For Sale: Reds back on auction block

Adelaide United is again on the market and rumours are circulating about potential buyers. But, as Spiro Karanikos-Mimis points out, owning a soccer club is a tough ask.

Outgoing Adelaide United chairman Piet van der Pol after taking over the club in 2018. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

Outgoing Adelaide United chairman Piet van der Pol after taking over the club in 2018. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

The “For Sale” sign is again hanging on the front door at Adelaide United.

It’s been an interesting few years. Most fans were relieved when the current owner Piet van der Pol took over from the previous consortium. Things started off well, particularly when the club brought back many favourites and engaged proactively with its supporter base.

Recently though, much of the optimism has soured as the club tries to make do with limited resourcing.

The van der Pol era at Adelaide United has followed a well-trodden path. Fans believe owners should simply empty their pockets to ensure a club is competitive. And while there are examples of some owners doing that, generally most have a limit to their goodwill.

There are enough examples from Australia of generous owners throwing money into their club and then finding themselves in trouble. Nick Bianco and the late Bob D’Attavi are rumoured to have spent around $2 million a year propping up Adelaide United and Adelaide City. There isn’t much evidence of that spending having left a legacy.

How about Nathan Tinkler at Newcastle? Or Clive Palmer at Gold Coast? Even in this country, the list is pretty long.

For a club its size, the Reds are probably the benchmark when it comes to financial stability in the A-Leagues. Forget Sydney FC and the two Melbourne clubs – they are dancing to the beat of a different drum.

Arguably though, Adelaide is the best of the rest when it comes to frugality. A shrewd recruiting policy which has seen money come in for transfers was recently praised by Football Australia. Riley McGree’s two most recent moves (from United to Charlotte FC, and then from the American club to Middlesbrough) netted Adelaide close to $1.5 million.

United are a selling club in a selling league and, short of being taken over by a City Group type owner, that’s how it has to be. The reality is that the only way to sustainably grow club expenditures is to grow the league’s revenue, which has proven an immensely difficult nut to crack.

Fans may find this disappointing but it’s a reality we must accept, unless there’s someone willing to burn money and not blink at a few million dollars exiting the bank account every year.

But by all reports, the potential next owners of United may be more ambitious.

A quick google of the name “Pelligra Group” will show a company who have, in the last few years, spent many millions buying into South Australia.

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Rumours suggest Adelaide United is next, though apparently, they have baulked at van der Pol’s initial asking price (said to be around $22 million, which is, to say the least, optimistic).

If the Pelligra Group is the interested party and they are willing to spend money at Adelaide United rather than trying to simply break even, it may be a fun ride for Reds fans who have longed for such ownership.

The problem is whether such an approach is sustainable. The evidence suggests it isn’t. Many owners have tried: most have failed.

Football club ownership is a folly most think they can make work but find themselves being sucked into quicksand.

My beloved Blackburn Rovers is a great example. Purchased by the Venky Group (chicken farming magnates from India) in 2010, they promised the world.

About eight seasons later they found themselves in charge of a club plying its trade in League One (the third tier of English football) and costing them millions to sustain.

Only now is Blackburn, by some minor miracle, making a push for the Premier League. But even they, a former Premier League winner, need to sell players to survive.

Van der Pol’s reign at Adelaide United has been a mixed bag. His biggest mistake was his suggestion he wanted Adelaide to be a top three club every year. Fans interpreted this as a promise to spend. It hasn’t really eventuated.

But there’s been praise for the way some things have operated – although it should be noted that not all is great behind the scenes, with some believing van der Pol is too frugal and that his allegiance lies not with the club but with the investors who gave their money to buy the club.

Any prospective new ownership group should look at how United have run things football wise over the last few years and take note of the positives. But they must also decide where and how to invest their dollars. Is a designated player (what we call a “marquee”) worth the outlay? How many bums on seats will that attract? Should they look to prop up the administration staff at the club to support the current crop, who work tirelessly for United and deserve much more recognition?

Simply throwing money at a club the size of United, while it sounds great, is really an exercise in poor judgement.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love for some more cash in the coffers but, when I sit down and think about it clearly, I prefer sustainability and longevity so my children and their children can enjoy watching the Reds turn out for many years.

So, whoever owns the Reds moving forward, look to the past and see that even the best intentions can lead to difficulties. Spend, but spend smart. Don’t be a flash in the pan. Australian football fans are sick of that.

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