AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan has gone into damage control, assuring club members they are entitled to refunds of membership fees.
The AFL chief was forced to confront a backlash from fans after Collingwood president Eddie McGuire fired up on the issue of refunds and refused to confirm his club would pay them.
McGuire’s tirade came on Channel Nine in Melbourne on Wednesday, when sports reporter Tony Jones pushed the issue and the Magpie president lost his cool.
McGuire later suggested he was merely trying to avoid a “run” on financially weakened clubs.
On Thursday, McLachlan went on ABC Radio in Melbourne to try to defuse the debate, saying “of course” people suffering financial hardship could get their money back, given the AFL season is suspended until at least May 31.
“If they need it, they can, but yes clearly we’d love them to stay because our industry is in a battle and our clubs are in a battle to get through and the membership is their lifeblood,” McLachlan said.
“I understand the pain out there and people need to make their own decisions … but I know our members understand how big their contribution of membership is to their clubs.”
McGuire also sought to explain his stance, telling Triple M that not all clubs necessarily had cash on hand to pay out members if there was a rush for refunds.
“It is not just like an ATM that can spit the money out. It’s like a bank: If you have a run on the bank, nominally they have the money there but you can’t hand it all over in one go,” McGuire said.
The Collingwood president also took a swipe at Magpie supporter Jones. He said the TV reporter was not a club member and described as “tenuous” the idea that a journalist supporting a club through a paid membership might be a conflict of interest.
McGuire was also assailed by football fans on social media on Thursday, with many suggesting it was another tone deaf response from a figure who dominates the Melbourne football media and has often been accused of having multiple conflicts of interest.
McLachlan told the ABC he understood the plight of clubs that had already been forced to cut about 80 per cent of staff.
“Those for whom the footy club is almost part of their family, if they’re able to maintain their membership and keep going, it will go a long way to getting their clubs through this – and that’s Ed’s point,” McLachlan said.
“Clearly the footy clubs rely on club membership and for those who have been making a contribution because of that connection and that loyalty for such a long time, if they’re able to keep their membership it goes a long way to keeping the club sustainable.”
Some clubs, including the cash-strapped Western Bulldogs, have already refunded some memberships, although some non-members have rushed to pay up to help the clubs out.
Western Bulldogs’ chief executive Ameet Bains agreed clubs would be in strife if there was a flood of refund requests.
“It would be a significant body blow for clubs and potentially fatal for a number of clubs as well,” Bains told SEN radio.
“The question of hardships is a different one and I think everyone is sympathetic about that … we continue to work with anyone who is affected in that way.
“From our own experience, those individuals that have approached us with hardships or concerns, we’ve been happy to accommodate.”
The NRL has given no firm position on refunds to members of its 16 clubs, beyond stating membership was integral to each of them.