Who’s in line for the AFL throne?

Normal text sizeLarger text sizeVery large text sizeAs another difficult AFL season slowly comes to a close in Perth, Gillon McLachlan’s tenure as the game’s boss is also nearing the finishing line.Senior insiders at the AFL believe 2022 could be his final season in charge. If so, it would be nine seasons at the helm, during which a great deal has been achieved.AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.Credit:Getty ImagesBut paying tribute to McLachlan’s legacy is a story for another time. The issue that has tongue’s wagging in the industry is: who will take over?To answer this question, one must first understand what it takes be in contention for the most significant job in Australian sport.The first box that any contender would have to tick is crisis management; to be able to make extremely difficult decisions under pressure.Secondly, commercial expertise. They must have a profound understanding of broadcasting, given it delivers 50 per cent of the game’s revenue.Third, he or she must have elite skills in managing stakeholder relationships. Clubs, broadcasters and sponsors all want their voices heard and since COVID-19 hit, they are not alone. The AFL has to negotiate with state and federal politicians daily, as well as health authorities.They must also live and breathe football. This isn’t about knowing who is playing half-back for the Tigers on Saturday afternoon, but in-depth knowledge about game development, community footy and what it takes to run clubs at the highest level.Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the CEO of the AFL must be able to live permanently in the public eye. From how you and your family are viewed and portrayed all the way to expectations to be a social leader. To act against racism, to broaden the conversation surrounding mental health and to lead from the front on the hot-button issue of vaccinations.AdvertisementIt’s why AFL bosses have historically been hired internally. The inside of football clubs are inherently tribal in their nature. You fight for what is in the best interests of your club and everything else is irrelevant. But inside the AFL, club colours disappear and all issues must be seen through an achromatic lens.Based on interviews with league insiders, TV bosses, politicians and the majority of club chief executives, here is a list of the contenders.Travis Auld.Credit:Getty ImagesLEADING CANDIDATESTravis AuldThe chaos of a global pandemic have benefited few people in Australian sport but Travis Auld’s stocks have risen during tough times. The league’s chief financial officer, broadcasting and fixture boss has taken on a mountain of responsibility and has handled it with aplomb. According to one club CEO: “His ability to keep us in club land both happy and informed has been pretty amazing.”McLachlan has distributed public responsibility more widely this year, showing the depth and quality of his team, and it has allowed Auld to emerge as the league’s clear number two. But it’s not just Auld’s ability to adjust the fixture on a weekly basis for the best part of two seasons, the former Essendon executive and Gold Coast CEO has also had to negotiate with state governments, health authorities and broadcasters. He’s also led the less than enviable task of resetting the league’s finances during tough times. For that reason, Auld has essentially been conducting his own two-year job interview without knowing it. Emerging favourite.Brendon Gale.Credit:Getty ImagesBrendon GaleIn August 2009, when Gale took over as Richmond boss, the club was $5 million in debt. The club now has $15 million in the bank. When speaking to rival CEOs at club land, it’s difficult to find one who doesn’t speak glowingly about Gale, both as a person and an operator. His bold declaration about the future success of Richmond on Footy Classified when the Tigers were a basket case was initially laughed at, but it’s been some time since anyone has laughed in the direction of Punt Road. Gale has turned Richmond into a powerhouse again, both in terms of premierships and off-field stability. But Gale’s glow doesn’t shine as brightly at league headquarters. The club’s indiscretions in the Queensland hub in 2020 caused major friction between Richmond and the AFL. The Tigers were twice caught breaching COVID regulations and several at the club were criticised for their behaviour inside the hub. When you ask staff at Richmond about him, the two things that stand out are his ability to build relationships with people and his lack of ego. He successfully negotiated an$800 million collective bargaining agreement when he was players’ association boss in 2007. Before that, he was a lawyer at leading Australian firm King & Wood Mallesons. The question will also be asked of Gale: does he have the negotiation skills, the political nous and the business acumen to run the league? Second in the betting market.Xavier Campbell.Credit:Darrian TraynorXavier CampbellIn late 2019, the young Essendon boss did something that few people in the

Who’s in line for the AFL throne?

As another difficult AFL season slowly comes to a close in Perth, Gillon McLachlan’s tenure as the game’s boss is also nearing the finishing line.

