Flamboyant Carlton and austere Essendon are very different clubs, with different cultures over their histories. But their new and anointed leaders are from the same club, in a sense.
Paul Brasher, the Essendon president who took over the reins late last season and immediately cast an auditor’s eye over the Bombers’ underperforming football “division”, is a friend and corporate colleague of the man who will be Carlton president next year, Luke Sayers, whose formidable connections were evident when both Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Victorian Premier Dan Andrews attended his 50th birthday in 2019.
Businessman and Carlton president-elect Luke Sayers.Credit:Wayne Taylor
Lindsay Fox, a self-made trucking magnate, was St Kilda president when the Saints were insolvent and forced creditors – including players who’d worn the jumper with distinction – into an embarrassing, shameful scheme of arrangement in which they received either three or 22.5 cents in the dollar for money owed.
The competition was only semi-professional then and the entrepreneurs were wheeling and dealing, as sponsorship became a factor, private ownership was permitted (briefly) and clubs were facing existential questions of survival – a scenario that only really abated in the late ’90s after the aborted Melbourne-Hawthorn merger and the AFL-driven takeover of Fitzroy by the Brisbane Bears. Joe Gutnick’s takeover of Melbourne was perhaps the last gasp of that ’80s paradigm.
McGuire was at the vanguard of the media-seeking, high-profile president, followed, as he was, by outspoken Jeff Kennett and David Koch, in the 2000s and 2010s and Gold Coast’s Tony Cochrane.
But if Koch and Kennett remain (it was revealing that the entertaining prison-bar spat was played out by Eddie and Koch, not Korda and Koch), they are not where the game is headed, which is to the likes of Sayers, Brasher, Korda, Richmond’s Peggy O’Neal (corporate lawyer), the Bulldogs’ Kylie Watson-Wheeler (Disney’s Australian CEO), Sydney’s Andrew Pridham (finance guru) and Geelong’s new president Craig Drummond, chief executive of health insurance giant Medibank.
The new AFL corporate culture is, as with the major listed companies, law and accounting firms, heavily focused on governance, on process – making decisions the “right” way – and on reviewing and rectifying mistakes.
Members are viewed like shareholders, although clubs do not want them have to any say whatsoever in the composition of the board; as I have written before, the member’s only real power is that of consumer.
The rise of the “institutional corporate” leaders – men and women who have risen inside corporate institutions, boast MBAs, accounting or legal degrees, and know “governance”, “risk and audit” and adhere to a playbook of “best practice” – has driven a discernible shift in how clubs operate.
This was first demonstrated vividly in the Essendon drug saga, when the AFL and the Bombers judged the disaster to be caused by corporate “governance failures”.
AFL clubs are now the domain of corporate Australia.Credit:Matt Davidson
The language used by Essendon (and by the man who performed the club’s corporate autopsy) underscored that clubs were now meant to be run like listed companies, with a management structure in which reporting lines were clear, coaches answered to someone or another (instead of no one), and a rogue like Stephen Dank ought to be supervised, as if he was an errant bond trader.
In this new AFL, the CEO is supposed to be the face of the non-football side of the club, as evident at the new benchmark, Richmond, where Brendon Gale does most of the talking and all of the day-to-day management. This structure has long been evident at the AFL, where Gillon McLachlan runs the show, with Goyder and the commission rarely overturning executive calls.
But a contradiction lies at the heart of this new AFL: That the leadership at board level is encouraged to take a bloodless view, to make clinical, measured decisions, while relying on a supporter/membership base with a deep emotional – and irrational – investment.
Club leaders also straddle the different constituencies of sponsors (“corporate partners”) and the fans. In Collingwood’s recent travails, the sponsors such as Nike and CGU were concerned with the club’s handling of racism, as outlined in the “Do Better” report. But the members were far more inflamed by the trading period fiasco in which senior players, especially Adam Treloar, were offloaded for not-great-returns in a firesale.
McGuire’s exit was probably forced more via sponsor appeasement than the fans, who care mainly about wins and losses, not the balance sheet. Eddie, in some ways, was also claimed by the new (global) corporate culture that doesn’t want loose comments about race/gender/disability et al.
The other expectation of club presidents and their movers and shakers at board level is that they have connections to politicians and governments, and can thus prise taxpayer dollars for facilities or for community programs.
Amid the corporate cultural takeover, the AFL is still a game and a passion, that seduces even the most business-like leaders.
The challenge for clubs will be to evolve into entities that can make the right, rational calls, without losing sight of the people who pay for the whole show.
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