Derbies supercharge A-League ratings and generate an electric tribal excitement. Now, as the competition plans its future post-COVID, is a second A-League team in New Zealand a smart expansion play?
And if so, how would it work, where would it be based and what are the challenges to starting a second A-League in New Zealand to face off with Wellington Phoenix?
Like the gripping Sydney Derby, a prominent A-League media identity believes a New Zealand A-League derby fits neatly within the country's cultural framework.
"There would be some great story-lines – the traditional, established Wellington Phoenix from conservative Wellington against the brash, new kids on the block from flashy Auckland,” Jason Pine, a popular sports radio broadcaster, TV commentator, MC and writer based in Wellington, tells FTBL.
"Players might switch between clubs and go from heroes to villains.
"I think everyone in New Zealand would love to see it.
"This would really get the blood pumping and be a key plank in solidifying a second New Zealand franchise in the A-League.
"We all know the existing derbies in Sydney and Melbourne are some of the most compelling, exciting, and passionately supported games in the A-League.
"And there’s no reason to think a New Zealand derby would be any different," Pine adds.
There's little doubt adding a second franchise in a major city in Australia has boosted the incumbent A-League club, such as Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory.
Thus far, Wellington Phoenix has had to be content with “The Distance” A-League derby against Perth Glory.
Hardly something to excite viewers or fans.
However, there’s little doubt that "Derby In Day in New Zealand" has a ring to it.
"Football in New Zealand has definitely grown significantly in popularity and participation from a result of Wellington Phoenix’s introduction into the A-League in 2007,” Pine argues.
"After a couple of ropey years and doubts over their ongoing participation, Wellington Phoenix has come out the other side and are now - believe - rusted-on A-League participants.
"My only concern would be whether the body that eventually ends up running the A-League would be brave enough to hand another license to a New Zealand club while alternatives are still available in Australia.
"Wellington Phoenix’s inclusion is even now only grudgingly accepted by some Australian fans, so if an Australian club was passed over for a second New Zealand club, I’m not sure how that would go down.”
New Zealand’s football landscape has been boosted by winning the co-hosting rights to the FIFA Women’s World Cup with Australia in 2023.
Add to that, the development of an exciting crop of young Kiwi talents coming through New Zealand's age national teams and the burgeoning strength of Wellington Phoenix - the country’s only professional football club - in the A-League.
Perhaps the future is a second New Zealand club irrespective of how many new Australian clubs are brought in to an expanded A-League or mooted Second Division?
Certainly, if the second New Zealand club got its imports right - as Wellington Phoenix has done in recent seasons - found the best young New Zealand talent and employed a young, hungry manager, it could be successful on the pitch.
Auckland has other advantages, not just cultural ones, says Pine, as he envisions Derby Day with Wellington Phoenix.
“Based purely on its population base of over 1.6 million people, a number of suitable stadiums and training venues and strong immigrant numbers, many of who love football.
"While some might point to the failed Auckland-based New Zealand Knightz franchise from the first two seasons of the A-League, times have changed since then and whenever Wellington Phoenix has taken “home” games to Auckland, they’ve drawn sizeable crowds.
"The only other realistic option would be Christchurch which has roughly the same population as Wellington [around 350,000] and a strong football support-base.
"But Auckland appeals as the logical home for a second A-League club.”
An obvious choice could be perennial local powerhouse Auckland City.
The club, based at the picturesque Kiwitea Street ground in Auckland’s suburbs, has benefitted in recent years from sizeable FIFA money as Oceania’s representatives at the FIFA Club World Cups.
However, given the A-League is an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) league, this has always posed issues for Phoenix - and potentially any second New Zealand A-League club.
Furthermore, frustratingly, Phoenix has never been able to compete in any Australian national youth league competition.
New Zealand would also need to join the AFC for Phoenix and any other professional club to be part of the ACL (Asian Champions League).
AFC regulations aside, financially it’s a tough ask to find backers for an A-League club.
There’s a license fee (around $10-15m currently, though that may change when the league is run wholly by the clubs) and millions in start-up costs.
Having said that, New Zealand has been far ahead of Australia in terms of containing the coronavirus.
And studies suggest the New Zealand economy will grow in 2021 in sharp comparison to Australia which is on the brink of recession.
"Without knowing the exact numbers, I know it’s [running costs] significant and that Wellington Phoenix is not making massive profits or any money at all,” adds Pine.
"Anything they make is reinvested back into the club and the academy (which has produced Bayern Munich’s Sarpreet Singh, rising star Libby Cacace, Ben Waine and Sam Sutton in recent years).
"A-League owners need very deep pockets and the Welnix model of multiple shareholders rather than just one person bankrolling the club is by far the best scenario.
"You’ll remember the club’s first owner, Terry Serepisos, struck financial problems in his business and had to forfeit the club ahead of the 2011/12 season.”
The argument 'New Zealand benefits at the expense of Australia with an A-League spot' remains, though it is a moot one.
Australian young players and coaches have benefitted from Wellington Phoenix.
Former Sydney FC player, Australian Max Burgess and David Williams reinvented their careers under Australian coach Mark Rudan last season.
And, in Burgess’s case, he is now one of the most improved players in the A-League at Rudan’s club Western United.
Similarly, youngster Cam Devlin, Olyroo, and future Socceroo, Reno Piscopo plus Jaushua Sotirio are all key parts of the current Phoenix side this season, under Australian first-time A-League coach Ufuk Talay.
Additionally, the style in which Wellington Phoenix has played in the last two seasons has been a revelation.
As the club prepares for a second A-League Finals Series next month, there is a feeling the New Zealand club is adding value to the A-League.
The Sydney Derby; Melbourne Derby, F3 Derby.
Will a "Kiwi Klassico”, an “Aotearoa Derby" or a "Battle of New Zealand" be part of a bumper first month of any new A-League season in years to come as Wellington Phoenix face their country's new noisy neighbors?
Pine, like many, hopes so.
"As for a catchy name, I’ll leave that to the marketers!” he adds.