New era for A-League as owners step up
Paul Lederer, chairman of the Western Sydney Wanderers Picture: Britta Campion
Editor, The List
12:00AM October 26, 2019
Paul Lederer says it’s time for the whingeing and negativity to stop, and some optimism to return to the A-League.
The billionaire chairman of the rejuvenated Western Sydney Wanderers says Saturday evening’s sold-out derby against rival Sydney FC at the new 30,000-capacity Bankwest Stadium in Parramatta is proof the league still has a bright future. The match, Lederer tells The Weekend Australian, should also mark a turning point of sorts.
It is time, he says, to stop the infighting that has plagued soccer for several years and saw the Lowy family blasted from the sport as part of governance changes that will soon see 12 clubs take ownership of the A-League, and move forward.
“We’re at a brand new ground and we will have a full crowd of delirious fans, it will be fantastic. So we now have to shut up, be positive about it and not have too much negativity,” Lederer says.
“The (club) owners being in control will be a game changer. But that means it is also time to invest in the league and spend more money on marketing and that sort of thing. We are in charge now, so we have to do it.”
Lederer and the other club owners have lost an estimated $350m since the A-League was established in 2005, a competition born out of the wreckage of the previous pioneering but ultimately failed National Soccer League.
Western Sydney Wanderers will play to a sell-out crowd against Sydney FC on Saturday night Picture: Getty Images
A new league brought much-needed optimism with the first decade marked by rising crowds, star international players such as Alessandro Del Piero arriving in Australia and well-performed Socceroos and Matildas national teams. But a corporate governance battle in the past few years has taken its toll. Metrics like attendances and in particular television broadcast numbers have either fallen or plummeted, with club owners and officials doing themselves few favours by constantly talking the sport down.
The owners are now in the final stages of legal and commercial agreements to wrest control of the league from governing body Football Federation Australia. And while this season’s A-League has not exactly started with a bang — crowds for the National Basketball League were higher last weekend — Lederer says the ownership change will mean the league becomes a more viable business.
“There’s a lot of interest out there in investing in the league, I am absolutely sure of that. There is interest from Europe, there is definitely interest from China and the United States as well.
“Previously that interest has been there, but they were not sure what they would be investing in. Now there will be some certainty in terms of what the league looks like.”
Lederer, who made his fortune from the Primo food manufacturing business and has a $1.23bn estimated fortune on The List — Australia’s Richest 250, and his fellow Wanderers owners have invested about $20m building a new training and junior development academy at Blacktown, one of several projects being rolled out across A-League clubs.
It means the Wanderers won’t break even, but Lederer says the strategy is part of building the club to have a permanent presence in a soccer-mad area. “We want to be more than a football club. We see this as a social responsibility, to have boys and girls come here and play in our academy for free.
“We are very excited about the future, and you can see that already on the field with several of our academy players in the first team.”
It is part of what A-League head Greg O’Rourke calls a much-needed change in “sentiment” around the league. “Sentiment drives a lot of things, like the markets and politics. And if you have good sentiment that hopefully means all the business drivers fall into place behind it.”
O’Rourke attended the FFA Cup final on Wednesday night in Adelaide, in which the home team thrashed Melbourne City 4-0 in front of a sold-out stadium full of passionate fans.
He talks about that match, featuring a spectacular goal from emerging 19-year-old sensation Al Hassan Toure, as being a chance “for people to fall back in love with the sport”.
O’Rourke points to improving membership numbers across the league, new club Western United making a good start on the field including its debut home game in Geelong and Melbourne Victory attracting a 33,000 crowd for its round one game.
The league already has big owners like Melbourne City, backed by the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Chinese investors and part of the global City Football Group which includes English Premier League giant Manchester City.
Former EPL boss Richard Scudamore has signed on as an adviser to the A-League, while consultants from CFG have been drafted in by powerful club boss Simon Pearce, to work on a new strategy for the future, along with KPMG.
O’Rourke says there is potential for private investment in the league from outside — “you see that in plenty of other sports and industries around the world, so yes it could happen here” — and that there is a 100-page blueprint for the league’s future, and that of the women’s W-League that has been drafted.
“It means the owners are invested in what happens. Take sponsorship. There’s a lot of wealthy owners and they have good networks that they might tap into to have sponsors for the entire league. They would not have done that previously for the FFA.”
Yet the league is not out of the woods. Love can only take a sport so far. Ratings were low for the first two games of the season telecast free-to-air on the ABC — reportedly at no cost to the public broadcaster — and it is likely just about all clubs will post financial losses this season. Ratings on Fox Sports remain stubbornly low for many games. Some sponsors have elected to stay with the FFA and not move to the independent A-League.
Meanwhile, the Chinese owner of the Newcastle Jets, Martin Lee, would like to sell the team after running short of money due to his Ledman Optoelectronic Group being hit by the trade war with the US.
But at the same time, new club Western United in Melbourne has plans to build a $180m stadium in Melbourne’s west with private investor money, and Macarthur FC in Sydney’s southwest, half-owned by billionaire Lang Walker and entering the league next year, is understood to already have a large number of sponsors signed.
Then there is Perth Glory, which has attracted what is probably the biggest name in Australian business, mining giant BHP, as its major sponsor this season.
Glory owner and mining investor Tony Sage says his team playing in the Asian Champions League last year helps — “Three of BHP’s biggest markets are China, South Korea and Japan and we will be playing there this season” — with ticket sales and commercial support.
Sage is also looking for investment, having travelled to Zurich this week to talk to potential buyers of a stake in his club. While he says he lost $3m last season, Perth is still a viable club to put money into. “I don’t want to sell all of it, and I’ve had offers from teams that want to change our name or use the team for their brand to enter Australia.
“But what we have now is an asset that will also own a percentage of an entire league. That is an asset that should alone make the club worth more,” Sage says.