A Melbournian with a strong background in the game is the latest man taking the reins of Sydney FC.
Tony Pignata enters the meeting room, open and friendly. He is a football devotee, a former player and coach who has held some big roles in Australian football. He has arrived in the Sky Blues chief executive hot seat with a great pedigree – tenure as the boss of Football Federation Victoria (FFV) followed by a successful stint as the CEO of Wellington Phoenix. But a hot seat is exactly what the Sydney FC role is. The chief executive’s chair has changed just as much as the head coaching role since the foundation of the A-League, and the Sky Blues have not set the world alight in the past two years. With heavy player turnover, no major sponsor, wavering attendances and a new local rival in the ranks with the Western Sydney Wanderers, Pignata will need to hit the ground running.
Pignata’s association with football goes back to his Melbourne upbringing and a junior career with Box Hill. After hanging up the boots he remained involved in the sport through the boardroom and through his children.
“I’ve always loved sport. I’ve always loved football,” Pignata explains.
The Monash University graduate went to work in marketing for National Australia Bank, AXA, IOOF and HSBC before he started a three year stint at FFV in 2004. After a short break he then took on the huge job at the Phoenix in June 2007.
“The hardest thing about the Phoenix was not many people want to know you because of the failure of the Knights, and to certain extent the Kingz,” Pignata says.
“Wellington was a different kettle of fish, but the issue was to get the brand out there and explain to people that we’re totally different than the previous clubs. We had to get some quick wins. When I got there, there was no members, no sponsors, we had a few players, and Ricky and Terry and I worked hard to get that up and going.
“I think we won a lot of plaudits getting David Beckham out in our first year and getting the Galaxy to play Wellington Phoenix in front of a sell-out crowd. The previous record was 15,000 and to get 32,000, it showed people that OK, these guys are serious. Off the back of that we got Sony as our sponsor and then it just flowed. The first year was always going to be difficult. I said it’s going to be three years before this club plays finals football – in our third year we made the preliminary final.”
Pignata’s mission in Wellington was massive. He was starting a club from scratch, along with owner and chairman Terry Serepisos, following the demise of the New Zealand Knights. The Knights and Auckland Kingz had been failures in the A-League and National Soccer League before it, and New Zealand football was weak. But you look at the Phoenix today and they have carved out a strong niche in the Kiwi sporting market. They have a successful club, a strong team and a fantastic fan base, headed by the passionate supporters group the Yellow Fever.
“I like to think I established a strong foundation there that they can build on,” Pignata says.
“They’ve been in the finals for the past three years, no club has. They’ve done well. A lot of good memories there.”
Pignata left the Phoenix in July 2010 on with his standing intact. He remains on good terms with the fans and NZ football community, and has a reputation of being an open and transparent CEO.
“I do like to be open with media and fans,” Pignata says.
“One of the things I got out of the whole three years that was the most pleasing reward I got, the most satisfying, was when the Yellow Fever gave me personality of the year. To my astonishment I got it. That was touching.
“Here I am on the forum as well and I have interaction. If I read something that I don’t like or what I more explanation, which I have, I’ll touch base with them and get in touch personally, ask them why they’ve made that comment, get feedback and bring it back to the team. At the end of the day I want to open and transparent with all fans and I like the interaction with all fans. The same with the media, be honest and upfront. And if you are like that, you can’t go wrong. That’s my view.”
The Phoenix was a mammoth challenge but it doesn’t get any easier in Sydney with the Sky Blues who, along with Melbourne Victory, are the biggest club in the A-League. Pignata, who replaces Dirk Melton, acknowledges that there are a lot of expectations around Sydney FC and that the last few years for the club “haven’t been great”. Pignata says the competition needs a strong Sydney and he plans to give them a “strong Sydney FC”.
“The Sydney FC brand has always been a good brand,” he says.
“Last year we had no major sponsor – this year it’s a focus for us to have a major sponsor. The core fanbase is there. I’d like to see more members and fans, and we have to work hard to do that.
“It’s not going to just come by putting a game on here at Allianz stadium. There’s a lot of work we need to do in the community and the associations and the clubs, and really build up from the grassroots and give them an entertainment day when they come to the stadium.”
“We are competing for the entertainment dollar – we have to be out there and try and get people through the gate. So if we can build on that 11,000-12,000 and build it up a bit, we are on the right path.”
Pignata is confident that Sydney FC will have a new major sponsor before the start of the season. He has a new head coach to work with in Englishman Ian Crook, and the directive is to play entertaining football. Old players have left, new players have been drafted in and it will be very different looking Sky Blues that takes the field in season 8. Sydney FC’s recent coaching clinic was sold out, the first time ever Pignata says, and community is a big part of his growth plan. Engaging with fans and getting involved in grassroots football is how they will go about it. Asked about bringing back the ‘Bling FC’ tag of Dwight Yorke and the first season of the A-League, Pignata says he wants to bring it back on the field.
“The first year was great,” he says.
“If you’re going to bring it back, bring it back on the field. Let’s play entertaining football. Let’s make sure that any club that plays us has a feel for our football. Off the field, there is an element of that which is Sydney. But we want to be able to identify with the local fans as well, and bring them through the gates.”
Things are hotting up in the Sydney football market. The Wanderers have arrived and attracted 3,500 fans, double what the Gold Coast United would regularly get at Skilled Park, to a trial against State League second division side Nepean FC. They seem to have energised one of the heartlands of football in this country and have already signed NRMA Insurance as their major sponsor. Sydney FC has a challenge on their hands to keep their dominance of Australia’s biggest city.
“We’ve got to be on our toes. Western Sydney have recruited well. They’re going to have a very competitive team and I’m sure in round three against us, they’re going to be up for it. I welcome it. It’s going to be great for football that week, we play three derbies and if we can get great crowds for that, in the media and even people who don’t associate with it talking about it, it’s a win-win situation.”
Pignata has already had a win in the form of the free public transport offer for Sydney FC members and those who pre-purchase match day tickets to home games at Allianz Stadium. They get free transport on buses, trains and ferries from places far away as Newcastle, Goulburn, Wollongong and Lithgow.
“It’s a unique thing in Sydney,” he says.
“I can’t move the stadium. Allianz Stadium, Moore Park, is where we play our home games. But what we can do is help the cost of a game. So you buy your membership you basically get free public transport. That should save you over the year your whole membership, effectively. Even away fans get the opportunity if you pre-purchase your ticket.”
It may be a small gesture, but it is a smart one. A prolific presence on Twitter, Pignata is practicing what he preaches and has started his tenure at Sydney FC with some promising signs. He’s been out there in the community, engaging with supporters and with the local football clique. Pignata won’t be judged on his first few months though, and there is a long journey to go. Whether he succeeds or fails, it won’t be from a lack of trying from this football diehard.