For decades the AFL has had a competitive edge over other codes. Its commission stood as a bastion of true independence devoid of the self-interest its competitors were riddled with. Indications are this position of strength is at present somewhat vulnerable.
Gill McLachlan has been appointed the new chief executive after what AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick described as an exhaustive process. McLachlan is the devil the commission knows, a smooth transition a seemingly safe bet. They believe he exhibits all the attributes to lead a future that requires a restoration of confidence.
The well-schooled polo player is intelligent, articulate, engaging and entertaining. He has many friends in the game, going by those invited to his recent 40th birthday. Many in the media also ‘share the love’ it seems, going by recent readings.
This is not to denigrate his abilities or his performance. McLachlan has stood side by side with Demetriou since 2006. Together their achievements were significant. Competition expansion, momentous stadium deals and outstanding media deals are just a few of many. On field they have crafted it into a wonderful testament of skill and courage.
Since announcing his departure Demetriou has said little. This silence seemed to release a few lunatics from the asylum.
The most telling comment McLachlan made in his savvy first-up performance was that he would have left the code if he was not been appointed to the CEO role. Interesting.
I am not privy to how the current commissioners viewed this threat, however I suggest such a position would have been inconsequential to former Chairman Ron Evans. Ron was dextrous with a genuine stature that generated tremendous respect. Under his direction those in the game all knew where they stood and how to act.
We were wet behind the ears at the Saints in early 2000, led by new President Rod Butterss. Rod was successful, articulate, smooth and captivating. His rawness made him the perfect fit for a new St Kilda.
Butterss is also wise. After a fireside chat with Evans he realised that that life was far easier in bed with the AFL than out of it. Once we stopped head butting City Hall they became a vital partner we were heavily reliant on.
Under Evans and Demetriou the game was tightly managed.
Evans’ leadership was most significant. He held court at the regular president and CEO Meetings like no other. He was the voice of strength and reason. On more than one occasion I saw him place a calming hand on Demetriou and assert authority over difficult situations or sensitive matters when the hair on Andrew’s neck was bristling.
Under Evans and Demetriou the game was tightly managed. Since announcing his departure Demetriou has said little. This silence seemed to release a few lunatics from the asylum.
We had numerous experts in club land openly offering opinions espousing the credentials of the next in line. There is no greater interest than self-interest and it was heavily at play in recent weeks. Under Evans this would not have been tolerated.
With Evans the press also knew where they stood. As the appointment process unfolded certain journalists seemed to have access to information that ultimately destroyed its credibility. Perception is reality for many. From the outside, the process to appoint McLachlan was a sham. This is unfair to the successful and the unsuccessful. It gave the AFL’s integrity another backhander.
The brand and reputation have been wounded. The Essendon sport science melodrama lingers like a leaking sewer.
The new CEO inherits a healthy business. It is financially buoyant with strong growth in developing markets likely to underpin hefty media rights increases. Participation rates are high and player health and well-being seems the AFLPA’s only ongoing concern. Players are well compensated.
However the game has serious challenges. In recent times its brand and reputation has been wounded. The Essendon sport science melodrama lingers like a leaking sewer. Inequalities remain a scourge without an obvious solution. Issues around integrity, expansion and pricing will require expertise in planning and execution. The game’s commitment to social issues must be vigilant.
Don’t ignore the challenges from outside. The NRL now has its own independent commission. It appears well governed and has deep pockets with expansion plans on the horizon. Soccer, too, seems in good hands. Rugby union has issues, however they do have the Wallabies brand to leverage if they can get their act together.
Such challenges can only be managed with a clear delineation between the role of the commission, the executive and the clubs. This structure set the code apart, ensuring the game was governed clear of interference and self-regard.
It’s now Gill and Mike’s wheel to swivel. McLachlan will undoubtedly require similar guidance to that Demetriou received. Fitzpatrick’s role in rebuilding confidence and credibility cannot be underestimated.
The integrity of the code starts the commission and executive upholding their roles as the most important people in the game. They must act with authority and take back charge of the asylum.
Brian Waldron is a former CEO of St Kilda, Melbourne Storm and the Melbourne Rebels.