix sparking debate, but why?

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Over the last few weeks, the Wellington Phoenix have risen from the ashes to take top spot on the A-League table away from Perth. The jump in table positions has coincided with an increase in the number of media types questioning the inclusion of a New Zealand based team in an Australian league.

The articles and interviews where these questions were raised all started the same way, they began by praising the on field performance of the Phoenix this season. They mentioned how Ernie Merrick has turned around a side that won the wooden spoon in 2012/13 into a side that is a genuine contender for the Premiers’ Plate this season, all within the space of just 19 months at the club. They talked about how the Phoenix are one of the most exciting teams to watch, and how successful players like Roly Bonevacia, Roy Krishna and Nathan Burns have been in the system set up by Merrick.

However, that is where the praise from the media stopped. The media paint the Phoenix as an off the field disaster – sucking money away from Football Federation Australia (FFA) that could have otherwise been spent on growing the game in Australia. They claim that “The Phoenix provide no commercial value at all”, and that TV ratings for Phoenix games on Fox Sports are paltry. Questions are asked of the Phoenix, questions that according to those posing them must be answered before the Phoenix should be given their license extension.

The majority of these accusations aimed at the Phoenix appears as though they are designed to make it look like the Phoenix do not deserve a place in the league, but actually show that there are other clubs that need more attention than the Phoenix. Three people in particular have been vocal in the media on this topic, Mike Cockerill and Michael Lynch when writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, and Andy Harper in a radio interview with Tony Veitch, a New Zealand sports broadcaster.

One of the major accusations aimed at the Phoenix is that they do not provide the TV ratings in Australia that Fox Sports desire, and that this is not offset by the paltry amount that New Zealand’s Sky TV pay the FFA for the rights to broadcast the league. First of all, this accusation is aimed in the complete wrong direction, as the Phoenix are not at fault for either of these issues. The Phoenix are widely considered to be one of the most entertaining teams in the league, and if Fox Sports are unable to promote their coverage of the A-League well enough to get more people watching the top of the table side, then that is solely their fault.

There is always going to be a disadvantage for the Phoenix’s ability to earn high ratings, as the majority of Phoenix supporters live in New Zealand and therefore don’t have the ability to subscribe to Fox Sports. This in turn means that there are fewer Phoenix supporters tuning into Fox Sports to watch Phoenix away games than any other club would get for their away games. Despite this disadvantage, the Phoenix get similar viewership numbers to several other A-League clubs, as shown below.

Ratings per game on Fox Sports (thousands)
Team 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 so far Average
Adelaide 74.71 72.40 69.58 72.23
Brisbane 74.35 70.52 71.39 72.08
Central Coast 72.96 61.00 53.87 62.61
Newcastle 75.96 61.04 68.24 68.41
Melb Victory 85.22 82.95 96.29 88.15
Melb HeartCity 70.25 64.23 65.00 66.49
Perth 67.29 58.69 55.67 60.55
Sydney 85.47 77.58 95.60 86.22
Wellington 62.43 49.05 49.50 53.66
West Sydney 85.00 73.87 68.24 75.70
Average 75.36 67.13 69.34 70.61

Central Coast Mariners have only averaged just over 4000 more people watching their matches within Australia so far this season, even though the large majority of their fanbase lives within Australia and therefore has access, logistically at least, to Fox Sports. Melbourne City have only averaged 12,000 more people watching their matches over the last three seasons, and Perth Glory have only averaged 7,000 more.

If you add in the Phoenix fanbase watching matches on Sky TV in New Zealand, the Phoenix actually have had more people watching their matches this season than Central Coast or Perth do, and if you exclude the matches in which the David Villa circus was in town for, Melbourne City only just scrape ahead of the Nix by 2,000 people. For cities the size of Melbourne and Perth compared to Wellington, this is incredibly poor – or to turn the figures on their head, the Phoenix are more in demand per capita than most.

Tony Veitch claimed that ratings within New Zealand are through the floor for Phoenix games. When the Phoenix won their first ever game in Melbourne against Victory earlier this month, it was the second highest rated live sport event shown on Sky Sport that day, behind only the Cricket World Cup match between England and Sri Lanka. It rated above both ANZ Championship netball and Super Rugby. If anyone considers this to be “through the floor”, then the ratings that other sports get must be absolute rock bottom (which they aren’t).

Despite this, there have been no accusations aimed at these three clubs about having to raise the number of people watching their matches on Fox Sports, and rightly so. It is not any of these clubs fault that their viewership is low, just as it is not the Phoenix’s fault. Clubs can offset their ratings for a short period of time by signing high profile guest players like David Villa for Melbourne City, but these higher ratings will drop away as soon as the player leaves, as shown above. Overall, the league as a whole needs to grow it’s viewership base, otherwise Fox Sports will stop investing the millions of dollars that keep the league running. This isn’t something that a single team is at fault for or can fix, yet there is a big deal being made out of how poorly Wellington rates on TV despite the viewing figures not actually being that poor.

