AFTER years of playing hard-to-get, the Wests Group has emerged as the leading candidate to buy the Newcastle Knights – possibly before the end of this season.
While both the NRL and Wests Group chief executive Phil Gardner have been reluctant to comment, citing confidentiality agreements, Knights chairman Brian McGuigan confirmed on Monday that negotiations were advanced.
He also revealed that there were other interested parties in contention.
“The NRL are talking very seriously with Wests,’’ McGuigan said. “It hasn’t been done yet, and a number of other alternatives have come out of the woodwork.
“But as we’ve always said, it’s got to be someone who has the best interests of Newcastle at heart and the capacity to run the club for another decade. There have been too many changes over the years … we need to ensure that the long-term future of the club is in place.
“That is the legacy that this board has to leave.’’
The NRL, which has bankrolled the Knights since the demise of former owner Nathan Tinkler in 2014, put the franchise out to tender last September.
But despite expressions of interest from 17 entities, the sales process was scaled back in December.
It is understood that Wests, who were not among the tenders, and the NRL then kicked off talks.
“It’s been narrowed down to Wests, and there are a couple of others, but as a board, we all favour Wests,’’ McGuigan said.
“Maybe in some sort arrangement with local interests as well. But the NRL are going to determine that.”
There has been speculation that Wests and the NRL would initially form a joint venture before the governing body eventually relinquishes its stake. If Wests’ seven-person board of directors – president Owen Kilpatrick, Jack Ashman, Geoff Coburn, Robert Darcy, Scott Holmes, Wayne Hore and John McLaughlin – vote in favour of the proposed takeover, it is understood the club’s members would then be asked to ratify or reject the deal at a special general meeting.
McGuigan said he was uncertain about a possible time frame but imagined there might be a transitional “change-over” period before the end of this season.
Newcastle’s chairman said the “One Chance Our Knights” community-ownership proposal had not been ruled out.
“We hope to fulfill everyone’s ambitions with what we are trying to achieve,’’ he said. “But in the end, it will be an NRL decision.’’
The Our Knights concept was launched in December, whereby organisers hoped to raise $20 million in start-up capital by selling shares at $500 apiece.
Wests has been a sponsor of the Knights since the club’s 1988 foundation season.
The biggest licensed-club group in Newcastle and the Hunter, it provides the Knights with an administration office and training base and has long been regarded as a logical owner of the city’s NRL franchise.