OPINION: Wellington football fans have been put to shame by their counterparts in the City of Sails. While the Phoenix have struggled to attract crowds of much more than 6000 to Westpac Stadium this season, more than 18,000 Aucklanders turned up to watch the side dispatch Adelaide United on Saturday night.
Given around 20,000 watched the team play at Eden Park in 2012, it is no wonder co-owner Gareth Morgan is keen to take the side on the road more often. Indeed, the only matches in which the Phoenix have not taken a financial bath this year have been the three played outside the capital.
Of course, it is important to view the bumper crowds outside Wellington in context. The games are a rare opportunity for out-of-towners to experience the atmosphere and drama of professional football. That automatically inflates ticket sales, as does the more intensive marketing that accompanies matches in other centres.
However, that does not detract from the fact that, viewed purely from a bottom line perspective, it makes more financial sense for the consortium of businessmen who own the Phoenix to take the side on the road than it does to play in Wellington. Dr Morgan warned last season that average crowds of 10,000 were needed in the capital for the operation to break even. Every crowd that is below that simply means the club's owners bleed cash.
As Dr Morgan understandably noted at the weekend, they are not going to write cheques for a money-losing venture for ever. At some point, the Phoenix has to start turning a profit - or the plug will be pulled.
Dr Morgan's exasperation is understandable. While he could hardly complain about poor attendances in Wellington over the first part of this year's A-League, when the Phoenix were winless for their first 10 matches, he has reason to moan now. The side is finally playing the kind of attractive and competitive football under new coach Ernie Merrick that should translate into bums on seats. When they hosted Melbourne Victory on January 18, they were the competition's form side, with three wins and a draw from their previous four matches. Yet a mere 6036 fans turned up to watch the 5-0 demolition of the visitors.
One reason for the poor turnouts is the continuing dissatisfaction with the experience offered by the stadium. Despite the Phoenix initiating innovative and cheaper season and matchday ticketing, the wildly overpriced refreshments at the stadium still makes for an expensive outing.
There is now open talk of a new 12,000-seat stadium being built in the region, with the Petone Recreation Ground one site being eyed. However, that will remain pie-in-the-sky till there are firm figures on how much it will cost and, more importantly, who will pay for it.
In the meantime, the Phoenix and stadium management must continue working together to ensure attending matches in Wellington is a more fulfilling and less costly experience.
And football fans who rejoiced at the Phoenix's arrival in 2007, but who have rarely been to see them live, should get out and support them. Ultimately, if crowd numbers do not improve, there will be no side to watch on TV anyway.
- © Fairfax NZ News