Wellington Phoenix FC: Flying the Flag for New Zealand Football

Wellington Phoenix FC: Flying the Flag for New Zealand Football

As New Zealand’s only professional football team, and facing strong competition to tempt fans away from more recognised and successful sports, Wellington Phoenix has to work hard to get noticed.

One of the men responsible for this challenge is Nathan Godfrey, the club’s Head of Commercial. The Australian Business Executive had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Godfrey recently to get his thoughts on the Phoenix.

Switching Codes

Mr. Godfrey’s sports management career began at Otago University, where he studied a double degree in Sports Management and Marketing.

After 5 years in the UK managing health clubs for Virgin Active and Fitness First, he relocated to Australia to work as a sports agent, managing and representing talent in many different sporting codes.

Before joining Wellington Phoenix, Mr. Godfrey worked for three years with the Adelaide Crows AFL Club, within two quite different roles, one in the commercial sponsorship department and the other in non-traditional football revenue.

For the last twelve months with the Crows he focussed on commercial projects that fall outside of sponsorship and membership. “It’s important in an industry where a lot of the financial results are driven by on field performance,” he tells us.

“Those departments can be volatile if you’re not winning. So the ability to generate passive revenue streams that can be re-invested into making the club more sustainable long term is a positive thing.”

When the role at Wellington Phoenix came up, Mr. Godfrey’s attraction to the city was immediate, and a lot to do with the political power base of New Zealand, which from a commercial prospective carries some weight in terms of developing networks.

“I believe in surrounding yourself with talented people,” he says, “and Wellington has a reputation as a creative hub with a focus on business innovation. There’s a funky vibe here. On a nice day, the harbour comes alive, the views from my house on the hills are real ‘Lord of the Rings’ stuff.”

“Wellington is a culturally diverse city, very transient in nature. We need to position our matchday experience as an entertainment product, both on and off the field. After all, football is the ‘beautiful game’.”

Mr. Godfrey’s vision is for the Phoenix to work alongside other sectors—the arts, music, politics, culture—to deliver a unique experience that stimulates the fans. Wellington has the talent at the disposal; it’s just a case of challenging the status quo.

Nathan Godfrey-Head of Commercial
Nathan Godfrey-Head of Commercial

His role with the Phoenix certainly offers different challenges than those experienced within the high profile AFL industry, with the A-League garnering far less national media attention. So what has been the challenge in switching codes?

“The biggest difference [is] probably… access to resources at the moment,” Mr. Godfrey says. “Our ownership group and board is comprised of up to a dozen really successful and networked New Zealand business people.”

“The upside is our ability to be able to connect at a government level, the buy-in from New Zealand as a whole to try and reach out globally… that’s probably the biggest pro. With continued investment in the football department, the biggest con is just a lack of resources in the front office administration.”

It is clear however that advancement in the game is being actively driven by the governing body responsible for overseeing all aspects of the sport in the country, New Zealand Football.

“We’re the only professional football club in New Zealand,” Mr. Godfrey stresses, “we’re the pathway for a young footballer who aspires to be a professional, so we have a role to play in terms of working closely with both the Governing Body and the Oceania Football Federation.”

The club likewise has a role to play in promoting New Zealand’s involvement in the sport on the worldwide stage, and does this in part by putting on major official events, which provide substantial financial benefits for club and country.

The biggest draw is undoubtedly the chance to have English Premier League clubs come over to play in New Zealand, as was the case during the 2014/15 British pre-season when the Phoenix hosted both West Ham United and Newcastle United.

“The economic benefits there,” Mr. Godfrey tells us, speaking about the West Ham and Newcastle games specifically, “in Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin, were significant, around $18 million.”

Pre-Season Tours

It is common practice for teams from the big European leagues to engage in preseason tours in order to prepare for an upcoming campaign, but it is still relatively foreign for teams from Australasia and Oceania.

“Previously this has been an under-utilised area for the club,” Mr. Godfrey says, “so we’re targeting three really small windows throughout the off season now. The first window is in May, just as the players have come back from a break.”

Last year the club’s principal partner, Huawei, flew the team and a small group of delegates to Hong Kong for the Citibank Soccer Sevens tournament, where the Phoenix competed alongside the likes of the EPL’s West Ham, Aston Villa and reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.

“This tournament isn’t for our senior players,” Mr. Godfrey adds, “it’s about exposing our young talent to global clubs and international travel.”

The second window is in the middle of the pre-season calendar, within which they will not only organise high profile exhibition matches with EPL clubs—something they will endeavour to do biannually—but also to play local matches.

