Victory admits financial concerns amid Christmas Derby fallout, 777 Partners arrival

Melbourne Victory managing director Caroline Carnegie has told ESPN that the club is "not where we want it to be" financially, but insists the A-League giants are on the path to recovery.

Buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Victory lost AU$6.7 million according to its 2021-22 accounts -- a fourth straight year of deficits -- with Miami-based private investment group 777 Partners purchasing a 19.9% stake of the club for AU$8.7m soon after.

However, the violent pitch invasion by Victory fans at the 2022 Christmas Derby dealt another significant and unexpected setback. Though able to push back against early considerations towards its games being forced behind closed doors and not played for points, club officials estimate the resulting financial penalties and crowd restrictions, increased security costs, and loss of future membership and commercial opportunities cost Victory "millions."

"Financially, [Victory is] not where we want it to be," Carnegie told ESPN. "A couple of years ago, we set a new four to five-year strategy around where we wanted to be coming out of COVID and moving forward. Last year, with the incidents around the derby, that probably put us a little bit behind where we wanted to be.

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"Our results won't reflect where we wanted to be but, if we normalised that, we're roughly heading in the direction that we want. We've got a lot of work still to do. Success helps with a lot of those things, which is what we hope to show all our fans and members this year.

"But Melbourne Victory is on the right path to being strong and healthy."

At a board level, longtime chairperson Anthony Di Pietro departed in June and was replaced by John Dovaston, Victory's first independent chair. Carl Valeri, a former club captain, and Kerry Smith have joined in recent months as part of a further refresh, while Carnegie and Don Dransfield, chief executive of 777 Partners' football group, fill the other positions.

"We now hit the 40-40-20 principle for gender equity," said Carnegie. "We have four out of five of our directors who are independents."

Carnegie is bullish on Victory's partnership with 777 Partners and, a month out from the new A-League season, she has multiple priorities ahead of a crucial campaign: meeting with AAMI Park security before her interview with ESPN as part of efforts to ensure Victory fans' ability to support the team without undue attention. But segments of the club's supporters remain apprehensive of the nature, history and motivations of their new minority owners.

Under the terms of their arrival, 777 Partners, who last Friday sealed an agreement to purchase Premier League side Everton, can take on a 70% stake in Melbourne Victory in coming years in exchange for an investment of up to AU$30m. Its present 19.9% share, which the private investment group has not yet sought to expand, is second only to the estate of late director Mario Biasin. If 777 Partners opts not to proceed with the takeover, it can depart while being refunded any additional investment with a compounding interest of 10% per year, although a Victory spokesperson clarified to ESPN on Monday that this didn't cover recouping the initial 19.9% stake.

Carnegie said Victory was prepared for this hypothetical, saying "the club will be strong enough to survive regardless."

"That's part of our strategic plan ... is how we can go with either alternative," she added.

Private equity and multi-club ownership are not new phenomena to the Australian top-flight. Beyond the presence of City Football Group-owned Melbourne City, American entity Silver Lake purchased 33% of the newly independent A-Leagues in 2021. League commissioner Nick Garcia has also welcomed the prospect of multi-club involvement in its expansion plans. But the favourable terms 777 Partners extracted from Victory have raised eyebrows; football academic Kieran Maguire labelling them a "Vampire lender" on The Price of Football podcast. That's a descriptor Carnegie disputed.

"There was a fair bit that was said in there that's probably not quite accurate of how those discussions or negotiations took place," she said.

"Melbourne Victory will always be Melbourne Victory. And there's a reason that we partnered with [777 Partners]. It's clear that additional equity is helpful in this gig and that was part of it. But having somebody that had relationships with other clubs that could help us with commercial partnerships, fan engagement, new technology and pathways was a big part of it."

Controversy has frequently followed 777 Partners, with a fresh spotlight applied during its efforts to acquire Everton. Vasco da Gama, Hertha Berlin, and Standard Liege supporters have all staged protests amidst adverse on-field results since their acquisition by the controversial investment group.

The long-term plans for the menagerie of clubs in the 777 Partners stable, mostly purchased during times of hardship, have been opaque. In an interview with the Financial Times, co-founder Josh Wander -- this month elected onto the board of the European Club Association -- provided a hint when he suggested football clubs had "done a horrible job of commercialising the product."

"We have a strong view that there's a new wave of commercialisation coming to football," he said.

Investigative outlet Josimar, meanwhile, has published articles alleging financial insecurity, fraud, mismanagement and illegal activity by the group. 777 Partners vehemently denies the allegations, labelling them inaccurate and defamatory. It has been accused of fraud in its aviation arm in a civil case brought in the United States by Timothy O'Neil-Dunne, who worked at 777 Partners between 2018 and 2021. 777 Partners adamantly denies the allegations.

"I think [777 Partners] have made significant comments on what they thought of that and I'm not intimately involved in the [777 Partners] business," Carnegie responded when the Josimar article was raised. "I can only speak about the dealings that we've had with them and I think I've spoken to you about the positives from those."