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Here come the Knights(ish). A still from the AFC launch video.
Here come the Knights(ish). A still from the AFC launch video.

SportsMarch 14, 2024

Welcome to the Foleyverse: Name and kit unveiled for Auckland’s new A-League side

Here come the Knights(ish). A still from the AFC launch video.
Here come the Knights(ish). A still from the AFC launch video.

It’s not the return of the Knights. Not quite.

The Wellington Phoenix will run on to Eden Park on Saturday seeking a return to the top of the table, at the business end of a shockingly successful A-League season. The match, in front of what is set to be the biggest football crowd in Auckland since the Women’s World Cup, will also deliver a rousing farewell of sorts. The next time the Phoenix play in Auckland it will be as the away, rather than the home, side, with most if not all of the city’s fans switching from black and yellow to black and blue in the form of Auckland FC, the billionaire-backed new franchise that will play at Mt Smart (for now) from next season.

Black and “electric blue”, to be specific. No, alas, not in homage to our friends in Australia, but “representing the energy of the city, an evolution of the royal blue that is traditionally linked to Auckland sport”, explained CEO Nick Becker, launching the team name and colours this afternoon. It also comes with a crest that represents Rangitoto, but let’s cut to the chase: it’s a strip in the style of Inter Milan. Whose ejection this morning from the Champions League is hopefully no omen for the Tāmaki Makaurau newcomers.

The black? That’s a nod to the Black Knight Sports & Entertainment group headed by Texan billionaire Bill Foley, who adds an A-League side to a portfolio that includes the Vegas Golden Knights (NHL ice hockey) and the English Premier League’s AFC Bournemouth, along with major stakes in FC Lorient of Ligue 1 in France, and the Scottish Premier League’s Hibernian. 

Bill Foley beams in to the Chamberlain. (Photo: Toby Manhire)

The new owners are obviously keen that the Knights might become an unofficial moniker for the side, with the words “Black Knights”, speckled around the official “Auckland FC” logos. The launch video includes a football being trapped under a foot booted in literal armour. “The Black Knights is part of our identity. It speaks to our values and our ambition,” said Becker. (The Black Knights is also the sporting nickname of Foley’s alma mater, the US Military Academy.)

But they stopped short of giving the team that name formally. A temptation resisted, presumably, because that carries a blemished history of its own. 

The NZ Knights were founded 20 years ago out of the ashes of the other Auckland A-League effort, the Kingz. (The hair-salon-esque Z was to avoid a clash with Sydney’s basketball Kings, apparently.) Both sides struggled for wins and struggled to attract crowds to their North Harbour Stadium home.

 When Foley launched his Las Vegas hockey team in 2017, he committed to return a title within six years. He made good on that “silly” pledge. There was no such promise from the 79-year-old when he beamed in on the screen today, but given Auckland’s previous efforts in the Australian league it would be a triumph of sorts if AFC is still kicking six seasons in. 

Auckland FC head coach Steve Corica with the club’s new kit (Photo: Supplied)

Names, crests and electric blues are all very well, but do nothing to diminish the scale of the challenge in putting together a professional side capable of performing in a competitive league, especially in such short time. In seeking to attract players to Auckland FC, however, coach Steve Corica (formerly of Sydney FC) can point to the network of Foley franchises. Becker and Foley both emphasised the potential for a player to pursue a “pathway” (in sport as in politics, the word path is now forbidden in favour of the pathway) from Auckland FC to the Black Knights clubs in the leagues of France or Scotland, even to the top flight of English football. 

The Foley network forms part of a global trend, the most conspicuous example of which is the City Football Group. With Manchester City the most bejeweled head of the hydra helmed by Sheikh Mansour and his Abu Dhabi United Group, its interests span 13 clubs from China to the US, from India to Australia, in the form of Melbourne City. 

As far as pathways and integrations go, Foley’s extends all the way to the pub where today’s launch took place. The Chamberlain in Britomart is to be the official club bar. Its owner? The Foley Hospitality Group, naturally. Welcome to the Foleyverse.

As attendances at Phoenix games and the Women’s World Cup attest, the appetite for football in New Zealand’s biggest city continues to grow. Hailing “all the kids that are just thriving across the 70 clubs in the region”, Becker declared that “Auckland has never been so ready for an elite football club”. He said: “Bill told me he invested in this club because he saw the opportunity to help grow football in Auckland, to connect with the football community, all of the 40,000 boys and girls are playing sport across this region, to create pathways for them to go on and live their dream now.”

Establishing those connections, and establishing them meaningfully, will be critical in making the project work, in ensuring that Auckland FC feels like part of the burgeoning grassroots football energy across the city, rather than a logo parachuted in. The secret sauce will be success on the field built from a mixture of homegrown and imported talent, combined with creating the conditions for an organic, sonorous fanbase to grow.

Fandom thrives, of course, on rivalry, as any number of examples around the world, Milan included, lay bare. Whether deliberate or not, Auckland FC’s launch in the week of Phoenix’s Auckland home game feels like a gentle poke in the ribs. To which the Phoenix poked back with a spitball suggestion that AFC and “Bill Foley’s billions” should relocate to Kerikeri, given Auckland is, after all, part of the wider Auckland region. It might not yet amount to a Derby della Madonnina, and the capital might be 600km away, but in the Australasian context that’s close enough to declare the next Phoenix visit to Auckland – why not? – a derby. 

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