THE Wests Group are set to assume outright ownership of the Newcastle Knights on November 1 after their takeover proposal was overwhelmingly endorsed by the club’s members.
A total of 13,635 members voted in last week’s unofficial mandate and the ballot returned a 93 per cent approval rating.
Wests will now enter on Wednesday week into an interim partnership with the NRL, which has owned Newcastle’s franchise since the demise of controversial Nathan Tinkler three years ago.
The transitional period will give Wests a chance to undertake extensive due diligence and address issues such as the board structure and season-ticket logistics before taking control on the first day in November.
Wests chief executive Phil Gardner said he was delighted that so many members took the opportunity to vote.
In comparison, an estimated 2500 Knights members voted (97 per cent in favour) in the 2011 privatisation ballot that handed the club to Tinkler.
“It’s a great vote of confidence, firstly in the Wests Group, our board of directors and what we can do,’’ Gardner said.
“But it also showed that everyone in the town is behind the Knights and they really want the team to be successful.
“That gives us incredible confidence going forward, that so many people are behind us, and with us.
“We’re going forward as a community, together. It really is fantastic that so many people turned out to vote.
“It’s been overwhelming, and humbling.”
The Wests vote was not a formal process, because the group’s directors would have been constitutionally entitled to make such a decision anyway.
But they felt a “plebiscite” was essential before proceeding with what many regard as the dream marriage between the region’s most successful licensed-club group and the embattled NRL outfit.
The deal hinged on Wests committing $10 million towards a proposed rugby league centre of excellence at Broadmeadow. If, as expected, it proceeds, their investment will be matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the state government.
Wests will not pay out any of the liabilities the NRL has incurred during its three-year tenure as Knights owner, but are expected to contribute towards running costs before the November 1 handover.
Gardner said that after months of negotiations with the NRL, there was no reason to suspect that any anomalies would be discovered during the due-diligence process.
“I don’t believe that in this, the NRL would not be completely honest in any way, shape or form in everything that they’re doing,’’ Gardner said.
“I don’t think there will be anything there that we don’t expect. There might be some dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s.
“But in all our dealing with the NRL, they’ve done everything with integrity and honesty and they’re going to be the regulator going forward.
“I don’t think you could get a better vendor than that, so I’m very comfortable that we’re not going find anything untoward, but you never know until you do the due diligence.’’
Gardner thanked the incumbent Knights board of directors, who will stand aside on August 15, saying they “have done a fantastic job”.
A new board structure will be revealed in the months ahead, and the incoming directors will be elected by Wests, pending NRL approval. Gardner was confident that Wests could offer sufficient financial expertise and was hoping the Knights’ board would provide football acumen.