‘An equal balance of defence and attack’: the McLachlan era

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As AFL chief executive for nearly a decade, Gillon McLachlan was distinct in his stature and distinguished by his reach. His ability to cover all bases was, for better and worse, his mark. Industry figures expect his successor, Andrew Dillon, to have a narrower brief in a flatter power structure. We already know that he will be shorter.

“One of Gillon’s great personal strengths is his capacity to deal with much at once,” said Sydney president Andrew Pridham. “Institutionally, that’s probably a weakness because it means he’s the central decision point.

Gillon McLachlan at the Anzac Day match.Credit: AFL Photos

“I think they’ve got to modify the whole operating structure within the executive, and probably the commission as well, to be fair. The commission should be more active relative to the executive. The CEO’s got to be the boss, but I think more delegation of authority to head of divisions will be a focus.” It was notable at Monday’s announcement that Dillon mentioned them all by name.

The head of the AFL is like a coach in that he is conveniently and simplistically made to embody a whole organisation in all its nuance, complexity, wonts and weaknesses. In the McLachlan era, this was especially so. He was both where the buck stopped and an obvious lightning rod.

Other leaders also note McLachlan’s ready grasp of myriad and complex issues and his strength of personality and how it redefined the job, and say it would be a mistake to expect Dillon to replicate him.

“Because Gill has the ability to do a lot of things, it’s probable that some of those tasks might be spread across other executives,” said Collingwood president Jeff Browne, who has known McLachlan since they worked together at the AFL on broadcast deals in previous roles. “I think there’s likely to be a flattening out of responsibility. There are capable people there who can take on tasks Gill might have included in his remit.”

Andrew Dillon and Gillon McLachlan watch close-up a Collingwood-Brisbane game during the 2021 COVID year.Credit: Getty Images

McLachlan was in his 20s and still playing high-level amateur football when he joined the AFL. He didn’t instantly forge strong relationships with all club officials. Some preferred to deal with Andrew Catterall, another rising executive also under the patronage of former chief executive Andrew Demetriou (Catterall later departed under a cloud).

But even previous sceptics agree that McLachlan has grown and evolved in the job, saying he has demonstrated a feel for the game, commercial smarts, poise and deftness in his media performance.

“Like Andrew [Demetriou], he has great force of personality, and that suits our game,” said Eddie McGuire, formerly president of Collingwood and still running his sports media empire. “Gill has a je ne sais quoi about him. He has a sharp mind and a great sense of humour, and he adapts well.

“He’s done what all good CEOs should do, and that’s annoy everyone in equal measure.”

Eddie McGuire and Gillon McLachlan at the SportNXT conference in March.Credit: Arsineh Houspian

In a hectic McLachlan decade, the highs select themselves. Successively improved media deals mean there is more money for all than ever before – though one former executive would like to see the latest deal benchmarked not just against the previous contract, but against the exponential rate of growth of media rights deals around the world; cricket and soccer spring to mind.

Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that better paid footballers are creating a better spectacle in better appointed stadiums and for more viewers than ever. “I think he’s done a really good job at navigating some pretty challenging times and at the same time growing the game,” said Pridham. “It’s been an equal balance of defence and attack. I’d give him very high marks.”

AFLW will be McLachlan’s most indelible legacy. “Broadcast deals come and go,” said Browne. “You always get more for your broadcast rights every time you go to the well. But actually to conceive a women’s competition, and start it, for it to generate the enormous interest it has, and the enthusiasm of the players: it’s a huge asset.”

McGuire sees an unexpected spin-off. “Until the women’s comp came in, there was always talk about homosexuality in football,” he said. “In one fell swoop, that’s just disappeared off the face of the earth. At football clubs, it’s just not an issue. No one cares. People know and no one says anything.” But perhaps the final frontier will be when a man does.

The trickiest predicament McLachlan faced was the pandemic. It was unprecedented, potentially devastating for the viability of the game and in any case a logistical nightmare, and it pulled footy people in all directions.

McLachlan had reservations about persevering, but convened a kind of war council, a national cabinet for footy. McGuire was on it. “They were people who all wanted to do the right thing by the game, but came at it from different angles,” he said. “We were able to get through all that. What came to the fore was the commonwealth of football.”

Moving more nimbly than they had previously thought possible, but always with heart in mouth, the AFL kept the show on the road (and the broadcasters content, and the ledger in the black).

The AFL Fans Association is not a natural ally of the CEO. Whoever heads the AFL, they will be doing wrong by most of the people most of the time. Literally, they’re a tough crowd. But president Ron Issko said continuity through COVID was McLachlan’s greatest feat.

Gillon McLachlan announces a resumption of the 2020 AFL season after a COVID suspension.Credit: Getty

“To make it possible for so many people to watch footy during the pandemic was for a lot of people a life-saver,” Issko said. “That would have to be his No.1 thing.”

McLachlan might not appreciate Issko’s accolade in full. “I know [McLachlan’s pandemic project] was at a personal cost,” Issko said. “When you saw him before the pandemic, and you saw him during and after, he looked like he’d aged 10 years.” Hmmm. Seen from here, McLachlan looks largely to have avoided the statesman’s fate of going grey in the service.

