One of the boldest and most innovative ventures is upon us. On Saturday the Wellington Phoenix will host two English Premier League sides on the same day. This is the climax to the Football United week; with matches already played in Auckland and Dunedin, but the highlight is the event in Wellington.
Good things take time and this event has been two years in the making. The is when Phoenix FC, backed by Welnix, first started approaching English Premier League clubs directly to see if they were interested in coming out here in the 2013 off-season. But that time-frame proved to be too ambitious, not helped by the fact it coincided with the appointment of a new manager.
Things got more serious last December when Phoenix CEO David Dome made his first trip to England to add the face-to-face element. By this stage the Wellington City Council was fully on-board as they realised what this offered in terms of reaffirming Wellington’s reputation as the centre of football in New Zealand, and confirming its ability to host big international events.
From there it was months of planning, negotiations and calls in the middle of the night. Initially more clubs were involved before the details were worked through with Newcastle United and West Ham United. Everything was planned to the last level of detail, and we now await two clubs from the England Premier league playing in Wellington at the same ground on the same day.
Try even imagining that five years ago.
It is hard to think of two English Premier League clubs who can provide better value for money for this venture.
Newcastle United is a club rich in history. Jackie Milburn, Gascoigne, Waddle, Keegan, Beardsley, Shearer, Bobby Robson the manager etc are a widely followed club globally. Until the last three years they were rated in the top 20 of all football clubs. On and off the pitch it has been a little bit shambolic over the last few seasons, but lifetime fans, whether here or in Australia, do not desert a side like Newcastle United in a hurry.
The All Blacks are playing a match at St. James’s Park in next year’s Rugby World Cup if a reminder of the marketing pulling power of that club was needed.
The second best England side to contest a World Cup, the semi-finalists of 1990, was built around Beardsley, Waddle and Gascoigne. The best England World Cup was, of course, built around West Ham United Football Club. And their fans tend to remind you of that at every possible opportunity.
Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds, Joe Cole, Trevor Brooking, and .. um Winston Reid. Of course they all have two names because this is all about West Ham, East London, and rhyming slang.
West Ham has a reputation for being every New Zealander’s second team. And a team with a stronger following in New Zealand than any other country. So why is that?
New Zealand has affection for the underdog, especially a stylish underdog. Putting the significant ex-Cockney ex-pat community here aside, there is the traditional journey of Kiwis late to the attractions of The Beautiful Game.
The journey of a standard New Zealander; goes through school and a few years afterwards immersed in rugby. Arrives in England for a spot of OE. Cheaper accommodation is in the East End of London. Finds a flat, gets work, and finds a football club to support and looks around. And bingo; a fan for life. Blowing bubbles all the way from London to Wellington.
Adding in the Winston Reid factor is the icing on the cake. The Phoenix deliberately did not make the approach to West Ham via Reid, deciding to go through orthodox channels. But once he was brought on board he actively promoted the idea within the club.
The other bonus is the transfer of Yellow Fever’s favourite hero-villain Shane Smeltz to Sydney FC.
Both the Premier League clubs have completely bought into this. Pre-season tournaments play an increasingly large part of the clubs’ revenue gathering and marketing opportunities. Manchester United led the way here, and the other clubs are catching up. For example, last year’s visit to Melbourne of Liverpool is rumoured to have come with a $5 million appearance fee alone.
These clubs will not be charging anything like that, but counting it all up it is obvious this is big business.
Newcastle United has been involved in such expeditions before, but recently got burnt in a tournament in South East Asia. New Zealand may not be so lucrative, but the money is banked, and the surroundings are more familiar.
West Ham’s background in pre-season global ventures is not quite so strong. For example, last year their pre-season matches were in the Republic of Ireland. This club is set to shift their home ground to the 2012 Olympic Stadium. They are with the Big Boys now.