“It’s really important… we’re not [just] Wellington Phoenix, we’re New Zealand’s club, so we need to engage with our national fan base by playing a few regional matches.”

The third window is just before the A-League season starts in October. Working closely with its newest corporate partner Fiji Airways, the team has just returned from Fiji where they played against the national team in two pre-season tour matches.

“Sports sponsorship is not just about a partner helping the club, it’s about the club helping partners tell a story. When we travelled to the Hong Kong Sevens, Huawei’s headquarters are in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong.”

The Phoenix were the first professional team to visit the home of Huawei, a multi-billion dollar a year company, and one of the largest telecom companies in the world, a company that sponsors some of the biggest football teams in the world.

“Very recently we’ve helped promote the very first flight from Wellington to Nadi,” Mr. Godfrey says, “Fiji Airways are flying direct from Wellington Airport, and we helped tell that story. That’s what football can do; it’s a global platform for sharing content.”

Fiji Airways undertook a huge campaign to attract tourism to the island and drive traffic to its website, and the Phoenix were able to help the airline reach 1.7m people through multiple media channels.

“Our strategy is to expand into Asia-Pacific; we provide an opportunity for companies doing business in these regions to grow their brand awareness and corporate networks. This is the fastest growing market in the world, which shares a passion for the game of football, so in that respect the future’s really exciting.”

Developing Talent

“The other thing that we’re really focussed on at the moment is trying to develop an education product, for the purposes of attracting Asian students to travel to New Zealand under our Academy model. It’s a model that’s used in Europe.”

The model focuses on two streams—an elite stream, focused on developing professional footballers, and a non-elite stream, where the students play football and study towards a tertiary qualification, such as a sports science or commerce degree.

“You only need a very small percentage of the Asian population to make that model work for us,” Mr. Godfrey explains. “We’re working closely with secondary and tertiary providers in Wellington, and Education New Zealand, to ensure we have a product that is world class.”

“The vision we share with our stakeholders is to ensure students have an immersive experience in New Zealand, learn English, experience our culture, develop their football skills, and walk away with a qualification.”

The alignment with three Wellington secondary schools provides the club with ready access to education and facilities that allow it to offer the very best footballing education to academy members. The club also has a soccer school in Auckland and is currently discussing a third soccer school in Christchurch.

In terms of Asia, and China in particular, New Zealand is very much open for business, and generally considered a safe environment and desirable location for Asian parents and coaches to send children.

“We’re probably 18 months to 2 years ahead of a lot of the other A-League clubs in Australia,” says Mr. Godfrey, when asked about the club’s strategy for developing talent. “We’ve got the structures in place, and it’s starting to bear fruit. We just announced the signing of two academy players on professional contracts.”

Paramount to this success is a coaching philosophy adopted by Phoenix head coach Ernie Merrick, which he calls “The Phoenix Way,” and comprises three key principles.

Phoenix Head Coach Ernie Merrick
Phoenix Head Coach Ernie Merrick

“Ernie believes in making sure that the players are: one, playing together as a squad; two, playing in game simulation 12 months of the year… and three, at a very young age they’re proficient in terms of their technical skills and decision making under pressure.”

“The academy aligns with that philosophy, this was part of [Ernie’s] plan two years ago when he started as head coach. He wanted to make sure that the academy was producing talent.”

“Firstly, there’s a pathway for them to represent the Phoenix, but secondly if a player chooses to transfer overseas there is a revenue stream returning to the academy program.”

The global Training and Development Compensation Plan guarantees that the club a player was signed up to at the age of 13 will receive compensation from any transfers or trades of that player until the age of 21.

“That’s every football player in the world,” Mr. Godfrey explains. “It could be that we get young 8 year old or 9 year old New Zealand kids that come through our academy program, and they’re with us for nearly a decade before turning pro. “

Mr. Godfrey admits that the club needs to take a long-term view in terms of return on investment, maintaining a strong academy in order for the club to continue producing elite players for the first team, so it can compete in the A-League, and start to realistically challenge for trophies.

In conjunction with the academy, the club’s reserve side is critical in terms of developing the best first team in order to achieve success, and a lot of this depends on reserve team players being able to seamlessly transition into the first team set up.

“The team structure and culture, the coaching message, access to conditioning and medical support. Ernie has positively influenced this part of the club, and given us some consistency in terms of how our youth players are developed and exposed to the first team.”

Mr. Godfrey admits that AFL teams do this particularly well, so that when younger players join the first team they understand the structures that are in place, and the reserves become something of a feeder team for the main squad.

