Rugby League

Wests Tigers' major sponsor interested in buying stake in NRL franchise

The major sponsor of Wests Tigers has revealed an interest in buying a stake in the NRL club in a development that paints the clearest picture yet of what the Sydney franchise's ownership structure will look like beyond next month.

Lee Hagipantelis, the principal of Brydens Lawyers, told Fairfax Media on Wednesday he would seriously consider the prospect of purchasing a share in the Tigers if, as expected, 50 per cent of the franchise is placed on the market in April.

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Balmain's half share of the team will go up for sale then should they be unable to meet an obligation to repay $5 million in debt to the NRL, which has covered their bills for the past two years, by March 31.

Co-owners Wests Ashfield would have the first option to buy Balmain's stake but it is believed they are reluctant to take full ownership of the team, opening the door for a figure like Hagipantelis to become the NRL's latest private part-owner.

His firm last year took out a rich three-year sponsorship deal with Wests Tigers but Hagipantelis, a Balmain fan since his childhood on the Central Coast, is eager to extend the association.

"I am cognisant of the issues and I am of course appreciative of the brand and the importance of maintaining the heritage that Wests Tigers has with its stakeholders, being Balmain and Western Suburbs, and I think it would be an attractive opportunity to any so-minded investor," he said.

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"Any organisation that has invested heavily into the Wests Tigers would have an interest in making sure of or securing the continued viability of the Wests Tigers and its stakeholders.

"If it does go on the open market I think it would be remiss not to look into furthering our investment."

As the principal of what claims to be the largest litigation firm in NSW, Hagipantelis shapes as the kind of backer that could help take the Tigers to the next level as an organisation.

Cash-strapped due to Balmain's woes the team's facilities at their Concord Oval base are sub-standard when measured against most of their NRL rivals and pale in comparison to the state-of-the-art set-ups of clubs such as Canterbury.

For Hagipantelis, buying into the Tigers would be part business decision, part passion project.

He has positioned Brydens as a growing player in league circles; the firm sponsors five clubs and last week announced a two-year deal with the NSWRL's respect for referees program.

His heart lies with the Tigers, however.

"We've invested very heavily in the NRL ... we're sponsors of Penrith, the Bulldogs, Newcastle Knights as of last week. We have a sponsorship arrangement with them but there is no doubt there is a very large personal investment in the Tigers," he said.

"To be able to affix your name and your business with the club that you actually support is pretty special."

Unable to repay their debts Balmain have pinned their hopes on being granted a year-long extension by Wests Ashfield and the NRL. That will almost certainly not happen but Wests have already stressed there will be no change to the team's name, colour or logos with Balmain dropping out and Hagipantelis believes preserving the heritage of the foundation club is important.

"My impression from discussions with the Wests representatives is that they acknowledge the importance of the Balmain heritage remaining," he said.

"A significant portion of Wests Tigers fans today would not know of Balmain or Western Suburbs, they just support Wests Tigers. Issues between Balmain and Western Suburbs are historical, but this is a club which has 200 years of league history coursing through its veins."

Wests Ashfield chairman Mike Bailey said last week no decision had been made on whether they would buy Balmain's 50 per cent share holding if it becomes available and they had yet to hear formally from Balmain about the request to extend the March 31 deadline.

"We have canvassed the idea that that might happen but likewise we also realise that [Balmain] need to talk to us before we can make any further decisions," Bailey said. "At the moment we have no firm plans about exactly what we propose to do because we need to wait and see what happens."

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