The AFL, NRL, A-league and Privatisation

The Australian Football League

While most of the league is now either operated from headquarters or member owned, there remains two clubs in semi private hands, West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Football Club. Both clubs are 100% owned by the West Australian Football Commission, with West Coast and Fremantle members not receiving even a single elected director (Fremantle changed in 2014 from two member elected directors back to WAFC appointments only)

There has been some history of private ownership and a number of attempts at private ownership through the years.

In 1985 the then VFL sold the Sydney Swans in 1985 to Geoffrey Edelsten for 6.3 million, although the full amount was never paid and by mid 1986, Edelston had stood down as club chairman. (although the company he set up to control the Swans, Powerplay, continued as owner) In May 1986, the Swans were formally taken over by the VFL, after the league bought some of the shares owned by Powerplay Ltd.

The VFL sold the club again in December 1988, this time to a consortium led by media personality Mike Willesee.The Swans were in dire trouble by 1992, and the AFL effectively bailed them out by refunding 1.9 million of the license fee, and redirecting it into the club.

This arrangement lasted until April 1993, when the AFL again was forced to take over the club and appointed Alan Schwab to turn the clubs fortunes around. The Swans remain under the control of an AFL appointed board (a position shared by newcomers GWS and Gold Coast, and now the Adelaide clubs).

In 1986, North Melbourne floated itself on the stock exchange – the only VFL club to do so, and one of two clubs in the AFL to have done so (the other being West Coast). This arrangement lasted until 2006 when it reverted to membership control.

In 1986, Indian Pacific Limited was floated to raise funds for the West Coast Eagles license – The float eventually raised $12.3 million. The WAFL solds its sublicense to Indian Pacific Limited for $5.6million, making a 1.6 million profit. IPL would later be taken over as a 100% subsidary of the Western Australian Football Commission after it ran into some financial trouble. It was revealed later that SAIL, a south african sporting company had tried to buy 49% of West Coast in the early 90s, an attempt which was ultimately rejected by the WAFC and West Coast.

With license negotiations having originally failed in South Australia, the league offered a 4 million dollar license in Brisbane which was taken up by actor Paul Cronin and his backers, including Christopher Skase. That fell through with the collapse of the Quintex Group in late 1989. The Bears  were purchased in 1990 by Reuben Pelerman, who was unable to make much headway financially, and the club was given over to the the members to control in 1992, and in 1996 merged with the Fitzroy Football Club – the club is presently entirely member controlled.

In 1990, The Adelaide license was sold to the SANFL who controlled it until 2014 when it reverted to AFL board control for at least 15 years, it is due to be released in 2028 after it has paid the SANFL $11.326 million for its license.

In 1991, Carlton allegedly tried to take over North Melbourne as it sought to purchase 20-40% of the club using shares it was thought to have bought from Tricontinental. The idea was vehemently opposed by other clubs and was never seriously considered by the League.

In 1994, the Fremantle Football Club license was awarded to the Western Australian Football Commission, who have total control over the club and its board.

In 1996, the Port Adelaide Football Club license was awarded to the SANFL, who held it until March 2014. The license is currently held by the AFL until at least 2028, while Port pays the SANFL $6.985 million for its license.

The AFL has since 1992 been strongly opposed to private ownership of clubs and negotiated the release of the SA licenses from the SANFL during the Adelaide Oval negotations in 2013 and 2014. Adelaide’s AFL licence was released for $11.326 million, while Port Adelaide will pay $6.985 million over 15 years from 2014. The Crows constitution specifies an end date of October 30, 2028 and Port Adelaides constitution doesnt mention an end date at all.

In 2012, The AFL was believed to be canvassing the idea of buying the WA licenses from the WAFC. On August 28th, the West Australian and WA today reported that Andrew Demetriou had said the AFL could not order any change to the license structure of the WA clubs, despite the desire of both West Coast and Fremantle, as well as the AFL to remove the clubs from the shadow of the WAFC. He also said there was no specific time frame for it to happen.

Privatisation was put back on the AFL agenda in August 2021 following the Carter Report which examined the Tasmanian Governments own Taskforce Report that investigated having an AFL team placed in Tasmania. According to Eddie McGuire, Tasmanian Premier Gutwein is in no rush to have a team in Tasmania, but wants clarity from the AFL.

“He is open to discussion on private ownership, which wasn’t addressed in the Carter report, and can push the entry of a team from 2026 to 2030.”

While notionally independent bodies,  the leagues approval is required however for boards appointed at Greater Western Sydney, Gold Coast, Sydney, Adelaide and Port Adelaide. For the two Sydney clubs and Gold Coast, the League is the sole voting member of all three organisations until such time as it deems the “transition” period to have ended.