The most baffling statement of all that has arisen in this debate was from Harper in his interview with Tony Veitch on Radio Sport NZ, where he stated that “The Phoenix bring nothing commercially to the league”. This is far from the truth, as the Phoenix open up a market of 4 million people to the A-League and its sponsors, one that is only matched by Sydney and Melbourne in terms of population.

What Harper actually meant was that the Phoenix bring nothing commercially to Fox Sports. The Phoenix provide an avenue for A-League sponsors into New Zealand, an avenue that simply wouldn’t exist without the Phoenix in the league. The Phoenix have commercial value within New Zealand, otherwise Huawei wouldn’t have jumped on board and offered a massive shirt sponsorship deal to the Phoenix like they did. The Phoenix provide the only reason why New Zealanders care about what happens in the A-League, which explains why Sky could pay a modest amount for the rights.

Michael Lynch fell into the logical fallacy that the Phoenix are currently using a space in the A-League that could have been filled by an Australian team. If there was a fantastic bid to start an A-League team in a new market in Australia with little risk involved, why would FFA have to kick out the Phoenix in order to add that team to the league? It would actually be a better move for the FFA to add teams to the league, rather than simply replace current teams, as more teams results in more matches being played in a season, which will generate more income from all sources, Fox Sports included.

Cockerill and Harper both stated that there has been $15 million given to the Phoenix over the time the team has been in the competition that could have otherwise been used on developing a new Australian side, but they both also failed to point out that the Phoenix have not received any more money than any of the other A-League clubs to date. Even when former owner Terry Serepisos was going through bankruptcy proceedings, there was no public statement to suggest that the FFA ever needed to step in with financial support for the club like they have with multiple other A-League teams.

There would be an upfront cost to the FFA when setting up a new club, but if this is done successfully it will eventually result in the FFA and the league earning more than they needed to invest in the long run, as happened when FFA sold Western Sydney. Would it have been better for the FFA to not let the Phoenix into the league, and have saved this $15 million while running a nine team league? I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks a temporary nine team league would have been better than the ten team league the Phoenix have been a part of.

The Phoenix have long been accused of having small crowds, although this is largely based on anecdotal evidence rather than fact. The Phoenix have averaged crowds of 8,397 in their time in the A-League, which is on par with three other clubs in the A-League in Central Coast, Perth, and Melbourne City. When you think that the attendances of Central Coast in particular are boosted by the large numbers of away supporters travelling less than two hours from other places in New South Wales to attend matches, the Phoenix figure looks even healthier.

It looks healthier yet again when you pay attention to the fact that the Phoenix figures have consistently remained  in the 7,500-9,000 range across the eight years they’ve been in the league for, a period of time where Wellington’s rugby crowds have dropped away significantly (see graph below). Perth has a population of just under two million people, yet their average crowds of 9,328 over the last four seasons haven’t resulted in calls for them to be kicked out of the league, despite averaging just 1000 people more than Wellington which has a population of 393,000.

Regular season attendances at Westpac Stadium.

Graph: Dale Warburton

However, the main theme that seems to come through from all three of these media figures is that Sky Sport pay nowhere near enough for the A-League rights, and the major party who would benefit from an increased bid would be Fox Sports. It’s interesting to note that Harper and Cockerill are both employed by Fox Sports, who are the major driving force behind the desire to get Sky Sport to pay more money for the A-League rights.

I personally think it would be fair to suggest that Harper and Cockerill are leading the Fox Sports campaign to put pressure on Sky Sport to up their bid when the rights come up from renewal, and they have been incredibly successful in doing so. It would be highly unlikely that Sky could afford to submit a low ball offer and expect to get away with it, as the public backlash would be huge now that the general sporting public believes that the figure that Sky pays for the rights is the reason why the Wellington Phoenix license has not been extended yet.

Harper made the point as to why Australian football should allow a professional side from New Zealand into their competition given that “no-one in New Zealand gives a damn”. The issue is not that nobody gives a damn, he incorrectly lists New Zealand Football, the New Zealand Government and TV broadcasters as parties that have that attitude. The issue is that a country of New Zealand’s size and population simply is not large enough to sustain professional competitions in any sport.

There’s a reason why our professional rugby players play in a league with Australian and South African teams, why our netballers play in a competition played between New Zealand and Australian sides, and there’s a reason why we only have one professional basketball and rugby league team each, both of whom play in the Australian league exactly like the Phoenix do. There just isn’t enough money in New Zealand sports to sustain competitions on their own like Australia can.

People in New Zealand do give a damn about the Phoenix. That’s why the Phoenix have a record high number of commercial sponsorships this season, including a shirt sponsor that contributes more financially to the Phoenix than the shirt sponsor of the All Blacks contribute to New Zealand Rugby Union. There’s a reason why the Phoenix have more members this season than any season before, and why the media coverage of the team is at an all-time high. There’s a reason why Wellington is widely considered to be the “best away trip in the league”, and why any supporter who travels over here for a game recommends that everyone does the same.

People on both sides of the Tasman love Wellington and what it brings to the A-League, and would be devastated to see the club removed from the A-League. FFA really only have one option, and that is to ignore the propaganda being spouted by some of the footballing media and extend the Phoenix’s license to play in the A-League.

Patrick Barnes

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