One week before Tony Pignata sat in the big sky blue chair at Sydney FC HQ for the first time in June 2012 – the seventh CEO in eight years at the club - he told me in an interview for Sports Business Insider that he had five priorities.

As part of a bigger picture requirement for a financial turnaround, the first was to find a front of shirt sponsor. He said that it was “inconceivable” that a club like Sydney didn’t have one.

Two months later, he secured Webjet. It is a relationship that has since been renewed three times. He also brought in other sponsors including Beechwood Homes, ITP, Star Track; changed equipment partners from Adidas to Puma; and struck a partnership with the major university not far from Sydney FC’s eastern Sydney homeland, the University of New South Wales.

The second was to bring financial stability to the club. When Pignata joined it was facing a $7 million loss.

Today, the club is still not in the black, but the loss is described as “modest and manageable”. Importantly, owner David Traktovenko is not worried. 

Unlike some other A-League clubs, Sydney FC also welcomes participation in the Asian Champions League from a financial perspective. When they reached the second stage in 2016, they made money; and their recent re-branding is part of their aim to leverage Asian participation (and performance) as much as possible in 2018.

The third was to increase attendance and membership.

According to Ultimate A-League records, at the end of 2011-12 Sydney FC’s average attendance was 11,861, the fourth best in the A-League. By the end of 2016-17, it was 18,099, the second best in the competition and a spectacular 53% improvement in five  years.

The big fillip in attendance came in Pignata’s first season on the back of Alessandro Del Piero’s arrival and the birth of the #SydneyDerby with the creation of Western Sydney Wanderers. Average attendance peaked in Del Piero’s second year at 18,682. It fell away again by about 16% in 2015-16, but was pushed back to above 18k as a result of Sydney FC’s winning ways in the season that finished last month.

In terms of membership, From the Stands data show that membership in Pignata’s second season in charge (2013-14) was 10,658. In January this year, it was 12,102 – an increase of 13%.

The fourth task Pignata set was to shift the perception of the club to being less about ‘bling’ and more about being ‘one big happy family’.

Christened Bling FC in its first year in 2005 – mostly thanks to Dwight Yorke – Sydney FC became less ‘bling’ every subsequent year after Yorke’s departure. Some fans and marketers lamented this, not least because a rich club with majority backing from a Gazprom-fuelled billionaire in the rich geographical region of the country’s largest city was an obvious candidate for the moniker. (The other significant shareholder is the Lowy family who owns 15% of the club. They sold their majority ownership to Traktovenko in 2008). 

However, Pignata said he wanted “fans of any description to be part of the club, and feel part of the club.” He believed that Bling FC just didn’t work for many fans who might otherwise want to support the club.

There have been a few missteps along the way. For example: an invitation-only fans’ forum where the invited fans were instructed by club Chairman, Scott Barlow, and Pignata not to tell anyone else and not to share it on social media.

The club failed to give public support to their coach, Frank Farina, despite knowing that he was abused at every home game by a section of supporters, and even had beer thrown over him while sitting on the bench during a game. The club took the view that they couldn’t risk alienating the many fans who didn’t like the coach, rather than stand-up for their employee. It wasn’t a good look for the club or the fans involved. 

And there was the famous protest by active supporter groups in response to FFA’s reaction when personal details of some Western Sydney Wanderers fans were highlighted in a newspaper article by the late Rebecca Wilson. If anyone ever doubted it, Sydney FC without The Cove is a shell of itself.  

This wasn’t so much an issue for Sydney FC as the A-League overall. In contrast to FFA, Pignata was quick to get on the front foot in relation to the substance of fans’ protests in December 2015, and wrote an oped in response.

There were notable good times also. The club’s 10th anniversary celebrations included football’s VIP list of executives and journalists, as well as the hoi polloi - longstanding members and supporters who actually pay to belong to the club and attend games. The recent invitation to older members to accompany players on to the field at the start of played – inspired by overseas clubs – was a truly good gesture. The club under Pignata has been active in supporting causes from organ donation to cancer research to mental health to Indigenous kids to #RainbowLaces, without expecting anything in return.

Pignata’s final task was perhaps the most difficult: facilitating stability on-the-field.

When Pignata started, Ian Crook had been appointed just a few weeks before, the sixth coach in eight years.

Crook only lasted six games into the 2012-13 season, with a squad that included Del Piero. After a two-week caretaker period, Farina was given the gig, enduring a more-or-less constant tirade against him for 18 months before Sydney FC finally got the man they wanted all along, Graham Arnold. 

After two far-from-stellar seasons, Arnold repaid the Sky Blue faithful’s confidence with the double, blitzing the competition in the home-and-away season and dominating the grand final. When it came, success was stunning.

Pignata says he and his wife Anna – who thought he would be lucky to last more than 12 months in the job given Sydney FC’s track record when he joined – are headed for an extended holiday in Italy.

He doesn’t know where he’ll land next, but when it comes to achievements in the priority areas he set, Tony Pignata can point to a track record to be proud of at Sydney FC.

In football, there’s no better way to bow out. 

Categories: People | A-League

sydney fc, a-league

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