AFL Privately owned clubs:

  • The West Coast Eagles, through Indian Pacific Limited are 100% owned by the Western Australian Football Commission.
  • Fremantle Football Club Limited are 100% owned by the Western Australian Football Commission.

AFL Club Constitutions

The National Rugby League

The National Rugby league has adopted a pragmatic approach to private ownership. While it contains many traditional clubs, it hasnt rejected the idea of private ownership either.

Up until 1988, the New South Wales Rugby League consisted entirely of member owned entities, including the 1980 Illawarra team.

In 1982, The Canberra Raiders were admitted to the NSWRL, and were originally community owned, but later sold a 50% interest to News Limited. This control ended in 2002, when the NRL club was sold back to the District Club.

This was followed by the Melbourne Storm who were introduced and owned by News Limited, and sold in 2013 to a local business consortium led by New Zealander Bart Campbell.

(It should also be noted that News Limited took over the Hunter Mariners after the members of the supporting Newcastle Wests leagues club effectively voted to abandon the license after its first year, and had some control over the Western Reds.)

North Queensland were taken over by News Limited in 2001  and privately owned until 2007 when they were sold for a reported $2 million to the Cowboys leagues club and returned to communty ownership.

The South Sydney Rabbitohs were member owned, up until 75% of the club was purchased by actor Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court in 2006. Holmes-a-Court sold his 50% stake in the controlling company to James Packer in June 2014 for about 7.5 million.

The Gold Coast Titans were the third incarnation of a Gold Coast side, and owned from the outset by a consortium led by Micheal Searle. Searle still holds a 40% stake in the club. Darryl Kelly paid 3.6 million for 34.5% of the club in early 2014, with 25.5% held by Indian property tycoon, Anshuman Magazine. As of August 2014 however, he still hadn’t entirely paid for his share. In Ferburary 2015, the club was taken over by the NRL to prevent an imminent collapse. In August 2017, the club was put up for sale by the League, and in December, it was announced that the licence had gone to a consortium including Darryl Kelly and Rebecca Frizelle

Newcastle Knights were a member owned club until they were purchased by Nathan Tinkler in April 2011, following an AGM vote that gave him 97% approval to take over. By 2014 however, Tinkler was in grave financial trouble when he officially gave up the club in May. Control pf the club was assumed by the National Rugby League which formally took over in June 2014. In August 2017, the NRL announced that they would hand over the ownership of the Knights to Hunter-based organisation The Wests Group on November 1.

Manly-Warringah originally sold a 50.8% shareholding to the Penn family, but over time this was diluted down to the 48.97% controlled by Penn Sport, with Surfside Manly Football Club Pty Ltd (Quantum) holding another 36.75%. The original Manly-Warringah Rugby League Football Club Ltd holds 14.28%, while the members control the colours and emblems of the club through Manly-Warringah Rugby League Club Ltd. In October 2014, it was announced that Penn Sport had purchased the shares held by Quantum for 6 million, giving it 90% of the club, although the actual figure is 85.72%, with the remainder still held by the District Club.

70% of the New Zealand Warriors was sold to Cullen Investments in 2000, and by 2006 Warriors were fully privatised  when Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin purchased 100% of the club in a deal where the NZRL gave up its 10% shareholding. It is now fully privatised with control split 50:50 between Eric Watson and Owen Glenn as of 2012. It was revealed in April 2014, following the firing of key staff that Glenn may be looking to sell his share.

In December 2014, the St George Illawarra Dragons revealed that they were considering private investment in the club in order to be able to match it with the bigger clubs financially. In August 2018, it was announced that WIN Corporation would take a 50% stake in the Dragons. The former owners, Illawarra Steelers Club retain a seat on the board, with the remainder split between WIN and the St George Rugby League Club

Wests Tigers were a merged entity with joint control by the boards of Wests and Balmain. One hundred shares were issued to Balmain Tigers Rugby League Football Club and 100 shares were issued to Western Suburbs Rugby League Football Group Pty Limited as a 50/50-owned joint venture.

On 17 September 2014, after finace problems arose at Balman,  a new shareholder agreement was put into place with the supervision of the NRL. The board was reduced to seven with two from Balmain Tigers, two from Wests Leagues and three independents.  On 25 September 2014, with Balmain Tigers moving into Funding Default to the Wests Tigers, the board nominees from Balmain were withdrawn and with the backing and support of the NRL a new reduced five-person board of directors was appointed, with independent Marina Go announced as the new chairman of the board.