Both clubs will travel with an entourage of around 40 people. Business class air travel, five star accommodation; this is not a cheap exercise. When you start adding all that up you arrive at some large numbers. Then consider that the Appearance Fee still makes up the majority of the costs involved.
The site visits have been completed, and the logistics finalised. It helps when the hotels involved can say “Well this is what we do when the All Blacks and Wallabies stay here”. The teams have even chosen their set menus, but nothing like the England cricket team in Australia last year, and their 84 pages of requirements. This is a pre-season tournament where players are getting the fitness up; pasta all round.
Planning around the day itself kicked off month ago. Premier League sides in 2014 are a cosmopolitan affair. Embassies have jumped at the chance to be involved during the day with Italy, Brazil Argentina and others lined up to showcase their countries, and to bask in the reflection of their players playing out in the middle. A football World Cup reminds us of the global nature of the sport, and diplomatic staff love a good party.
Wellington City Council are strongly involved, and not just financially. All senior club football is cancelled that afternoon, and college football is taking a lenient stance to those teams who default that day. The fan zones for both clubs sold out in May and, although it will be hard to get a fully accurate figure, it is estimated that around 4,000 people will travel from Australia.
The other international visitors will be our friends representing the UK media. Ticketing and Accreditation passes for the Wellington games are restricted to one representative per organisation, which is something you do not often get.
This is right in the middle of the Transfer Window, so rumours will follow the teams around. In addition to this there will be the tabloid journalists doing what tabloid journalists do.
The Pay-for-view deal with SKY is also a bit of a watershed in the fast changing business of how sport is broadcast in New Zealand. This is the first time a non-pugilist sport has been covered this way here. It helps underwrite the event, but the main motivation was to act as a media blackout to encourage people to actually go to the even rather than take the flat screen at home option.
It is not often such a large, unscheduled, event comes along so SKY can get away with clipping the ticket. And with pay-for-view sporting events comes lots of bonus promotion.
But probably the best attention to detail has been the scheduling of it. Day games; 2pm and 4:30 pm. A full day of football played at a child friendly time. Strange that nobody has ever come up with that idea earlier really.
This is more than just a Wellington event, with matches to be played in Auckland and Dunedin. There was a temptation to play the Sydney FC vs Newcastle game in Sydney, but the preference was to make this a purely New Zealand event. And Dunedin Venues Limited has been very active in their promotion of that match.
The only potential doubt around that Dunedin fixture concerned whether the artificial turf there would be suitable. But when the Newcastle representatives visited the stadium everyone remembered that the technology used in developing the hybrid turf at Forsyth Barr Stadium was copied from the technology used at St James’s Park, and that these organisations had previously met. It is indeed a small world.
The Eden Park match, with its notoriously fickle fan base is the riskiest of the ventures. However, the Phoenix has attracted large crowds at that venue in the past, and is easier to get to from Australia, so there is a feeling of optimism there. When the Phoenix has played there in previous seasons around 80% of the gate sales are in the last week.
There has been talk from some quarters that we will not get to see the best players associated with the clubs but this just does not add up. Not only do the English clubs have contractual obligations but it would make no sense for them to do anything other than field the strongest teams possible.
Let’s look at this from a West Ham perspective. They play six pre-season games in total, so these matches will make up one third of that. It is important for leading players to have as much game time as possible to prepare for the next season.
On top of this, it will be a chance to see the Phoenix for the first time in a few months, complete with their recent signings. It will also be interesting to watch them up against sides from the most famous league in the world.
This is a big event for a club who wants to take football in this city to another level, and for a city to show that is not afraid of coming up with original ideas, and quite likes being part of a global event.
So much planning, so much preparation has been undertaken to put all of this together. It was always a huge gamble, but it looks as it will come off. The club has even whispered talk that it will make a small profit, but that is just a small part of what is behind it.
The club, and its owners, do not lack for ambition. Let’s hope this is not the last time we get such a venture.
Originally featured in July’s edition of Fishhead magazine. Order your subscription here