Business as Usual

Business as Usual

Melbourne FC looked the AFL in the eye. What? Tanking? Us? We’ll see you in court. The 50 year members stirred in their leather couches, wiped the jam and whipped cream from their leather elbows and gleefully reached for their silks. Pro bono.

The AFL blinked. The brand had to be saved. Back room deals were done.

But by saving the brand, hasn’t it been damaged?

Andrew Demetriou took a step backwards in order to protect his brand and Gillon McLachlan bumbled through the press conference like Basil Fawlty accosted by irate guests. Journos laughed at a sad, funny moment in a sad season. At least he had the decency to show up.

Drugs and Essendon and Steve Dank were next. Same again. Brand before truth. Again, McLachlan was in it up to his polo helmet.

Sports two deadliest sins sorted. Sort of; for now.

Rumour has it Demetriou wanted to go last year but didn’t want fresh mud on his expensive suit. What hope does an organisation have when its leader isn’t interested in its problems?

By the time Tania Hird appeared on the ABC, enough was enough.

The AFL searched the globe for a replacement, only to find him in the office next door. Who would’ve thought?

So, now Gillon McLachlan is the next CEO. Move along, nothing to see here. Business as usual.

And Demetriou is suddenly compassionate to issues affecting fans and the game. Like a retired world leader who becomes an instant humanitarian or environmentalist.

Is the AFL listening? Can it hear (or see) from behind the glass? Fans have tired of scandals, corruption, TV fixturing, hidden price hikes, the widening gap between the have and have nots. The whole bloody soap opera.

Hope and romance are seeping away.

A new CEO offered the opportunity for a new broom and corrected perspective, but the Commission bottled it. No one outside the circle need apply. Mike Fitzpatrick says he doesn’t know when his own time will come. Maybe it has.

McLachlan was in control at the announcement of his anointment. He said he was a country and ammos boy, who knew how footy clubs work, how footy people think. Who was he trying to convince, himself or us? He wants to make going to the footy easy again, which makes you wonder what he’s been doing up to now. He’s not interested in the dark, recent past, or his role in it. It’s all about the future.

Move along, nothing to see here.

McLachlan will be seriously judged. If he really cares, he will get rid of surcharges and tiered pricing, and give all clubs, not just those less wealthy or influential, their turn at the Sunday night graveyard shift at the Dungeon. Or, better still, get rid of it all together.

He must work hard to win the faith of genuine football people. Future threats to the AFL’s integrity must be tackled strongly, thoroughly, courageously and with transparency. Friendships and the boys’ club must be put aside.

It’s time for putting football and fans first, not business as usual.



  1. At a get-together a few weeks ago, I was talking to a mate of mine who works at the AFL.
    He stated that when G Mac was inevitably appointed, we should all prepare for more mimicking of the NFL. Which is ironic, because I reckon one of the AFL’s biggest problems in recent years has been that it follows the NFL too slavishly.

  2. Taking out your frustrations on the AFL, umpires, bookies, tv commentators etc etc. I’m with you 100% Andrew.
    Anything is better than writing about Sunday’s game.
    Lucky there are no literate Suns or Dockers fans to remind us, otherwise I would have to stop reading the Almanac for a week.

  3. MGLFerguson says

    “… I reckon one of the AFL’s biggest problems in recent years has been that it follows the NFL too slavishly…”

    As an American who discovered your wonderful game relatively recently and quite by accident, I watch the pain you as hard-core Australian fans go through as the AFL office tries so hard to emulate the commercial degradation that all of the major American sports have evolved through over the past twenty years or so, and hope that wiser heads will see the failings of the American Way as well as its successes.

    Our leagues’ strategic goal, and the commercial success of it is past any debate, has been to broaden their supporter bases without regard to any effect on the depth of attachment of their supporter bases. The rescheduling of traditional times to accommodate television schedules, the names on the backs of jumpers to accommodate the casual TV viewer (and the nouveau caserniste who needs to display his brand affiliation like he would any other mass-market clothing label), the swingeing prices for concession fare are all about gathering their rosebuds (shearing their sheep) while they may. Certainly, improving the “fan experience” isn’t the goal of any of those moves; but judged on their own terms, how can you argue with their success?