In 2016 it was announced that Wests Ashfield would take a 75% interest in the club. The new board had five members appointed from Wests Ashfield, two from Balmain along with two independents. In 2018, Balmain Leagues went into Voluntary administration, and in 2019 it was announced that Balmain Leagues and Wests Ashfield would merge.,

NRL Privately Owned Clubs:

  • Canberra (100%)
  • Manly-Warringah (87%m Penn, 13% Manly)
  • Melbourne (100%)
  • South Sydney (75% Crowe/Packer, 25% Member Co.)
  • Gold Coast (100%)
  • Brisbane Broncos (100%, 67% by News Limited)
  • Melbourne Storm (100%)
  • New Zealand Warriors (100%)
  • St George Illawarra (50% WIN, 50% St George Rugby League club)
  • Wests Tigers (100% Wests Ashfield/Balmain)

The A-league

All Clubs in the A-league are privately owned.

Adelaide United announced a change of ownership in March 2018, The investors that have purchased the Club are a group of predominantly European business people with business activities in Europe, Australia, and Asia and have company offices in Hong Kong. Piet van der Pol, an experienced football administrator is in theory the main representative of the investors in Adelaide.

Technically, Adelaide is owned by a company called Australian Football Opportunities, which is turn is owned by a Hong Kong-based outfit called Global Football Opportunities. Shares in both GFO and AFO are “beneficially held’’ making it difficult to determine who ultimately owns what. Van der Pol identifies himself as one of the ownership group, but it is clear he is not the main man. That seems to be a Dutch businessman called Cor Adriaanse. Cor and Jac Adriaanse run a global trading company called Edco, which according to business information company Dun & Bradstreet has revenues of $US320 million ($450m) a year.

Brisbane Roar announced a change of ownership in October 2011, when they announced the the Bakrie Group of Indonesia as new owners. In 2019, they reportedly had rejected three offers for the club from overseas interests over the past month, as they held out for a figure of around $20 million, claiming to have spent $30 million since taking over.

Central Coast announced that Mike Charlesworth would take majority ownership in March 2013 – Charlesworth injected $5 million cash to save the club from going under. Chairman Peter Turnbull and Lyall Gorman accepted an offer from Charlesworth in an effort to ease the club’s well-documented and ongoing financial woes, taking his ownership stake up to 64 per cent.

In August 2020, Charlesworth put out a statement saying he would seek a new investor to buy the club so he could step away from the Mariners. Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp spoke to the media, rejecting reports that the asking price was $4 million. In October reports emerged that Sydney-based businessman, Abdul Helou, was set to purchase the club and its associated property – but in December, the club categorically denied any such deal was in progress, confirming that no potential investors have progressed to the due diligence stage with Football Australia and this specifically included Mr. Helou. In April 2021, Manchester United was allegedly looking to establish a franchise club in the A-League with Manchester United having entered into talks to purchase the licence of Central Coast Mariners and relocate the club to Sydney. Mariners chief executive Shaun Mielekamp said the Manchester United link was pure speculation.

Central Coast Mariners CEO Shaun Mielekamp believes community ownership models are worth exploring as the club began its search for new owners.

Gold Coast United are a former club of the league that was owned by Clive Palmer. The clubs license was terminated by the league in 2012. According to the FFA – “The terminations has been made following at least three clear breaches. [There has been] a conscious and deliberate contravention of FFA procedures, a deliberate defiance of the direction given by FFA and repeated public statements by or on behalf of Gold Coast United that bring the A-League, FFA and the game of football into disrepute and are prejudicial to the interests of FFA, the A-League and the game of football in Australia.”

In Febraury 2020, billionaire property developer Lang Walker has sold his share in Macarthur Football Club after agreeing to an offer from two local businessman. Roy Mammone, who owns Sydney Trucks and Machinery formed a consortium with south-west Sydney property developer Michael Gerace and put a multi-million proposal for Walkers 50% share which was accepted – sources said gave Walker a profit on the $7 million he contributed towards the Bulls licence fee in December 2018. The other half of Macarthur is owned by founding partners Gino Marra and Sam Krslovic.

In January 2014, Melbourne Heart were taken over by the City Football Group in an $11.25m deal, rebranding to Melbourne City the following season. City bought an 80 per cent share in the A-League club while Melbourne Storm owners Bart Campbell and Gerry Ryan bought the remaining 20 per cent. In August 2015, City bought the remaining 20%.

Ownership of Melbourne Victory Football Club was originally spread amongst about 60 shareholders that included business figures Anthony Di Pietro, Paul Mirabella, Mario Biasin, Robert Belteky, Geoffrey Lord and BRW Rich Lister Harry Stamoulis. In October 2014, Mr Stamoulis and Mr Belteky announced they would offer their combined 35 per cent stake to the public, however this was blocked by the board. Mr Di Pietro and director Mario Biasin made an offer to buy the 35 per cent stake for $6.75 million – changing the ownership structure – 75 per cent owned by Mr Biasin (47 per cent), Mr Di Pietro (20 per cent) and Paul Mirabella (8 per cent). Previously, no single shareholder owned more than 19.4 per cent.