Issko credits McLachlan with a sympathetic ear and paying more than lip service to it. “When he started, he said he was going to listen to the fans,” he said, “and overall, he has.” For instance, the AFLFA argued for an increase in the allocation of grand final tickets to the competing clubs, and got it.

But the AFLFA has grievances still about the cost of going to the footy, gambling advertising, the push for a twilight or night grand final, and constant rule changes and their spawn, inconstant umpiring. “All fans want is consistent umpiring,” said Issko, “but it doesn’t happen, and it infuriates fans.”

AFL fans: they gave Gillon McLachlan a thumbs-up for keeping the game alive during COVID.Credit: Getty Images

Issko also thinks McLachlan is dissembling when he says he senses a mood for a change in grand final time, defying just about every fan survey. “For Gill to say he feels a shift in people’s views towards a twilight or night grand final is just wrong on so many levels,” Issko said. “It’s the broadcasters pushing it.”

But former AFL commissioner and Geelong president Colin Carter says that sports fans as a rule are conservative, that the McLachlan administration could have been more daring and that it is incumbent on administrators to experiment anyway. They can always revert, but historically don’t because progress generally proves more agreeable than expected. “Most people don’t accept change until and unless they can see it,” he said.

Swans president Andrew PridhamCredit: Eamon Gallagher

McLachlan’s AFL will finish in front, but has not won every position. On big projects with fixed objectives, he can stand on his record. The game has maintained and probably fortified its standing as the most powerful sporting force in Australia. McLachlan has stood firm in the face of some self-interested internal resistance on a Tasmanian team, and this week’s impending announcement will live on as his final bow.

On broader, more esoteric and open-ended matters, the tribunal of the people will reserve judgement. Some rest at McLachlan’s feet, some are endemic to the AFL and footy, some are community-wide issues made manifest in the AFL.

Some within the game think that the AFL under McLachlan never did fully shake off its boys’ club image, mostly because it still is one. Dillon’s succession, though easily justified on the grounds of competence, will do nothing to dispel that impression. But at least the girls are in the same room now.

Pokies and gambling ads will be a watch. Most clubs are out of pokies now, but some clubs remain aggrieved at what they felt was AFL dismissiveness to their financial stress when they read the pokies room and got out. Gambling ads will continue to be a sore point, no matter how Dillon dresses it up.

Adam Goodes.Credit: Anthony Johnson

Concussion vexes footy still, for it entangles the game in a philosophical contemplation of what is an acceptable level of force in a collision sport. The code cannot determine this in isolation. Injuries generally to women are a growing concern; the rate is higher than for men.

Racism is still a many-headed beast, all of them ugly. To be fair, footy magnifies this societal blight rather than catalyses it.

But the clear low point of the McLachlan era was the way the great Adam Goodes was driven out of the game. The CEO seemed to fret about saying anything for fear of aggravating rather than calming the mob, but later apologised for his silence and has been speedily on the front foot in subsequent incidents.

Racism and sexism are two issues in which society looks to the AFL for leadership, but should not substitute it for a mirror. The AFL is omnipresent in our lives, but on the bottom line is a football competition. It can be the change it seeks, but it cannot enforce it, and it ought not to represent itself as anything more than a model.

Jeff Browne.

A CEO’s work is never done, whosever shoes are under the desk. As McLachlan hands over the in-tray to Dillon, it is piled high. Gold Coast and GWS were McLachlan’s babies before he became chief executive. More than a decade later, they’re still in protracted infancy.

Some look at the Dolphins, the new NRL club in Brisbane, note how they have been instantly competitive and second guess the way the AFL teams were set up. McLachlan has committed the AFL to their retention.

Pridham is worried about the grassroots in NSW generally. Others fear for the grassroots even in the game’s native southern states habitat even as the elite level is flourishing. Another notable feature of Monday’s announcement was Dillon’s repeated emphasis on how the AFL will increase its focus on community football. It’s where both he and McLachlan cut their footy teeth.

Pridham also thinks the AFL under McLachlan has been a little aloof. “If there are things the next CEO should put more emphasis on than Gillon did, it’d be for the AFL to get closer to the clubs and have a better understanding of the issues clubs face,” he said. “If I was going to be critical of the AFL, not just Gillon, I’d say I don’t think they have a great feel for the clubs.”

Browne widens this angle. “I’m a big supporter of the investments on the Gold Coast and in Sydney,” he said, “but the reality is that before variable distributions, only nine of the 18 clubs make a profit. If there’s a weakness in the AFL, it’s that.

“If you look at the underlying earnings, arguably the competition isn’t as strong as you would think because too many clubs are too heavily dependent on additional AFL funding. And I’m not really talking about the expansion clubs. I’m talking about clubs that have been around for a long time. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”

Still on McLachlan’s to-do list is a new CBA, intense but standard AFL business. So is the Hawthorn inquiry, which is far from it. Where that might land, no one dares to predict. As both McLachlan and Dillon have said, an expeditious outcome matters less than the right outcome. The inquiry is independent, but its oversight becomes either McLachlan’s last tall order or Dillon’s first.

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