Senior insiders at the AFL believe 2022 could be his final season in charge. If so, it would be nine seasons at the helm, during which a great deal has been achieved.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.Credit:Getty Images

But paying tribute to McLachlan’s legacy is a story for another time. The issue that has tongue’s wagging in the industry is: who will take over?

To answer this question, one must first understand what it takes be in contention for the most significant job in Australian sport.

The first box that any contender would have to tick is crisis management; to be able to make extremely difficult decisions under pressure.

Secondly, commercial expertise. They must have a profound understanding of broadcasting, given it delivers 50 per cent of the game’s revenue.

Third, he or she must have elite skills in managing stakeholder relationships. Clubs, broadcasters and sponsors all want their voices heard and since COVID-19 hit, they are not alone. The AFL has to negotiate with state and federal politicians daily, as well as health authorities.

They must also live and breathe football. This isn’t about knowing who is playing half-back for the Tigers on Saturday afternoon, but in-depth knowledge about game development, community footy and what it takes to run clubs at the highest level.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the CEO of the AFL must be able to live permanently in the public eye. From how you and your family are viewed and portrayed all the way to expectations to be a social leader. To act against racism, to broaden the conversation surrounding mental health and to lead from the front on the hot-button issue of vaccinations.

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It’s why AFL bosses have historically been hired internally. The inside of football clubs are inherently tribal in their nature. You fight for what is in the best interests of your club and everything else is irrelevant. But inside the AFL, club colours disappear and all issues must be seen through an achromatic lens.

Based on interviews with league insiders, TV bosses, politicians and the majority of club chief executives, here is a list of the contenders.

Travis Auld.

Travis Auld.Credit:Getty Images

LEADING CANDIDATES

Travis Auld
The chaos of a global pandemic have benefited few people in Australian sport but Travis Auld’s stocks have risen during tough times. The league’s chief financial officer, broadcasting and fixture boss has taken on a mountain of responsibility and has handled it with aplomb. According to one club CEO: “His ability to keep us in club land both happy and informed has been pretty amazing.”

McLachlan has distributed public responsibility more widely this year, showing the depth and quality of his team, and it has allowed Auld to emerge as the league’s clear number two. But it’s not just Auld’s ability to adjust the fixture on a weekly basis for the best part of two seasons, the former Essendon executive and Gold Coast CEO has also had to negotiate with state governments, health authorities and broadcasters. He’s also led the less than enviable task of resetting the league’s finances during tough times. For that reason, Auld has essentially been conducting his own two-year job interview without knowing it. Emerging favourite.

Brendon Gale.

Brendon Gale.Credit:Getty Images

Brendon Gale
In August 2009, when Gale took over as Richmond boss, the club was $5 million in debt. The club now has $15 million in the bank. When speaking to rival CEOs at club land, it’s difficult to find one who doesn’t speak glowingly about Gale, both as a person and an operator. His bold declaration about the future success of Richmond on Footy Classified when the Tigers were a basket case was initially laughed at, but it’s been some time since anyone has laughed in the direction of Punt Road. Gale has turned Richmond into a powerhouse again, both in terms of premierships and off-field stability. But Gale’s glow doesn’t shine as brightly at league headquarters. The club’s indiscretions in the Queensland hub in 2020 caused major friction between Richmond and the AFL. The Tigers were twice caught breaching COVID regulations and several at the club were criticised for their behaviour inside the hub. When you ask staff at Richmond about him, the two things that stand out are his ability to build relationships with people and his lack of ego. He successfully negotiated an
$800 million collective bargaining agreement when he was players’ association boss in 2007. Before that, he was a lawyer at leading Australian firm King & Wood Mallesons. The question will also be asked of Gale: does he have the negotiation skills, the political nous and the business acumen to run the league? Second in the betting market.

Xavier Campbell.

Xavier Campbell.Credit:Darrian Traynor

Xavier Campbell
In late 2019, the young Essendon boss did something that few people in the industry would: he turned down the AFL. McLachlan approached Campbell to take up a role at league headquarters – most likely running the newly purchased Marvel Stadium – and groom him as a potential replacement for the AFL job. But after months of consideration, Campbell declined the approach and chose to stay at Essendon. The 41-year-old has been highly rated in the industry after guiding the Bombers out of the darkness of the supplements saga and returning them to a strong position. The youngest CEO in the game is also arguably the most experienced when it comes to managing a crisis and leading a business turnaround. His ambitions led him to complete an MBA at one of the world’s best business schools, INSEAD. Campbell would see himself as a realistic replacement for McLachlan, but after turning him down two years ago he’s no longer in pole position.