“Because we’re a professional football team,” he adds, “it’s very easy to have a disconnect with community football, so this team provides us with an authentic connection at grass roots level.”

Revenue Streams

After its most successful season for some time in 2014/15, including 16 wins and qualification for the A-League Finals Series, the Phoenix now has a record membership base of just under 4,500, forming almost half of an average matchday crowd.

For a team the size of Wellington Phoenix, it will always be necessary to look further afield to increase revenue streams, and one of Mr. Godfrey’s jobs is to find and capitalise on potential areas to maximise the club’s revenue.

“I’m personally focussed on some areas I worked on in the AFL,” he says. “One of them is commercialising the community space. We’re looking at a national school fundraising project called ‘Ready Set Goal’, which will be launched in May 2016.”

The project will see a large percentage of the funds generated from community work going back to the participating schools, with kids incentivised by prizes based on their level of fundraising.

The club’s hope is that the project becomes an ‘off the shelf’ fundraising product, meaning schools don’t need to have a sausage sizzle, fair, and lamington drive, something many teachers and parents will no doubt endorse.

The club already delivers over 800 hours per year of community work, having its employees visit schools, hospitals and charities to reach out into the community. The ‘Ready Set Goal’ project will offer access to a market of up to 2,500 primary schools.

“It’s a really serious commitment of our players’ and coaches’ time,” Mr. Godfrey admits, “to be able to get out there on their days off and try and grow the brand.”

“The other thing we’re working on is a regular giving fund,” he adds, “we are calling it the Phoenix Football Fund—again, a handful of AFL teams have adopted different variations of this model.”

The scheme is designed to encourage the club’s members and corporate sponsors to donate to the club every time the Phoenix wins an A-League match and is about giving to an emotional and aspirational cause: winning the A-League trophy.

“There are layers to our membership; we want you to come to our matches. The next layer below that is you come to our matches as a paid member. And the next layer below that is… you come to our matches but you also donate to the Phoenix Football Fund.”

Mr. Godfrey and the club believe people will donate because football fans, and New Zealand sports fan in general, are avid and passionate, taking pride in seeing their club winning. Fans can make donations easily by visiting www.everywincounts.com.

“We’ve got over 92,000 people following us on social media channels. So if you compare that with our average crowd attendance there’s a bit of a disconnect, hopefully the Phoenix Football Fund can help bridge that gap.”

TV deals are a huge revenue stream for all A-League clubs, as is the support from corporate partners and sponsorship deals. “The key for the growth of Football in New Zealand is getting more Phoenix matches on free-to-air TV,” Mr. Godfrey believes.

“We are also in discussions around a mid-week TV show dedicated to football, including EPL highlights, A-League highlights, local ASB Premiership highlights, plus some insight and behind the scenes access to the Phoenix.”

To mitigate the risk of traditional sponsorship revenue, the Phoenix is also working closely with Principal Partner HUAWEI to establish the HUAWEI Business FC, a club within a club.

Andrew Bowater, the company’s Director of Public Affairs, describes the arrangement as being one of a kind: “Huawei Business FC is a first for any professional sports team in New Zealand,” he says.

“This is the first time businesses have looked to leverage their shared passion for sport as a way to come together and do business. Since we announced it several connections and leads have already come up—it’s very exciting.”

The launch event will be held on the 5th December in Auckland, when the Phoenix play A-League champions Melbourne Victory. The Victory’s no.1 ticket holder is MasterChef George Colambaris, who will fly out and turn the pre-match function menu into a version of his Gazi Restaurant.

“Huawei is putting its focus on building a better connected business community around and through its partnership with the Phoenix,” Mr. Bowater adds. “Huawei Business FC will open doors and connect like minded companies and we believe by building this community, we will make the club truly sustainable.”

Phoenix Codes

 

Global Appeal

Unlike its fellow A-League clubs, the Phoenix is not able to compete in the lucrative Asian Champions League, since they are geographically located in Oceania.

This is seen as a significant obstacle to the club’s global ambitions, but one that Mr. Godfrey hopes will eventually be rectified, especially considering the A-League’s decision to branch into Oceania to recruit a team from New Zealand.

“In terms of our strategy,” he says, “if we truly want to align, then maybe that’s the direction we need to head, but in the short term there are some benefits to being in Oceania… if we continue to travel to Fiji to play matches, there’s actually a game development component that could attract some funding.”