    Perhaps some of the motivation for this has been generational; at least in the US, the need for people to display superficial brand identification appears to be intensifying as the Gens run from X to Y to whatever we are calling the teens and young adults of today. At the same time, though, competing attractions and media make their actual attachment to those brands surprisingly tenuous. It is the fans “of a certain age” who are much more rarely seen wearing team “gear” (though they are of course more able to afford it), and they are more likely to be the regular game attenders, too. So if the AFL sees a trend among youth to be less deeply attached, broadening its audience with less regard to the effect on its (older) core fan group is reasonable commercial strategy, however aggravating it may be to be on the wrong side of it.

    I am probably atypical, as my own response to these trends has been largely to detach myself from American professional sport, and substitute in their stead the deeply weird combination of amateur field hockey (since my daughter played) and Australian football. And at least for me, 10,000 miles of separation and a bit of a cultural gap attenuates by a fair bit the effects of commercialization that you all feel.

    But I expect that in the end, more of you will become like me: As a child, I would listen in bed every summer night to Chuck Thompson broadcasting the Orioles’ night games on the radio; I would quickly reach over to turn down the radio at every crack of the bat, and count one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand before hearing the roar of the crowd come through my bedroom window from old Memorial Stadium a half-mile away. I was certain that if I ever cut myself really badly, I would bleed either orange or black instead of red, and my fondest dream was to be a baseball player like my heroes. Now, baseball is dead to me.

    Instead, I get up at 2:30 in the morning late on a Friday to watch the footy. May it ever be thus.

  4. The Wrap. says

    Well put AS. The mid-season changeover looked nice and gracious on the surface, didn’t it? Lots of smiles and raised glasses all round. Does it feel a bit hereditary to anyone? Kim il-sung handing over to Kim Jong-il.

    More of the same is surely going to sink Our Great Game. What it desperately needs is fresh thinking and bold steps to bring it back to the people. I’m all for giving the G Mac a chance to play cards. But at the same times keeping the ink wet on the nib.

  5. Cat from the Country says

    Thank you MGLFerguson. It is always good to see ourselves through others’ eyes. We may not like what we see.
    We ignore it at our peril.
    Does anyone know if those at AFL House read posts and comments on the Footy Almanac? Lachy could learn a lot here.

  6. matt watson says

    It is all about ignorance.
    The fans know what is wrong with the game but the AFL doesn’t. They just know what is right with the game, and that is variable pricing, twilight games in dead zone timeslots, Monday night games, Thursday night games, thousand dollar fast food and drink and more corporate support than ever.
    So what would the fans know?
    Years ago I worked in electrical wholesaling. Once a month, our regional manager would spend a day working at a branch, serving customers, packing boxers, working the store and unloading trucks.
    It kept him in touch with the workers. When he quit, the new regional manager installed himself as emperor and tried using the force to lead.
    He was universally hated, loathed as out of touch. He interfered with branch discounts, upset our customers, forced us to work Saturday’s and oversaw the biggest reduction in service in a decade. People quit – they weren’t replaced.
    Head office loved him for it. It was all about the bottom line – dollars. People did not matter…
    He is probably going to be the next AFL CEO.

  7. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    If he has identified things that should be changed, why hasn’t he done anything about them already?

    Did Vlad have the power of veto ? (or any of the other Corleones)

    And thanks for your insight MGLF.

  8. Stainless says

    Gillon needs to remember he’s presiding over what is in essence a fantasy – a ball game, no less, masquerading as a billion dollar business. It serves no useful purpose other than in the hearts and minds of its followers. We think it’s important, therefore it is. If we don’t, it’s not.

    If a quintessentially brilliant Gold Coast Suns team wins four consecutive flags and no-one notices, does it really happen?

    To me, two essential qualities must endure for the fantasy to endure. Uniqueness and integrity. If Gillon leaves this job with both these qualities enhanced, he’ll be hailed as a success.

    Lose the game’s uniqueness and you’ve got no defence against the barrage of global sport that increasingly dominates the mass media. My observations are that many aspects of AFL, from simple stuff like tactics and rules, to the way it’s branded, presented and packaged in the media and at the venues, have been homogenised out of a sense of “me-tooism”. As MGLF has observed.

    So, Gillon, here’s a novel suggestion. Instead you should be striving to achieve just the opposite. Focus on our points of difference within the game and in its presentation and give people something that’s really memorable because it’s not soccer, or NFL, or whatever.

    Lose the game’s integrity and you’ve got no credible framework in which it can be taken seriously. This relates to the way the competition is structured and regulated. Supporters know they’re buying into a contest where there are winners and losers, but they have to feel that what they’re forking out their hard-earned for is fair, not manipulated to fit in with business strategies. There is no point in building a logical business model if you destroy the passion for your product in the process.