THE NEXT WAVE
The AFL industry has several younger high-fliers who are making a mark early in their careers. They won’t be considered contenders to replace McLachlan, but sources believe they have what it takes to move into the role one day.

Ameet Bains.

Ameet Bains.Credit:Simon Schluter

As he approaches his first grand final as a club boss, the stocks of Western Bulldogs chief executive Ameet Bains are rising. The former MinterEllison lawyer rose through the ranks at St Kilda before being named chief operating officer. He’s well known for his relationships with players and is building his commercial acumen. Tom Harley is another star on the rise. Highly regarded when football boss at the Swans, he was groomed to replace Andrew Ireland as CEO and the transition has been smooth. Harley is highly intelligent and extremely well-spoken. Definitely one on the AFL’s radar. Kylie Rogers is well-known inside the AFL and building in prominence externally. Rogers is the head of commercial at the AFL and is in charge of the league’s revenue. In 2018, she orchestrated the deal for the Disney-owned entertainment company Marvel to buy the naming rights for the league’s stadium at Docklands. Insiders say that deal was worth north of $70 million. The former Sydneysider is, according to her peers, an absolute workhorse. Her next step up the industry ladder is probably to become a club chief executive.

INSIDE KNOWLEDGE

Simon Lethlean, Mark Evans, Dave Matthews and Ben Amarfio are four men at clubland who have first-hand experience of how things work at the AFL. Lethlean – chief operating officer at St Kilda – was most recently the head of football at the league and before that, was in charge of broadcast. Tipped to be next CEO of the Saints. Evans, also a former footy ops boss, is now in charge of struggling Gold Coast. Evans is seen as capable of running the league at some stage, but he’ll first want to turn around what has become the AFL’s most significant problem before thinking about his next move. The pugnacious Matthews, boss of the league’s other franchise club, Greater Western Sydney, is well known for speaking his mind. The former boss of development of the AFL has come close to delivering the league’s newest club its first premiership. North Melbourne’s Amarfio has a wealth of experience. He was an executive at Cricket Australia for six years, where he was in charge of broadcasting, digital and commercial. Before that, he worked at Southern Cross Austereo and was the AFL’s broadcasting and digital media manager.

THE ELDER STATESMAN
As far as experience goes, you can’t go past Trevor Nisbett, Brian Cook, who yesterday agreed to join Carlton as their CEO, Greg Swann and Gary Pert. These four learned chaps have the knowledge and the smarts to run the AFL, but would they want to? Bunbury-born Nisbett is highly regarded and widely respected. Cook has just finished his final season at Geelong. But his 32-year run as a club boss will continue with the Blues luring him to the club yesterday. Swann was a successful boss of Collingwood before being poached by arch-rivals Carlton in 2007. In a move that was heavily endorsed by the AFL, Swann was appointed as the CEO of the then-struggling Brisbane Lions. Under Swann’s guidance, the club has significantly reduced its debt and has played in six finals in the past three seasons. Pert is on the precipice of a remarkable, drought-breaking premiership at his second club. The long-time Collingwood boss has been a sounding board for several heavy hitters in the industry in the past two decades.

Craig Tiley.

Craig Tiley.Credit:Getty Images

OUTSIDE THE BOX?
Unless you count Ross Oakley, who was the first AFL/VFL CEO, every other league boss has been an internal appointment. Not only does that make it difficult for someone from club land to get the job, it makes it unimaginable for someone outside of football altogether to be considered. But there is a first time for everything. Who in Australian sport has the intelligence, the crisis management skills, the political relationships and the ability to deal with public scrutiny? Craig Tiley does. The Tennis Australia boss and Australian Open tournament director has gained even more industry respect for guiding the grand slam through a precarious position during the COVID-hit Open in January. He has a strong relationship with players, he’s commercially astute and he has a wealth of experience. Sam Mostyn is another name that continues to be brought up. The first woman appointed to the AFL Commission was recently appointed an officer in the Order of Australia for her services to business and women. With an impressive list of career achievements spanning corporate and government affairs, business and legal, Mostyn had remained in football by being on the board of Sydney. MCC boss Stuart Fox is another. The former Hawthorn CEO (where he oversaw a premiership three-peat) looks after 110,000 Melbourne Cricket Club members, Yarra Park and several sporting facilities across Melbourne.