A numbers game for the Phoenix in Auckland

SIMON PLUMB
Last updated 05:00 01/02/2014
Ernie Merrick
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ
LOOKING FOR A WIN: Wellington Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick.

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Auckland is set to pass a crucial A-League attendance test today, with at least 13,000 fans expected at Eden Park for the Wellington Phoenix's game against Adelaide United.

With Phoenix management sending a pre-match warning to Auckland's notoriously apathetic sport fans that a poor attendance tonight could make this the Phoenix's last visit, general manager David Dome is confident the test has been passed with 11,000 tickets sold by Thursday.

With the Phoenix playing well, another day of ticket sales remaining and fine weather expected for tonight's game, Dome says the initial target of 12,000 could well be exceeded by one or two thousand.

"To come to Eden Park is a costly exercise for us. It's more expensive than Westpac Stadium in Wellington, but it's a venue we want to be in, it's important for our corporate and commercial partnerships to have a presence up here," Dome said.

"For a game like this you need about 12,000 to be sure you're going to make money - and we're tracking along nicely.

"At the end of Thursday we'd sold 11,000 tickets. Hopefully there'll be a little spike again [yesterday] and then there'll be whatever we get in the walk-up crowds [today].

"We're confident that we're putting a product together now that people want to come and watch, so we're reasonably confident that people would turn up. Auckland's been good this year, it looks like we're going to get around 13,000 to 14,000, which would be fantastic. Fingers crossed, there'll be more."

All Blacks tests aside, rugby, cricket and football all traditionally struggle to attract meaningful crowds in Auckland.

Specifically where football is concerned, the indifference of Aucklanders to attend live games has seen Wellington inherit the mantle of being football's "home" city in recent years.

However, a solid turnout tonight would follow crowds of 20,000 and 11,500 at Eden Park for Phoenix games over the past two years.

While conceding the club needs a presence in Auckland, primarily for commercial and population reasons, Dome says poor ticket sales this week would have certainly have triggered a re-think of some form.

"If we were taking a huge bath on this game, we'd probably have to re-look at it," he said.

"But we need to have a presence in Auckland, it's the largest metropolitan centre in the country, we've got a strong fan base here and it's important for our commercial partners that we're able to do things with them here.

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"We know from other experiences, New Zealand Football and the All Whites, when they play at other venues they struggle to get crowds, including at North Harbour Stadium.

"Eden Park is the premiere venue in Auckland, if not New Zealand, we're conscious of that and want to be playing there so it's important fans support it.

"We've always said we needed to get 10,000 averages in Wellington and got 9,500 in 2007-08 which was close. The owners have always said they're not going to take any money out of this thing, it's about reinvesting money so the more people that come through the gates, that money gets reinvested into the club and inevitably, back into football in New Zealand."

Dome also said not only would tonight's crowd determine the short-term future of football in Auckland, but perhaps also the long-term.

With Phoenix co-owner Gareth Morgan saying last weekend that he would be prepared to consider investing in an Auckland-based, second A-League team, Dome said the numbers in the stands will also reflect how realistic a prospect Aucklanders want that to be.

"This is a very important test for Auckland. When you look at a potential second team, the priority is us getting the Phoenix on a stable financial footing, so that it's not costing the owners anything and we're getting money reinvesting into the club," he said.

"Once we get to that stage, and Gareth has talked about expansion plans, the idea of a rivalry between Wellington and Auckland as two A-League teams is magnificent. But, it needs to be able to stand on its own two feet.

"We're getting close to that in Wellington this year. Next year we'll be able to get into positive territory and say 'there's the model, let's see if we can replicate it in Auckland.'

"Whether it's Welnix or somebody else, the prospect is really, really exciting."

Dome also urged fans planning on attending tonight's game to organise themselves early. In November 2011, hundreds, if not thousands, of fans could not enter the ground on time, with some delayed by up to 45 minutes after kick-off after 5,000 "walk-ups" jammed the purchase and processing of tickets at the gates.

"The forecast is very good for [tonight] but we don't want a huge walk-up crowd like a couple of years ago when we struggled to get everybody in on time," he said.

"We had about 5,000 people walk up to the gates that day and that's way too much for any stadium, anywhere around the world to try and process that many people buying tickets on the day.

"We're certainly encouraging people who want to come to the game to purchase tickets early."

Meanwhile, Phoenix coach Ernie Merrick had mixed news on the personnel front yesterday.

Costa Rican internationals Carlos Hernandez and Kenny Cunningham were declared certain starters after missing the 2-1 loss to Brisbane.

But Stein Huysegems, the league's leading scorer, faces a fitness test this morning after picking up a calf complaint.

- Fairfax Media

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