OPINION: On the face of it, the idea of paying $2.5 million a year for a potentially washed-up footballer to play in a cash-strapped league doesn't immediately sound like a winning notion.
But when Alessandro Del Piero trotted out on the field at Wellington's Cake Tin last night, the penny dropped.
The Italian stallion has star power. And what Sydney FC - the club that stumped up the cash to get the 37-year-old on a two-year deal - are banking on, and what drew a bumper crowd of Wellington Phoenix fans to the ground, is that attracting a marquee player to the A-League side makes dollars AND sense.
There are four reasons a club signs a player such as Del Piero: it helps promote the league; increases the skill level on the park and therefore chances of progressing to the finals; sells more football shirts, and gets bums on seats.
The last two reasons are most important when it comes to Sydney FC getting more bang for their buck.
In a story in an Aussie newspaper last month it is estimated that sales of Del Piero No 10 Sydney FC shirts could reach 30,000 worldwide this season.
At $200 each, that's almost $6 million in revenue.
Del Piero gets a cut, of course, but it still looks like the multi million-dollar deal is not so silly after all for the Sydney club.
It doesn't hurt crowd figures either.
"He's captured the imagination of football fans, and a lot of fans who haven't wanted to be part of the A-League for whatever reason, now they've got a major reason to come to games," Sydney CEO Tony Pignata - former Phoenix boss - said.
"Memberships have skyrocketed, we've had some Melbourne people buy full memberships."
Up the coast at Newcastle, the arrival of former England striker Emile Heskey has generated similar interest.
Last week the club announced memberships were more than 10,000 for the season.
"We're only second behind the Melbourne Victory in the memberships," Jets CEO Robbie Middleby said of the club that six months ago was in turmoil.
"Geographically where Newcastle sits, and for the population here, to have 10,000 members and pushing to get 11,000 is just incredible."
Heskey shirts are sure to be all the rage on Newcastle streets this summer.
New club Western Sydney also see promotional benefits in signing Shinji Ono for $1 million a year.
The former J-League star will be leveraged to entice Japanese football fans to games as well as to take advantage of potential sponsors.
"We've had overtures from a few sponsors in the last few days," Wanderers chairman Lyall Gorman said.
"A number of Japanese-owned companies have shown an interest in getting involved with us."
If only the Phoenix were in a position to sign players of the "big three" standing.
They have chosen to be more circumspect with their wage bill and, with financial strife fresh in the mind of the club, why wouldn't they - after the uncertainty under former owner Terry Serepisos?
But the clubs that have taken the punt and chosen to throw outrageous amounts at players well past their best could be the ones counting the cash, and not left counting the cost, at the end of the A-League season.
- Todd Murray is Fairfax Sundays sports editor
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