    Integrity is also about the defences against drugs, gambling and any other cancerous influences. The biggest tragedy about the Essendon saga is that all parties involved emerged tarnished. The game as a whole suffered enormously and arguably is still recovering. Gillon, you can’t afford another scandal like that on your watch.

  9. E.regnans says

    Love it, Starkie. #groupthink

  10. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic article , Andrew and unfortunately it’s so correct and not funny

  11. djlitsa says

    Great thoughts there Andrew and a great discussion thread. Being in a different country and timezone for the last 13 years (f*#ck that went fast) I do not feel the pain of changes in scheduling as much you all of you still regularly (or trying to) attend games. They way the league has moved with TV scheduling, they made a big mistake moving away from the suburban grounds that would have allowed for smaller crowds and better profits for the clubs.

    And thanks MGLF for your take on all this from afar. I have just spent my first season following the NHL and being new to it all would not even recognise any of the issues that have come about by changes to the game and tend to look at any of the commercialism as a given. Loved your comment about your childhood memories of following the baseball. Hearing the roar of the crowd from outside of the stadium is a very special thing indeed.

  12. Like most Almanackers, I am a football romantic too. I like that our game is unique and I like the history of it too. History comprises two parts – factual and folklore. I’m interested in both, but folklore is what really grabs me. I like to read a story far more than a page of statistics.

    I played for the Uni Blues. Like many before me and subsequently, I ran water, umpired, sat on the committee, updated the website, you name it. I have all of this in common with Gill McLachlan. He is older than I am and, although our time over-lapped, he did it before me.

    One Thursday night after training all the players sat down for our meal and the guest speaker was Gill. He was then the Commercial Operations Manager at the AFL. Gill spoke about the role that he performed and then the players asked questions. That Thursday evening was a fascinating insight into Gill’s role and how he felt about it.
    Put simply, Gill is doing a job. As Commercial Operations Manager his role was to grow the commercial side of the business. This can be measured by crowd numbers, ratings, sponsorship, TV rights deals, etc. All of these areas of the AFL continue to grow. Gill did his job and did it well.

    Somebody asked who he barracked for. He mentioned that he grew up supporting St Kilda but then he said if we wanted to know where his heart was, what he was passionate about, what he loved, it was right there in the pavilion at Uni. The same as most of us, he did his job as well as he could and in his spare time he did the things he loved.

    I like Gill. I have played footy with him and his youngest brother with whom I remain friends. I walked away from the Pavvy that night with my respect for him intact. The question that I asked of him was how often he has to do something in his role that he doesn’t personally agree with. He answered that it was incredibly rare, almost non-existent.

    But I don’t think his tenure will be viewed as a success by many of the Almanackers. And I will agree.

    Gill will do his job and he will do it well. I expect the factual side of history will show that all of the measured aspects will continue to improve. The AFL’s finances, crowds, members, sponsors, media rights, it will all continue on the upward trend. And, yes, our great game will probably become more of a facsimile of professional sport the world over.

    Unfortunately Gill won’t be measured on emotion, romance, the feel of the game – the folklore part of history. And those of us interested will continue to bemoan this.

    I am sure that the new CEO of the AFL would like to re-create in each football fan the same feeling he has for Uni Blues. But surely this is a task beyond even him.

  13. Jake Norton of the Wandering Eye sums up the situation perfectly in the latest Almanac Podcast:

    “Talking about fixing the game’s a bit rich when you’ve spent the last 10 years systematically ruining it…”

  14. E.regnans says

    G’day Liam – great post.
    What strikes me here is the idea that a person can be seen to be succeeding, when others around him strongly believe him to be failing. So it comes back to one’s criteria for “success”.
    In education an ongoing argument concerns the place of NAPLAN testing as a measure of education “success”.
    Similarly, in your comment above, the argument seems to be that “crowd numbers, ratings, sponsorship, TV rights deals” equates to success.
    In both cases, society seems to love measuring things, presently. Statistics abound. Understanding does not.
    Recognising that society is in the thrall of key peformance indicators and performance criteria and what not, to protect our unique game, we need better/ different/ relevant measures of success.
    As a wise person once said: “you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”

  15. Hey E.regnans,

    You have struck close to my heart with the NAPLAN statement. Many hours have been spent preaching the absurdity of measuring student success this way!

    I agree that society is in the thrall of measuring things. Just as it is in the thrall of continual growth and competition. Why do crowds/finances/ratings have to grow? Is the AFL able to co-exist in Australia with a healthy A-League and NRL?