In March 2021, it was announced that Melbourne Victory director Richard Wilson had made good on his pledge to sell his 16 per cent stake to fans and supporters – selling 2.31 million shares at $2.20 per share.

In January 2021, it was announced that absent Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee had finally been stripped of his licence by Football Australia and the newly formed club-run Australian Professional Leagues. In a joint statement, the governing bodies said “the termination is based on the entity’s failure to pay its debts as and when they were due, which placed it in material breach of the Club Participation Agreement.  A new licence will be issued to an entity owned and controlled by a consortium of existing APL club investors, who will operate the licence on an interim basis until a new investor is secured,” the statement said.”

According to documents listed with ASIC, the Jets were wound up with debts totaling $12.927 million, including $8.598 million allegedly owed to former owner Martin Lee, as well as $2 million to the Australian Tax Office.

The consortium will be “led by Sydney FC, Western United FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers FC.”

In march 2010, it was announced that Don Matherson, owner of the North Queensland Fury was backing down on his investment, it was taken over by the FFA.  In March, 2011, the FFA confirmed that North Queensland had been dropped from the A-league after being deemed “too big of a financial risk“. The Fury had secured less than $300,000 of the required $1.5 million capital that would have earned it a one-year conditional licence from the FFA.

Perth Glory are owned by Tony Sage since 2008, when he bought out his partner Brett McKeon. In February 2020, he said he was close to finalising a deal to sell the majority of his stake in the A-League club to a London-based cryptocurrency group, the London Football Exchange. Mr Sage said he had received four offers for the club over the past 18 months, but each of them came with conditions he could not accept, including changing the club’s name or colours. Mr Sage said he would retain the remaining 20 per cent stake and would also become chairman of the London Football Exchange from March 1.

The Glory and LFE released a joint statement saying they had reached an agreement for the club to be acquired by LFE. Two days later though, the club released another statement saying no deal he had been done, with Sage saying: “Don’t believe fake news. Your club has not been sold and I have not even sent anything to Football Federation Australia (FFA) for approval.” Two weeks after the initial statement it was all over. The FFA said Glory owner Tony Sage had pulled out of the deal, after travelling to London to go through a due diligence process with his lawyers and representatives of the London Football Exchange (LFE) group.

In May 2012, Sydney FC announced that founding shareholder David Traktovenko was set to take a majority stake in the club. Paul Ramsay and Frank Lowy retain their existing shares but will not participate in future capital raisings.

In 2011, Wellington announced that Terry Serepisos had finally lost control of Wellington Phoenix and a group of local businessmen has taken over ownership of the club this morning. Welnix – the new consortium of local businessmen headed by investment banker Rob Morrison has been granted the Wellington Phoenix licence, the FFA confirmed.

Western Melbourne Group’s ownership has been shrouded in secrecy since the launch of its bid in early 2018, but Nine Media reporters lifted the veil of the financial backers behind the 11th A-League club. The team is financed by a local consortium of investors that is understood to include Aziz “Ozzie” Kheir through his property development company, Resimax. Resimax is understood to be one of the largest single backers of Western United, being the main commercial property partner of Jaszac Investment group, which lists Western Melbourne Group as one of its sports and entertainment investments on the company’s website.

In May 2014, the FFA confirmed that the Western Sydney Wanderers had been sold to a consortium headed by Primo Group CEO, Paul LedererPirtek founder Glenn Duncan, Filipino-Chinese businessman Jefferson Cheng, and David Slade, a partner in British fashion outlet Topshop-Topman, are among the other investors. The deal is believed to be worth around $10 million.

A-league Privately owned Clubs

  • Adelaide United – Australian Football Opportunities
  • Brisbane Roar – The Bakrie Group
  • Central Coast – Mike Charlesworth (64%)
  • Macarthur – Gino Marra, Sam Krslovic, Roy Mammone, Michael Gerace
  • Melbourne City – City Football Group
  • Melbourne Victory – Mario Biasin (47%), Anthony Di Pietro (20%)
  • Newcastle – Sydney FC, Western United FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers FC.
  • Perth – Tony Sage
  • Sydney FC -David Traktovenko
  • Wellington – Welnix Consortium
  • Western United – Western Melbourne Group, Sayers Road Investment Co, Jaszac Investments – Jason Sourasis, Theodore Andriopoulos, Steve Horvat, Levent Shevki and John Tripodi
  • Western Sydney – Paul Lederer and others.

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