Next year marks the clubs 10-year anniversary, and discussions have already begun around hosting an A-League match in Fiji during the regular season to mark the occasion. The club’s alliance with Fiji Airways makes this a realistic proposition.

The club has identified four key areas of focus to help it achieve the goal of becoming a truly international club, and helping to make the Phoenix a respected global brand.

“Our number one priority right now is new facilities,” Mr. Godfrey says. “We need a headquarters, a centre of excellence. We’re talking at the moment with Wellington City Council around some significant funding for a high performance unit.”

The proposed facility could potentially be shared with other leading sports codes, and would provide the Phoenix with the opportunity to attract new talent as well as share intellectual property with other codes.

“It’s also important for developing our young talent. It’s one thing to have an academy and have the players training together—but where are they training, and what support are we providing them? It’s about providing the very best environment that you can, with the aim of extracting every ounce of performance.”

“We have the talent,” he continues, “we’ve proved that in the Hong Kong Sevens last year, that we can compete with some of the best young talent, from some of the biggest football clubs in the world.”

In 2015’s tournament, the Phoenix reached the semi-finals of the competition, beating the EPL’s West Ham United 4-1 on the way, and only losing with the help of a Golden Goal against the competition’s eventual winners, Atletico Madrid.

“Our young players, at that age, they’re as good as some of the best players in England, in the world, and that’s given us a lot of confidence that we have got the foundations right.”

The question remains then, regarding the difference in quality between the A-League and the bigger European and worldwide leagues, especially the EPL; do teams on this side of the world have a realistic chance of reaching that level of quality?

In pre-season 2015 both Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea visited Australia to pit themselves against A-League team Sydney FC, and despite the Sky Blues coming away with two losses, each game ended only in a one goal defeat.

So, if one of Australia’s top teams can keep such pace with the EPL champions, why is it that more people aren’t getting excited about the A-League?

“Our young players, at that age, they’re as good as some of the best players in England, in the world, and that’s given us a lot of confidence that we have got the foundations right.”
“Our young players, at that age, they’re as good as some of the best players in England, in the world, and that’s given us a lot of confidence that we have got the foundations right.”

“Is it a case of a lot of people following an EPL team?” Mr. Godfrey wonders. “And then they see the A-League as an inferior product… and that’s changing, that takes time. We’re only ten years into that journey.”

Mr. Godfrey knows it will take more international matches such as the two EPL encounters to help initiate that change, and Australian and New Zealand teams competing successfully against worldwide clubs.

The Phoenix cannot claim to have a pool of talent comparable to that accessible in the top European leagues, due in most part to the significantly smaller population: “so we need to make sure we absolutely look after what we do have,” Mr. Godfrey adds.

In terms of marquee signings, Phoenix are restricted by a salary cap in line with all other A-League clubs, a ruling Mr. Godfrey understands is necessary for the league to continue to flourish

“The salary cap is $2.5 million for every team at the moment,” he explains, “and then you’re allowed one marquee signing that sits outside of the salary cap.”

This rule has already proved particularly lucrative, as TV audiences have grown significantly in the last two years due to the arrival of some impressive marquee signings to the A-League.

Another key area of international growth for the club is strategic alliances. The club has already met with a J-League team, Kashiwa Reysol, which plays in the Asian Champions League, an alliance that includes sharing of youth players and coaches.

The club is also looking to develop further links with clubs in the USA, working on and off the field to grow the game of football in countries where the sport is not yet recognised as number one.

This struggle for global appeal is hindered by the fact that Australia and New Zealand remain in different international conferences—Asia and Oceania respectively—which many feel gives Australia an unfair advantage in terms of quality of opposition.

“The importance of getting access to Asia is critical in that respect,” Mr. Godfrey says. “We need more international matches. A couple of weeks ago we sat down with Wellington City Council and the Deputy Mayor of Beijing to discuss this among other things.”

As sister city with Beijing, Wellington already has a connection with China, and one the Phoenix hopes to capitalise on to further promote the club. In the meeting it was revealed that the Mayor wants more international sporting events in China.

“A few weeks ago, the Beijing Government invited two German Bundesliga clubs to play at the Olympic stadium. The appetite is certainly there, but it needs to be driven at the highest levels.”

Stakeholder engagement and buy-in from government will be crucial to the continuing success of such concepts, coupled with the club putting in place a business model that makes sense.

New Zealand Football

A recent survey on the effectiveness of sponsorship and brand awareness showed that increasing the popularity of football in New Zealand has not been as difficult a task as it was predicted to be.

The study, by a prominent media monitoring company, focused on the passion of fans for New Zealand sports teams, and provided a surprisingly positive outcome for Wellington Phoenix.

