What are they doing to the footy?

Issue 

Football Ltd: The Inside Story of the AFL
By Garry Linnell
Ironbark, 1995. 393 pp., $17.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Ah, footy! The pleasure of sinking your boot into the perfect torp, or gasping at the silky skills of a Gavin Wanganeen or Michael Long, or riding the emotional roller-coaster of your team in its agonies and ecstasies. What a game! It'll take some really sensational bad management to muck it up.

Which is what the businessmen who run the Australian Football League (AFL) could quite possibly do, in conjunction with the rich bludgers from the corporate world who circle the game like a pack of financial sharks smelling money in the water.

With anecdote after anecdote of backroom business dealings, Age journalist Garry Linnell has traced the recent history of the radical changes inflicted on the game by the greed-merchants.

In turning the AFL from a sport into a business with turnover of $150 million a year, the AFL bosses have already knocked off one Victorian club — South Melbourne — to become the Sydney Swans in 1982 in the push for a national competition, a push which is being driven by the search for new markets and more revenue from TV rights. The West Coast Eagles, for example, translate to a ledger item of extra revenue from TV rights of $1.75 million.

The extension of the finals play-offs to eight from an original four has been transparently a means of gaining yet more TV income. The final eight, however, creates an unfair finals draw, whilst the expanded national competition lacks the atmosphere of huge passionately divided crowds (which gives the AFL its special colour and interest) at games involving interstate teams.

The AFL bosses have also been hawking the idea of club mergers for many years. Teams like Fitzroy, embodying a working-class tradition of over 100 years, have been threatened and induced to merge (unsuccessfully so far). "Rationalisation" has meant the disappearance of many historic grounds in the cause of economic "efficiency". Sponsors' names on guernseys, and the abominable Big Mac golden arches on the holy Sherrin in last year's grand final are further evidence of the encroachment of profit-making into a working class game.

Capitalist logic has played itself out, with some teams, in the experiment with private ownership. The Sydney Swans had the first fling, with Dr Edelsten's shaky financial empire — and got burnt. The Brisbane Bears succumbed to the lure of Christopher Skase's funny money, wound up $27 million in debt, and were then bought out by a private hospital entrepreneur as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife.

North Melbourne experimented with the both-soon-to-be-bankrupt Victorian merchant bank Tricontinental and Bob Ansett. When North offered itself up for sale on the share market, the Carlton club bought 10% of the share float (a foothold for a takeover), which must have made a mess of supporters' loyalties.

Overseeing all this at AFL headquarters have been the boardroom mentalities of head commissioners like Ross Oakley (who learned how to manage businesses at human expense, when, as head of Royal Insurance, he sacked 250 workers). The commissioners, nearly all of whom are members of the Liberal Party, run the game purely as a business, and have been steadily weakening the power of the clubs who used to control the game.

Making the AFL bosses' job easier has been the capitalist virus eating away from within the clubs. Working-class institutions within capitalism are never entirely free from the economic pressures of their environment. Money buys premierships.

Club boards are restructured to curry more business favour. Club presidents, for example, are no longer former champion players but rather have been the likes of Lindsay Fox (St Kilda), Bob Ansett (North Melbourne), Alan Bond (Richmond), Ranald Macdonald (Collingwood) and John Elliott (Carlton).

Attracting corporate sponsors means a greater chance to buy the best players. Players are traded like stud bulls, without regard to player or supporter loyalty. None of this means that players' demands for better remuneration are the cause of football's embrace of Moloch. Linnell is right to say that player transfer fees and payments are a scapegoat for the influence on the game from the corporate world.

It was as late as 1992, well after the big money had invaded the game, that the AFL Players' Association threatened strikes, a boycott of the Brownlow Medal night and not promoting their sponsors on and off the field, and won a minimum salary of $7500 a season, a minimum payment of $750 a game, injury payments, etc. This was the players' just desserts: after all, they make the game, not the beer baron or anti-union trucking magnate who runs the club.

The game will never be safe as long as capitalism exists to grind footy in its maw and spit it out as a mere money-making product of the entertainment industry. It belongs to the people, overwhelmingly the working class. AFL bosses can not go openly among the people without reading rude bumper stickers ("Up Yours, Oakley!") or being booed at grand final ceremonies. Supporters of clubs recently threatened with extinction have rallied round to raise money to prevent the destruction of the football part of their identity, culture and history, which, like all class issues of life and death, is mightier than the dollar.