The Auckland Tuatara is New Zealand’s newest professional sports team. A professional baseball team competing in the Australian Baseball League (ABL). They were one of two expansion teams that entered the ABL in the 2018/19 season. The establishment of Auckland Tuatara had been many years in the pipeline. Baseball New Zealand, the country's governing body of the sport of baseball, held talks back in 2009 regarding the prospects of adding a New Zealand-based team in the ABL. In November 2017, the league decided to expand to eight teams, and Baseball New Zealand was officially awarded a spot in the competition. In mid-2018 the club's name was announced as the Auckland Tuatara. At that time, one of the entities founders and Milford resident, Brett O'Riley, explained that the Tuatara was chosen as the name in order to celebrate the resilience of the ancient reptiles, and to raise awareness of New Zealand's commitment to species protection. The club's colours, teal and navy blue, are representative of the region's marine heritage. Auckland Tuatara played its home games at McLeod Park in Te Atatū South for the 2018/19 season, but will move to QBE Stadium in Albany for the 2019/20 season and beyond. Channel Magazine’s Aidan Bennett caught up with Auckland Tuatara CEO Ryan Flynn just after the club had finished their first season in January to talk about the future of the club on the North Shore.
AIDAN BENNETT: When is the Auckland Tuatara moving its base to QBE Stadium?
RYAN FLYNN: The front office is actually working out of QBE Stadium now. The stadium will undergo some redevelopment work in the coming months so that it is more suited to hosting baseball and will be ready for us to play our 2019-20 season there. The venue will host five series of four games for a total of 20 games from mid-November to late January.
AB: Who are the entities involved in the Auckland Tuatara?
RF: Baseball New Zealand is the largest shareholder but there are other private investors that have bought into the franchise. Some of those investors are based in New Zealand while others are based overseas. There is scope for further private investment to take place in the future. The Tuatara have signed agreements with a number of professional baseball clubs about sharing players and knowledge.
AB: Where do the players come from that represent the Auckland Tuatara?
RF: The Auckland Tuatara are a truly multi-cultural mix of different backgrounds, ethnicities and first languages – brought together by the universal language of baseball. Some are fulltime professionals, earning big money while others are just starting out and looking for opportunity. A core group of New Zealand players are joined by Americans, Canadians, Australians, Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean players. One of our players (Guiyuan Xu) from our first season is hoping to become the first Chinese born and bred player to make it to the major leagues while the world’s best Samoan player (Nick Tanielu) also played for the Tuatara in 2018-19.
AB: Tell us a bit about the Australasian competition and how Auckland Tuatara did in the 2018/19 season.
RF: The Auckland Tuatara finished their debut season with a 14—26 record (14 wins, 26 losses). The Tuatara and Geelong Korea (a Korean team based out of Geelong) were added to the existing six-team league for season 2018-19. The existing franchises have played in this league for the past eight years and have a core group of players that know the league inside and out. That experience showed once the season began with the two expansion franchises struggling to find the same consistency in performance. The Tuatara beat every team in the league except the Perth Heat, who we played first up. The side collected more wins than either Adelaide or Sydney did last year and had twice as many wins as fellow expansion outfit Geelong. The general feeling around the league is that the Tuatara have set a really solid base and they loom as a real threat for 2019-20.
AB: Baseball is a huge worldwide sport. Where is it most popular?
RF: There is an assumption that baseball is very much a sport dominated by the United States. While it obviously got started there and has a huge following in the US, baseball is massive throughout Central America and the Caribbean. It is the national summer sport of Japan and is huge throughout Asia with Korea, Taiwan and China all having professional leagues. It is a truly global sport – with strong playing numbers on each continent - and there has been massive growth in New Zealand over the past decade both in terms of playing numbers and people following the game or betting on it.
AB: From a business perspective, what are the ambitions of the organisation when at QBE?
RF: The Auckland Tuatara hope to establish themselves as one of the core sporting options in Auckland during the summer months. Playing out of a world class facility like QBE Stadium will help significantly. There will be the opportunity to play night matches and reach prime time television timeslots while the corporate, media and playing facilities will be as good or better as any other venue in the Australian Baseball League. We expect to be the envy of every team once we fully move into QBE Stadium.
AB: What have you taken away from this first 2018/19 season?
RF: There was no blue print to follow when starting this project. Other sporting franchises have started up and entered Australian leagues but nothing like this with a sport that most people didn’t know a whole lot about and a schedule that saw the team play four games a weekend and spend 40 days on the road in one trip. We have found out that the core group of Kiwi players are more than capable of succeeding in this league and the franchise will be able to rely on them more moving forward. That should allow the Tuatara to be a little more specific with searching for overseas players. We have also gone through a full season, including a short home season at a pop-up venue so we have a whole lot of know-how now about putting on professional baseball in New Zealand. Everything that worked well in our brief home stand last season will be incorporated into our 2019-20 plans.
AB: Complete the following, in 2029 the Auckland Tuatara will be…
RF: One of New Zealand’s most respected sporting franchises and will have won the Claxton Shield for the first time.