    I entirely agree that the things that we can measure are not necessarily indicators of success. I don’t think the AFL has to grow to succeed and I also think it can happily co-exist with other sports in this country. I think perpetual growth and competition will ruin sports.

    In regard to my old team-mate, Gill. I don’t think he would necessarily disagree. But when he goes to work, he tries to do the job to the best of his ability. In a similar vein, although I vehemently disagree with NAPLAN I hope my students perform well on it!


  16. This is an excellent thread.
    What concerns me is the homogenization of our unique game. I don’t want for us to surrender to the American hegemony. For example, as a NFL and MLB fan, I like the conference system. But please don’t inflict it upon our game. I’d rather our imperfect method of distilling the teams.
    I love Ireland’s GAA and its amateurism. It continues to be an oasis surrounded by the over-paid ridiculousness of English and European football. It has not budged. We should follow its example.

  17. MGLFerguson says

    Thanks for the kind words. This is a very friendly, comfortable and thoughtful place, and I am so pleased to have discovered it and you.

    One more thought on the American experience that is probably germane. I saw an article in the Age within the past week on the clubs’ actual receipts from memberships, and which did not (I think) include any revenue share from walk-up tickets; it seems that AFL clubs rely much, much more on gate receipts than US teams who get a much larger proportion of their aggregate income from other sources such as (mostly) TV revenue, merchandising, parking fees, stadium concessions and so forth.

    With that backdrop, there has still been a fair amount of concerned discussion in the US sports media about the ongoing trend of a drop in stadium attendance at NFL games. My local NFL team, the Washington Redskins, has even gone so far as to remove seats from its stadium, going down in several annual increments from a peak capacity of 91,000 down to 79,000 now. This enables them to stay “sold out,” which in turn prevents the TV blackout rule from kicking in (i.e. games can not be broadcast locally if the game isn’t sold out at least 72 hours prior to kickoff). In fact, enough teams across the country have been frequently stepping up to (or crossing over) the blackout line to the point where the NFL is considering a change to the rule which has been in place since 1970. And watching non-blacked out NFL games on TV and seeing vast swathes of empty “sold out” seats makes it clear that the difference between ticket sales and actual bottoms-in-the-seats can be very, very substantial.

    Basically, between time spent sitting in game traffic, total cost of attendance, and for many the bombardment of peripheral noise and other non-game-related distractions at the stadium has diminished the NFL fan experience to the point where it is no longer worth the effort to attend in person, especially in comparison with being able to watch the game on a widescreen HD television in the warmth, comfort (and cost savings) of your own home.

    Anyhow to get to my point, my impression is that the AFL is far more reliant on attendance, and the limited size of your TV market means that it would probably be tough-to-impossible to rebalance revenue to an American-style distribution of income streams. So I would hope that the AFL will look at the NFL’s model more critically; if attendance continues to drop for the AFL as it has been for the NFL, it is probably much more of a problem for the AFL than it is for the NFL.

  18. Andrew Starkie says

    Gday all,

    thanks for feedback from everyone.

    I’m uncomfortable to some degree with writing this type of piece, to be honest. However, my disgruntlement towards the AFL has been growing over the years and reached the point last year that I could barely bring myself to watch. I’ve found writing the two pieces I have recently quite therapeutic personally, and if they get discussion going among people who love our game, they serve a purpose. And I can’t stand by and watch something dear to me be treated badly.

    Simply, our great game has a damaged soul. Change and growth are inevitable. If we aren’t going forward, we’re going backwards etc etc. However, growth needs to be overseen by people with the best interests of the game and those who play and follow it.

    Is the AFL still true to itself? Has it lost its identity?

    Has footy just grown too big? Is it all about greed? Has more power and influence meant less control over scheduling and direction?

    MGL – great to hear from you; keep it up. I’ve always been intrigued by the fan experience in US sports.

    Peter – yes, Roos were horrible last weekend. As my u16s coach would say, ‘predictably unpredictab’le’. I spose they’re just going through the stages towards consistent success. GC FC are very good.

    Matt – I think the AFL does know what’s wrong, but choses to employ a head in the sand approach. Interesting how since his successor has been announced AD has spoken out against the party line a few times eg food prices, j viney. Possibly he feels free to do so.

    Liam – great to hear from you and well said. I don’t doubt GMcL is a good bloke, however he is now the custodian of our game and with that comes great responsibility. Footy people are tiring of the garbage and damage done, so he will be judged very harshly.

    Don’t get me started on NAPLAN!!!!

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