Soccer: Annual title tilt not feasible

It may not be music to the ears of diehard Phoenix fans but new chairman Rob Morrison does not believe the club should aim to win the A-League every year.

Rather, Morrison believes the Wellington side should focus on trying to reach the play-offs each season, as it is simply not affordable to fund a title-chasing squad year on year.

his theory might be unpopular among Yellow Fever-ites but Morrison, who is also CEO of Kiwibank among an impressive business portfolio, is a long-time student of the science of sporting economics.

“I’d like to see the Phoenix be a self-sustaining, profitable club,” Morrison told the Herald on Sunday. “You can’t build a team or invest profitably in a franchise that is actually going to win a competition every year.

“We are not going to spend money to try and win the [A-League] every year. that is not a self-sustaining model.

“We want to build a squad that is capable of challenging for it every year – but it won’t just be about spending the most money.”

Morrison cites the examples of the Central Coast Mariners and Brisbane Roar as ones to follow. he points out that both teams, who have been consistent performers over the past few seasons, are spending “at or within their salary cap and a lot less – probably 50 per cent less – than the Melbourne Victory or Sydney FC spend.

“We are going to develop and spend sensibly so we have a really competitive squad capable of getting to the play-offs every year and, once there, you are then capable of going on to win it. But it won’t happen every year and we are not going to spend money that way.”

Morrison also uses examples from baseball, many cited in the 2003 book Moneyball (since made into a movie starring Brad Pitt) to illustrate the differing approaches to running a professional sports organisation.

“The New York Yankees pay for a squad that is capable of winning the World Series every year; they pay salaries based on trying to win it every year but obviously they don’t and over the last decade they haven’t.

“In contrast, the Oakland as work on the basis that their squad should be capable of getting to the play-offs then it is up to the vagaries of the play-off system. They have consistently run with the lowest or second lowest salary cap in the MLB but at one point had made the play-offs more times than any other team except the Yankees.”

Despite a severely limited budget, the Oakland as made the play-offs five times between 2000 and 2006. The Yankees made the play-offs every year during that period but have won just one World Series since 2001.

“When you get to the play-offs it comes down to knock-out games, different variables and different pressures; you need to fund a team that is capable of making the play-offs and of course you absolutely want to win it. The distinction is whether you try to give yourself more of a cast-iron guarantee that you will win it.

“The Yankees, and teams like Chelsea and Manchester City, say that if we spend enough money, we will win it more times than we don’t – but it is not a sustainable model. those models rely on a mega-rich benefactor who is happy to lose plenty and they are clubs that often lose money.”

one issue with the comparison with England, and especially the US, is that fans in those countries can be loyal to their clubs almost regardless of the results. The best example is the Chicago Cubs, famously still waiting to win a World Series after more than a century but their tickets remain in hot demand. Leeds, Norwich and Brighton are recent British examples of clubs that have maintained a good following despite a series of poor results.

Kiwis, in contrast, tend to be ‘sunshine supporters’; there is less of a concept of following your team and more of an inclination toward supporting winners.

Morrison’s core principles at the Phoenix centre around turning the franchise into a successful, sound business off the field as well as a good team on it.

“There is a relatively common view [in New Zealand] that you can’t run professional sports organisations as businesses. Our view is that you have to run them as a business in order to be sustainable. We don’t want to be a Leeds United or a Portsmouth.”

“I think at times we are a little bit dewy-eyed about our sports [here] and don’t understand the need to have good structures in place, be business-oriented and ensure that you spend what you earn.”

After the financial uncertainty of the past two seasons, Morrison and the Welnix consortium have recently finalised the budgets for the rest of the season. They are also not far away from appointing an operational board and have put a five year plan in place.

They have begun the search for assistant and goalkeeping coaches for next season and will increase investment in sports science and sport medicine. Coach Ricki Herbert has also identified players to be targeted for the January window and beyond.

“We need to look at strengthening the squad in various places. Some of that may happen this month but certainly we are mainly looking towards the start of the next season.”

a key plank of the five year plan is additional Phoenix teams – Morrison believes it is not sustainable long term to be a one-team club. he hopes to have a feeder team up and running by next season, playing against domestic teams, much like the ASB Challenge series that was run last season. Morrison is confident an extended academy system can be put in place over the next few years and he would also like to see a women’s side playing under the Phoenix banner by 2016.

There have been concerns that operationally Welnix could be unwieldly, with the nine owners all wanting a say before a decision is made but Morrison dismisses that.

“My background, along with the others, is one where you had to make lots of big decisions, sometimes involving very large sums of money, quickly. I don’t think there is any issue around that.”

a lifelong Liverpool fan, Morrison’s playing involvement extends to social football with Miramar, while he has also coached his daughter’s school team. But he does ‘walk the walk’ when it comes to sporting endeavours, having completed the Coast to Coast and, late last year, a gruelling 210km adventure race in Nepal.

By Malcolm Burgess | Email Malcolm

Soccer: Annual title tilt not feasible

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