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Entrepreneur keen to crack other sporting codes

By Michele Simpson

Friday 20th October 2000

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FALLEN ICON: The spin doctors have their work cut out in resurrecting the Warriors brand
CLEAN SLATE: Eric Watson says he is not picking up Tainui's Warrior debts
Stationery-to-sports entrepreneur Eric Watson has his eye on other top sporting codes for future investment.

Mr Watson has taken a 75% stake in the Warriors, with New Zealand Rugby League holding the remaining 25%. New Zealand Rugby League picked up the club's operating licence for $400,000 earlier this month.

But Mr Watson plans to add other sports to his business portfolio which includes stakes in online sports betting agency Canbet, stud farm Westbury and Pacific Retail Group.

Other high-level sports teams would be welcome into the Watson fold - the New Zealand Rugby Union-owned Blues Super-12 rugby team was one trophy the 41-year-old businessman would like to acquire.

But first things first - disputes over player contracts at the Warriors have featured highly in the news this week.

"Why do I need to advertise? Money couldn't buy the kind of publicity I am getting," Mr Watson said.

Warrior turmoil, including disgruntled creditors and anxious player managers, has made headlines both here and in Australia. "What needs to be done is repositioning the brand."

With the ink barely having had time to dry on the deal to buy the former Tainui-owned Warriors, Mr Watson has brought in public relations consultant Alan Botica and advertising agency Young & Rubicam to rehabilitate the brand.

He promised in the next fortnight, the "New Zealand" Warriors would be ready to announce its management, coach, player appointments and its three-to-four-year marketing and business strategy. He has already appointed former Warrior Matthew Ridge as executive director.

Mr Watson is negotiating with major Warriors sponsor Vodafone and hopes the company will extend its relationship with the team since its name first appeared on rugby league shirts last year.

Despite the Warriors being a "fallen New Zealand icon," Mr Watson is adamant the team will fill a packed stadium for the first game of the season. He said the team would get support through his business network Cullen Investments.

Meanwhile, creditors may be beating down the wrong door trying to recoup losses from the new Warriors owners. It is estimated Tainui may owe $10 million in unpaid tax, rent and players' wages. Mr Watson said he had started with a clean slate and was not responsible for any losses incurred by the former owners.

"That's the responsibility of Tainui - they've got enough money."

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