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Playing to win

Newcastle Herald

Saturday March 26, 2011

Joanne McCarthy

Ken Edwards has the hottest job in sports management in Australia right now, writes Joanne McCarthy, and he wouldn't have it any other way. TINKLER Sports Group executive chairman Ken Edwards likes to use a baby analogy to describe the emotions tripped off by his boss Nathan Tinkler's bid for the Newcastle Knights.Of course some Knights supporters get emotional about it, he has said repeatedly in the past few weeks.The club is the baby and Tinkler is the guy seeking custody.Edwards has spent the past few weeks talking to the baby's current custodians - supporters clubs, old boys' groups and Knights directors - about a bright future backed by Tinkler's millions.It's that vision that persuaded Knights Crusade spokesman Shane Spruce to support the Tinkler bid after initially opposing it."We've got a lot to be proud of, but we want to be proud of future premierships and development of the club and I just have doubts we can truly do that under the current financial structure," Spruce said this week."What I was really chasing was a vision for the club . . . and on the vision they couldn't be beat."Not that everyone who's shared "the vision thing" with the Tinkler camp has been won over.After a similar discussion with Edwards and Tinkler chief executive officer Troy Palmer this week, Newcastle Knights Supporters Club secretary Jim Thornton said they had "presented themselves very, very well", but he was less effusive than Spruce."Once they put it on paper you can only hope, if they're successful of course, they go through with everything they say," he said.When Tinkler was named licensee of the Newcastle Jets six months ago this week, there was relief that the financially strapped Jets would not implode only a couple of seasons after securing a premiership. But there was little sign of what was to come."I have no desire to own a football club, but provide a nursery for the development of the game for the thousands of young football players in the Hunter Region. Newcastle deserves a top-class A-League team and we are keen to help rebuild the club for the city," Tinkler said at the time.It was NIB chief executive Mark Fitzgibbon who first used the word "vision" in relation to Tinkler's Jets move opening the door for joint-venture opportunities with the Knights."Nathan Tinkler's vision for supporting soccer in the Hunter could easily be applied to the Knights who equally lack the financial capacity to develop the game and junior talent," Fitzgibbon said."It's just not good enough that so few of our local talent appear on the big stage for the Knights. While traditionally the two clubs compete for sponsorship dollars, I "There's a real sense that Newcastle is going to go to the next stage in its development, and these are some of the issues that need to be addressed, and that we will be talking with people about." Ken Edwardscan see an opportunity to bundle and offer full-year packages to sponsors."Tinkler added fizz to football in his first month at the Jets by granting free admission to the first home game and signing David Beckham and his LA Galaxy team to a Newcastle gig.But within days the fizz had fizzled after news a motocross event booked by the Knights had left the then EnergyAustralia Stadium's surface unplayable. The Tinkler factor meant people were willing to say in public what they had been thinking privately about the Knights for some time."As the former Knights directors have pointed out to the present incumbents, the best reaction to this week's events must be to use them as a catalyst to discard some of the baggage of the past," the Newcastle Herald said in an editorial on October 30 last year."The new-look Jets have shown how nimble, quick-thinking management - with a keen eye to community engagement - can generate public enthusiasm and support."In quick succession the Tinkler Group announced support, funding and ambitions across other sports including men's and women's basketball, netball, and even women's surfing, while the Knights came under fire after the Herald confirmed a $10 million Tinkler offer had been rejected by Knights chairman Rob Tew without even going to the club board.By late January the board had agreed in principle to a revised $100 million Tinkler offer, launching a two-month roller-coaster ride that will culminate in a historic members' vote next Thursday that could see the club privatised.AS Edwards said in an interview this week with considerable understatement: "A fair bit's happened in six months."In one of his many recent interviews, Edwards talked about the Tinkler vision for the Hunter, but also about the mistakes that had been made along the way since September last year.He laughed when asked if Tinkler's bounty was to atone for some childhood shenanigans, and repeated that Tinkler had done well from the