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Australia's A-League expands its horizons

With the 18-year anniversary of the start of Australia’s A-League Men's competition, we look at the major funding source of the clubs in the 12-team league and expectations for what’s ahead.

Fans protest a decision to stage three consecutive A-League grand finals in Sydney, December 2022 (Photo: Alamy via Fair Play Publishing)

16 October 2023

The news out of the A-League’s own media outlet, KeepUp, last week was that the 13th franchise for the competition would be handed to an Auckland team to be financed by US investor and Bournemouth owner, Bill Foley.

It won’t be the first time that New Zealand’s biggest city would see a team in the Australian competition. When the A-League was launched with much fanfare in 2005, New Zealand Knights, which had transformed itself from its National Soccer League name of Auckland Kingz, was one of the eight establishment teams.

But lack of resources, poor performances, and even poorer crowds led to their license being stripped, and Wellington Phoenix becoming the New Zealand team in the A-League from 2007. 

Despite its much smaller population base (approximately 250,000 in Wellington compared with 1.7 million in Auckland), Wellington Phoenix has managed to be relatively stable since then.

The re-emergence of an Auckland team is seen as giving a boost to the existing team with the introduction of a North Island Derby. Foley’s reported ownership will potentially plunge the A-League even further into the haves and have nots amongst club owners.

The haves

Foley, a West Point graduate who has made most of his wealth in financial services and who also owns FC Lorient in France as well as other sports’ teams in the USA, will join owners from six other countries excluding Australia.

  • Indonesia: Brisbane Roar is owned by the Bakrie family. They are what might be described as colourful, well-connected within Indonesia and football, and it's worth reading up on them.
  • Philippines: Jefferson Cheng is a one-third owner of Western Sydney Wanderers along with billionaire Paul Lederer of Australia and multi-millionaire Glenn Duncan of Australia/New Zealand. Cheng is also the owner of Davao Aguilas FC in the Philippines and was the principal funder of the Women’s National Team at the 2023 World Cup.
  • Netherlands: businessman Cor Adriaanse finally outed himself as owner after years of speculation;
  • Abu Dhabi: Melbourne City is City Football Group’s Australian club; 
  • New Zealand: Wellington Phoenix is majority owned by former investment banker and philanthropist, Rob Morrison, generally considered as one of the straight-shooting good guys at the top table of the A-League.
  • Russia: on paper, Sydney FC is majority (around 90%) owned by Australian company Strada Investments, with minor investors. The head of Strada Investments is the English-born son-in-law of David Traktovenko

Most people say "David Who?"

David Traktovenko is part of the St Petersburg elite. He was co-owner of Zenit St Petersburg from 2002 to 2005 with oligarch and colleague of Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Kogan. Traktovenko knew Kogan from his Board position with state-owned banks, Promstroibank and Vyborg Bank (both now part of VTB Bank). In 2006, Zenit St Petersburg was purchased by Gazprom, now a FIFA sponsor.

It has to be said that Traktovenko owns a house in Sydney’s upmarket Mosman, his daughter and grandchildren live in Australia, and Strada Investments has had a financial interest in Sydney FC since the A-League's inception in 2005.

All these points would be made by most locals to argue the case that Sydney FC is an Australian club. On paper, that is correct. Ultimately, however, it has been bankrolled by Traktovenko. 

The have nots

Amongst the clubs that do not have access to the same level of resources are:

  • Central Coast Mariners, who are the current title-holders, which is part-owned by Englishman Mike Charlesworth, and local fitness entrepreneur, Richard Peil.
  • Macarthur Bulls (outer south-west Sydney), which is owned by local business people.
  • Melbourne Victory, which is a public company and has multiple shareholders.
  • Newcastle Jets which are currently without owners.

The unknowns

  • Perth Glory. After the former owner, a Western Australian mining millionaire, bailed out at the end of last season after finally having enough of losing money after 17 years, the A-League announced a few days before the start of the 2023-24 season that a consortium led by property developer Primeland Group would take over the license. Perth Glory's new Chairman is a long-time supporter of the Croatian community-backed, Melbourne Knights (which plays in a state-based competition). Primeland is also based in Melbourne which is 3,500 kilometres from Perth.

And the A-Leagues governance?

The A-Leagues have been run separately from Football Australia since 2020 after a bitter three-year battle between the A-League clubs led by Simon Pearce of the City Football Group and the Football Australia Board, led by Frank and then Steven Lowy.

Only last month, the A-Leagues appointed former Labor Party Senator and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to its Board as an independent Chair. He joins representatives of four of the clubs to the Board - Brisbane Roar, Melbourne City, Sydney FC ,and Western Sydney Wanderers; Ebru Koksal of Turkey, in what can only be viewed as a 'token woman' appointment; and Stephen Evans, Managing Director of Silver Lake in the US, the private equity firm which holds a 21.6% (originally 33%) stake in the A-League through its Singapore operations, the single biggest shareholder. Evans is also on the Board of NZ Rugby Commercial, TEG, Diamond Baseball Holdings, and Endeavor, amongst others.

According to a report in the Nine Newspapers, the ultimate owner of Silver Lake's Singapore operations is Silver Lake LLC headquartered in Delaware, USA, via an intermediary Singapore entity out of the Cayman Islands.

With the advent of Covid, a rushed broadcast partner in Paramount Plus that was nowhere near being ‘match fit’ for live broadcasts of football matches, decision-making that left fans furious, it was a tough baptism for the independent A-League with a significant loss of face with, and confidence from, football fans. Most of it was merely the times (e.g. Covid), some of it was self-inflicted.

On the other hand, the unshackled Football Australia has enjoyed great success - and reaped substantial financial rewards - in the past 12 months through the performances of its two marquee national teams, the Socceroos and the Matildas, as well as the staging of the successful 2023 World Cup with New Zealand in July/August.

Following a domestic record crowd of a little over 11,400 for an A-League Women's match on the weekend, the A-League Men kick-off on Friday night with great expectations and, it has to be said for a competition that rarely does much in terms of promotion and marketing, fanfare.

In the meantime, we watch this space in terms of new owner(s) for Perth Glory and Newcastle Jets, whether serious billionaire Bill Foley's entry into the A-League via Auckland as the 13th team is more than just a rumour, and who and where will join Foley as the competition's 14th team.