“We are considered New Zealand’s fourth most popular [franchise] sports team,” Mr. Godfrey tells us. “Number one was the Warriors. Number two was the Crusaders, and we were basically third equal with the Hurricanes, at about 318,000 avid fans in New Zealand.”

This in an impressive statistic considering the Phoenix is only eight years into its journey, with a club the size and stature of the Warriors having already been around for two decades, and the Crusaders boasting a legacy of success.

“We’re ahead of three other super rugby franchises in New Zealand, which is really interesting. We’re more popular than all the basketball and netball franchises too. Where I think we can probably do better… is our ability to engage with ex-pat Kiwis living in Australia. That is an untapped market for us.”

Mr. Godfrey recognises that there are a lot of New Zealanders who love football and love the country, but aren’t based in Wellington and therefore don’t necessarily follow the team. The club must do more to elicit support from these areas of the population.

“We need to play on the Trans-Tasman rivalry,” Mr. Godfrey says, “the fact that we are the only New Zealand team playing in an Australian competition, and every Kiwi loves to beat an Aussie! I don’t think we play on that enough.”

Somewhat surprisingly, football is the number one sport for Under 13s in the country, boasting 456,000 kids engaged and playing regularly. Where the club is losing kids, and where they require help from New Zealand Football, is between ages 13 and 18.

“We need to just manage that transition period,” he adds “it’s this generation that will be members of the Phoenix 10 years from now.”

Although based in Wellington, the club has not always been known by its city name. On two previous occasions New Zealand Football has attempted to sell a team known as the Knights, based in Auckland, but showing no particular regional affiliation.

“They were both branded New Zealand,” Mr. Godfrey says, “and they both failed. It wasn’t until they created the Wellington Phoenix, based them in Wellington, with a new identity, that they actually flourished.”

This unique situation begs the question as to whether a second team from New Zealand could realistically be formed, as the Phoenix seem to draw as much support from the nation as a whole as they do from the city and the region.

“I think the important thing is the ownership group that we’ve got in place at the moment, I think that was an important structural change. They bring a lot of strong networks, business acumen and a high degree of corporate governance; that was lacking in the previous versions of the club.”

Despite the club’s regular season commitments in the A-League, it also endeavours to fulfill its commitments as New Zealand’s only full time team by organising and playing matches across the country.

“We play at least one game in Auckland and Christchurch every year,” Mr. Godfrey explains. “We’re looking at matches in Napier, and in all our pre-season games we still play matches in small regional towns.”

In addition to its A-League commitments, over the last eight years the club has played in twelve different locations across New Zealand, reinforcing its role as football ambassadors.

But with rugby overwhelmingly dominating the nation’s sporting appetite, it is always going to be hard for a sport as relatively green as football to compete to win the eyeballs and interest of the New Zealand population.

In truth, New Zealand Rugby has its own concerns, especially at the grass roots level of the game, despite the overwhelming global brand of the All Blacks.

“That’s being reflected in the amount of kids who are registering to play rugby at under 13 years of age compared to football. The safety element, the fact rugby is a collision sport, maybe mums see soccer as a safer sport for their kids.”

Probably the biggest area for growth in the next five years is women’s football. At the moment the Phoenix is renegotiating its A-League license with the hope of adding a W-League license.

“The W-League license would be a game changer for the Phoenix,” Mr. Godfrey says, “helping us attract a new suite of corporate sponsors who want to be associated with women’s football. You saw the success of the World Cup in Canada.”

The success of the Under-20 FIFA World Cup was another indicator of the growing popularity of the sport in New Zealand, including two sold out matches at QBE Stadium in Auckland.

“It’s probably a ten year plan,” Mr. Godfrey adds, in response to the question of how long it will take to get football to a place of relative parity with other sports. “But we are set up, the talent is there, it’s about continuing to open doors.”

“It’s really important that the Phoenix, long term, continue to be successful in the A-League. We also need to showcase our players more. Football is the world game, and many of our players are characters who have very unique stories to share.”

The good news for Football in New Zealand is that the foundations are in place to increase the popularity of the sport at a professional level.

Find out more about Wellington Phoenix FC by visiting: phoenix-logo

This Wellington Pheonix FC business profile has been made possible by the generous support of:
Gibson Sheat Lawyers

To read and download the full profile click on the cover image below. To view this editorial as it appeared originally in The Australian Business Executive magazine, click here.

Interview by J. Landry
Editorial by Nicholas Paul Griffin