Hunter Region and believed he had a responsibility to return the favour.But Tinkler's vision includes putting the hard word on others who've done well, to follow his lead."What he believes is the Hunter generates significant money for a small number of large companies, and those companies that are doing well need to do a lot more for the region," Edwards said."Forty per cent of all export dollars from NSW go out of Newcastle port. He uses that figure a lot."Once the Knights vote is out of the way he'll be speaking to those companies about the need for them to do more in the community."Tinkler's ambitions to bring international events to Newcastle have highlighted deficiencies in the city's infrastructure.For instance, the David Beckham and Galaxy visit required the Galaxy to relax a contractual condition that the team stay in a five-star hotel."There's five-star hotels in the valley but not in Newcastle," Edwards said.Netball Australia almost baulked at holding an Australia versus England netball Test in Newcastle in October this year because of facilities available at Newcastle Entertainment Centre.Tinkler Sports Group is underwriting the event for three years."They were concerned about the lack of facilities available. While it's serviceable and functional, it was built to last for five years and the city needs a proper entertainment centre."The lack of a convention centre was also a concern because it hindered opportunities that might be available, he said."There's a real sense that Newcastle is going to go to the next stage in its development, and these are some of the issues that need to be addressed, and that we will be talking with people about," Edwards said.The Tinkler Group has already held talks with Newcastle MP and Minister for the Hunter Jodi McKay about a centre of sporting excellence in the Ausgrid Stadium precinct in Broadmeadow, incorporating sport, health and leisure facilities.Asked whether people might be concerned about the extent of the Tinkler reach becoming so broad as to monopolise interests, Edwards replied: "We won't be."At some of the supporter meetings in the past few weeks the first words spoken to Tinkler and Edwards have been "I'm not voting for you", which is why Edwards started using his baby analogy.But after playing a part in the successful South Sydney rugby league club privatisation bid in 2006, Edwards has calmly explained the Tinkler proposal at numerous meetings, and been happy with the response.But not over-confident."Seventy five per cent is a big vote. When Peter Holmes a Court and Russell Crowe made their bid for Souths we got up by 16 votes," he said.Edwards expressed concern about some information being circulated in the lead-up to the Knights vote."I think some information is deliberately out there to confuse people, and it's by those who have an interest in keeping the Knights in the position they're in, which is a club struggling financially, and not in the position to attract the best players," he said."This notion that the club's in rude health financially is just extraordinary, because on day one if Nathan succeeds, he'll be required to pay between $3.5 million and $4.6 million to clear debts."Tinkler and Edwards are also keen to expand the membership and supporter base, with inexpensive ticketing policies and family packages to encourage participation."Rugby league has to stop using the excuse that it's a great TV game and it has to stop accepting that it's better to watch on TV than it is to be at the ground," Edwards said years ago while still head of ANZ Stadium in Sydney."To unlock its full revenue potential it has got to be both."The Ausgrid Stadium was one of the best in the country, he said."We don't want 15,000 people at the game each week. We want 25,000 to 30,000."We don't want 6000 members of the Knights. We want 20,000."Edwards conceded there had been mistakes along the way, including controversy about the handling of Tinkler's phone call to Kade Snowden, which stalled the player re-signing with Cronulla, and Tinkler's decision to walk away from talks with the Knights in February saying he thought the board had lost sight of the key objective of building a winning club.But people across the board had shown goodwill throughout, Edwards said.He denied a Sydney newspaper report that he would receive a $1 million bonus from Tinkler if the privatisation bid is successful."When I read that I sent Nathan a text saying 'They got it wrong. It's $2 million'. Nathan texted back 'LOL' [laugh out loud]."Nathan Tinkler has had a negative impact on one of Edwards's passions - golf. "Since I met Nathan I've played two games," he said.But despite the demands of the past six months, he has loved the challenges."I honestly pinch myself every day. There's no other job in sport that's strategic in the way this is strategic. And what Nathan is offering is extraordinary."

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