On 26 July, the Wellington Phoenix will host two English Premier League teams on the same day. This is the climax to Football United, a week-long celebration of the ‘beautiful game’, also featuring matches in Auckland and Dunedin.
Good things take time and this event has been two years in the making. It was in 2012 that Phoenix FC, backed by owners Welnix, first started approaching English Premier League clubs directly to see if they were interested in coming out to New Zealand in the 2013 off-season. That timeframe proved to be too ambitious, not helped by the fact that it coincided with the appointment of new Phoenix head coach Ernie Merrick, replacing foundation manager Ricki Herbert.
Things got more serious last December when Phoenix CEO David Dome made his first trip to England to add the face-to-face element to negotiations. By this stage the Wellington City Council was fully on board as it realised what was on offer in terms of confirming Wellington’s reputation as the centre of football in New Zealand, and reaffirming its ability to host big international events.
From there, months of planning ensued, including protracted negotiations and middle-of-the-night phone calls. More clubs were initially going to be involved before the final details were confirmed with Newcastle United and West Ham United. Everything has been planned to the ultimate detail, and now local football fans eagerly await two clubs from the English 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 Premier League clubs that can provide better value for the Phoenix’s money for this venture.
Newcastle United is a club rich in history, with players like Jackie Milburn, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle, Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, and manager Bobby Robson, all household names in different eras. The club is also one of the most widely followed globally and until the last three years was rated in the top 20 of all football clubs worldwide. On and off the pitch things have been a little bit shambolic over the last few seasons, but lifetime fans, whether here or in Australia, do not desert a club like Newcastle United in a hurry. The fact that the All Blacks are playing a match at the club’s home ground, St James’ Park, in next year’s Rugby World Cup is a reminder of the marketing pulling power of Newcastle United (if one was needed).
The second-best England team to contest a World Cup, the semi-finalists of 1990, was built around Beardsley, Waddle and Gascoigne, all Newcastle players at one time or another. But the best England World Cup team was, of course, built around West Ham United, as their fans will remind you at every possible opportunity. The core of that 1966 World Cup-winning side were Hammers Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters, but more recently names like Billy Bonds, Joe Cole, Trevor Brooking, Paolo Di Canio and… um… Winston Reid have been chanted from the East End grandstands. West Ham has a reputation for being every New Zealander’s second team, and is a team with a stronger following in New Zealand than in any other country. So why is that?
New Zealand has affection for the underdog, especially a stylish underdog. Putting aside the significant ex-Cockney expat community here, there is the traditional journey of Kiwis who have come late to the attractions of the beautiful game. The journey of the average New Zealand male goes something like this: through school — and for 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, finds a football club to support and looks around. And bingo: you have a Hammers fan for life, blowing bubbles all the way from London back to Wellington.
Adding the Winston Reid factor is the icing on the cake. The Phoenix deliberately did not make the approach to West Ham via Reid, preferring instead to go through orthodox channels. But once the All White international and 2013 fan-voted Hammer of the Year was brought on board, he actively promoted the idea within the club.
The other bonus adding local flavour is the transfer of Yellow Fever’s favourite hero-villain Shane Smeltz to Sydney FC, who play Newcastle United in Dunedin during the tour
Both of the Premier League businesses have completely bought into Football United, according to Dome. Pre-season tournaments play an increasingly large part of clubs’ revenue-gathering and marketing opportunities. Over the last 20 years, Manchester United have led the way in this and the other clubs are now catching up. For example, last year’s visit to Melbourne by Liverpool is rumoured to have come with a $5 million appearance fee alone.
Newcastle and West Ham won’t be charging anything like that, but when you start adding up all the costs you arrive at some large numbers. Both clubs will travel with an entourage of around 40 people. As Dome points out, “Business class air travel, five-star accommodation; this is not a cheap exercise.” Then consider that the appearance fee still makes up the majority of the cost involved.
Newcastle United has been involved in such expeditions before, but recently got burnt in a tournament in Southeast Asia. “New Zealand may not be so lucrative,
but the money is banked, and the surroundings are more familiar,” says Dome. 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. However, the club is about to shift its home ground to the 2012 London Olympic Stadium. They are up there with the big boys now.
The site visits have been completed, and the logistics finalised. According to Dome 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, although they are nowhere near as demanding as the England cricket team in Australia last year, with their 84 pages of detailed requirements. This is a pre-season tournament where players are getting the fitness up: it’s pasta all round.
Planning around the day itself kicked off months ago. English 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 lining up to showcase their countries, and to bask in the reflected glory of their nationals playing out in the middle. A football World Cup reminds us of the global nature of the sport, and diplomatic staff do love a good party.
Wellington City Council is strongly involved, and not just financially. All senior club football is cancelled that afternoon and college football is taking a lenient stance to 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 here from Australia for the games.
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 see. This tour is right in the middle of the transfer window, so rumours will follow the teams around, along with the tabloid journalists doing what tabloid journalists do.
The pay-per-view deal with Sky is also a bit of a watershed in the fast-changing business of how sport is broadcast in New Zealand, as this is the first time a non-pugilist sport has been covered this way here. The revenue helps underwrite the event, but the main motivation was to act as a media blackout to encourage people to actually go to the event rather than take the flat-screen option at home. It is not often that such a large unscheduled event comes along, so Sky can get away with clipping the ticket. And with pay-per-view sporting events comes lots of bonus promotion.
But probably the best example of attention to detail has been in the scheduling: two daytime games, at 2pm and 4.30pm. 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 also being 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 the Dunedin fixture concerned whether the artificial turf there would be suitable. But when Newcastle representatives visited the stadium everyone remembered that the technology used to develop the hybrid turf at the new Forsyth Barr Stadium was copied from the technology used at St James’ Park, and that these organisations had previously met. It is indeed a small world.
The match at Eden Park, 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 Auckland is easier to get to from Australia than Wellington, so there is a feeling of optimism there. When the Phoenix has played there in previous seasons, around 80 percent of the gate sales occurred in the final week.
There has been muttering in some quarters that we will not get to see the best players from each club, 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 following season.
On top of this, it will be a chance for fans to see the Phoenix for the first time for a few months, complete with their own 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 that wants to take football in this city to another level, and for a city to show that it is not afraid of coming up with original ideas, and quite likes being part of a global event.
Much planning and preparation have been undertaken to put all of this together. It was always a going to be a huge gamble, but it looks like it will come off. The club has even whispered that it might make a small profit, but that is just a tiny part of what is behind the event.
The club, and its owners, do not lack for ambition. Let’s hope this is not the last time we get to see such a venture.