If you’re looking for a highly analytical, technical breakdown of the Phoenix game, you’re not going to find it here.
What I know about soccer football would be as much as Donald Trump knows about fidelity. Or spelling. As a general sports fan, I can fudge my way through watching a football match (the ball goes in the goal, what’s not to follow?), but I’m not going to make anyone suffer through a piece where it’s obvious the author is less informed than their audience.
(As an aside, there are A LOT of football fans in the Sportsfreak community – is it because of the capital roots?)
So while I took in the 1-1 draw against Melbourne Victory at Eden Park on Friday night, I got to thinking about what I know about football in this country, its past and its potential future. Surrounded by loud fans and canary yellow (Phoenix gold?), I couldn’t help but think if Aucklanders were this into football, why did franchise football never work in this city?
With a pre-sale figure of 18,000, both the club and the stadium would have been pleased even before kick-off. And to add to Eden Park’s narrative, it was their night to show they’re not obsolete. With a Super Smash semi final taking place on the Outer Oval, it was all systems go. And didn’t New Zealand’s National Stadium want you to know about it. Three different forms of sport taking place on consecutive days was a bragging point for them in a PR hard press. Domestic cricket?
We got it. Rugby?
Our bread and butter.
Football? No worries.
But is it sustainable, long term? With the long-term future of the Phoenix still uncertain, is it possible that if things fell through, some sort of franchise could be resurrected in Auckland?
Why did football not work in Auckland? Was it more of a sign of the game at a professional level at the time? Was it hard for a fledgling franchise to get cut-through in a busy Auckland sports market? Or do people really not like the North Shore that much?
From an Aucklander’s point of view, Wellington really has cemented itself as the home of competitive football in New Zealand. With the Phoenix’s tenure lasting longer than the Knights or the Kingz (fun fact: the ‘z’ was to avoid legal action from basketball franchise, Sydney Kings) and the Cake Tin being host to the All Whites and Football Ferns big-ticket games, it seems the capital has football on lock. Would Auckland deserve another shot, or would a team quickly get lost in the shuffle?
Controlling for all the operational logistics like funding and sponsors and politics (ie, being totally unrealistic), would a team work anywhere else in New Zealand?
Taking the metaphor of the Phoenix rising from the ashes almost literally, could franchise football find a home in Christchurch? The city has been starved of most forms of top-level sport since the quakes, but AMI Stadium is now a hub for field sports. Could football co-exist in this stadium, and with such a rugby-dominant sporting public?
Or would relocation starve the passionate fan base which has been built in Wellington over the years? There will be children who have grown up in those yellow seats over the past decade, building a passion for the sport and the club along the way. A new generation of football fans would be heartbroken if their team (and its licence) moved towns.
Here’s a suggestion thrown out with little-to-no research – Is it possible the Wellington Phoenix could become the New Zealand Phoenix? Is it feasible for a franchise team to tour the country – pick three or four cities, and split ‘home’ games between them? Of course there would need to be one base city for the players and staff, but games could be taken on the road regularly.
Nights like tonight in Auckland prove that scarcity does wonders for crowds. The Warriors have shown that with their ‘home-away-from-home’ games, and even the Aussie teams have cottoned on to the effect. When NRL teams take a home game to Christchurch, Wellington or even Hamilton, they’re not doing it because they think their fans will travel. They’re doing it because they know New Zealand’s a one team country – their members are likely to travel and passionate fans are found all over the country. Novelty is as good a marketing tool as any, and more often than not, these ‘home’ games are deemed a success.
Find a balance of a dozen or so ‘home’ games split between the host cities, so each location and its fans are exposed to approximately four games a year. Build a connection and familiarity with the team in each city, and have them really become a national franchise. The West Tigers have made a home at both Campbelltown and Leichardt Oval, and the Dragons have Kograh and WIN Stadium. There’s precedent over the Tasman, albeit for historical reasons.
But there’s also more money and infrastructure over the Tasman. So maybe this is a pipe dream, or fans wouldn’t be interested. It might dilute resources, including fan support. But with a record crowd in attendance at Eden Park (22,648), you think management would be keen to at least investigate co-existing markets and consistently higher crowd averages. I imagine both Eden Park and the Phoenix will be putting their hands up to do this again.
All this to say, thanks for coming to Auckland, Phoenix. You have plenty of passionate fans here, no matter your fate. Make sure to make the most of them.