APL chairman: A-League can't guarantee the future of Newcastle, Canberra

The future of the Newcastle Jets and Canberra United beyond this season lies in the hands of their current owners, with A-League chairman Stephen Conroy saying the competition is no longer in a position to prop up struggling clubs.

Since early 2021, the ailing Jets have been funded by a consortium of four fellow A-League club owners -- Western Sydney Wanderers, Sydney FC, Western United, and one unidentified club that ESPN understands is Wellington Phoenix -- after the licence was stripped from former owner Martin Lee.

Professional services firm KordaMentha was appointed to handle the sale of the Jets in October 2023 and told ESPN of their inventions to have the club sold by Christmas, only for the holidays to pass without the licence changing hands.

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The Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the body that runs the A-League Men's and Women's competitions, recently oversaw the sale of Perth Glory to Melbourne property developer Ross Pelligra after it stepped in to fund the club after it went into receivership. APL chairman Conroy, however, now says that the league -- which laid off a significant portion of its workforce in January -- is no longer in a financial position to support clubs.

"The APL has no direct say [in the sale of the Newcastle Jets]," Conroy said. "It's four owners and the bid, [they] have been in discussions for a long period of time.

"[The consortium] didn't buy it to keep it permanently. They bought it to keep [the Jets] alive and then sell it. It's been three years ... it's disappointing it hasn't been sold yet.

"We supported Perth and it's great to see Perth back and alive but we're not in a position that we can underwrite another club. The Perth support showed that we shouldn't be part of an ownership group. We shouldn't be propping up one club. We don't have the financial capacity to do this for clubs as they go through their challenges."

Conroy confirmed that the Jets' ongoing survival rested upon the sale of their licence -- negotiations for which he described as being at "the pointy end" -- or commitments to future support by its custodians, confirming that the APL wasn't able to prevent the club from folding should neither eventuate.

"The owners have to make a decision on how they're going to handle that," he said. "The APL is not the owner. Those four clubs have banded together, they're ultimately the deciders about whether or not they want to keep financing, and this is ultimately in their court.

"Absolutely [we want Newcastle in the A-League]. Newcastle are a foundation club. It would be a terrible tragedy for the supporters, the players in Newcastle if it was not to be the case.

"To prepare for next season, we need to know relatively soon whether this is going to be a club that is going to play next season or not. Whether there's a new owner, or the existing owners, they've got to make some hard decisions."

The Newcastle Herald reported on Monday that a consortium headed by former Nike executive Paul Francis had agreed a sale price for the Jets but a lack of clarity from the APL on matters such as the salary cap, competition structure, financial distributions, and the future of the broadcasting deal was stalling the process.

Conroy denied that the number of teams in the A-Leagues had a "material bearing" on the broadcast deal, with requirements instead focused on a minimum number of men's and women's games.

"I always enjoy commercial negotiations when people try and put leverage through the newspapers," he said. "This deal's been on-off, on-off, on-off. They've been chasing this for three years."

Canberra United, meanwhile, have been left in a state of limbo during attempts to bring a men's team to the competition for 2024-25, which would also assume the women's licence currently held and operated by Capital Football.

A-League commissioner Nick Garcia has consistently expressed confidence that Canberra will field a men's team from next season, but the ongoing delays in the process have left United players increasingly concerned about their future. Canberra legend Michelle Heyman recently told the Canberra Times that with contracts coming to an end, the ongoing delays and a lack of communication were increasingly forcing her and her teammates to look elsewhere for contracts.

"The problem is if we don't have a bid, we don't have a bid," said Conroy. "So Capital Football has got to decide what they're gonna do.

"We don't own the Canberra women's franchise. We hope that it all comes together. But the owners of Capital Football, again it's in their court."

Though hesitant to share too much information, the A-League chair confirmed the league was in advanced conversations with a prospective buyer of the Canberra licence, with parties such as AUSTRAC, Foreign Investment Review Board, and Football Australia also involved in approving the process.

"I remain an optimist that the Canberra team, which has had legendary performances over many years, will stay in the competition," Conroy said. "The absolute best way is for there to be a purchase, a new franchise which they can fold into but if that doesn't come up, and again, it's up to the owners.

"The A-League is unfortunately not in a position where we can underwrite clubs. That's just not a model, a business model that works for the entire league and I think if I went to all the other owners and said: 'We need you to prop up whether it's a Newcastle or we need you to prop up Canberra,' the other owners would say: 'We've got to focus on keeping the league viable.'

"Capital Football have run the club, it's their club, they're the owners. I understand absolutely the angst of the players. They need to know whether they should be seeking to play for another club. So, I understand that there's pressure on the players for that reason, but this is ultimately a commercial decision for the owners."

Conroy explained that it wasn't just the players who required certainty and hinted at a deadline being placed on both Newcastle and Canberra to find resolutions soon for next season.

"Unfortunately, we've got to plan for next year. It's just a reality. The other clubs deserve certainty," he said. "I mean, we talk about: 'oh we've got [to have] certainly about Newcastle or Canberra.'

"There are 11 or 12 other clubs who need certainty to plan their seasons, to make bookings, to sign players. Now are players from Canberra or any other club available? Auckland are trying to sign players, so they need certainty.

"It's unfair if we drag it on to June -- I'm not proposing that, I'm just picking a random date -- unfair on the other clubs and our responsibility is for the league as a whole, not just for the individual club.

"So we've got responsibilities to all the clubs to resolve these issues so they can get on with their planning, they're attracting players or selling players or whatever decisions they want to make."