In a demand that would have meant the commission disclosing sensitive details of the recently secured $600 million line of credit from NAB and ANZ banks, as well as highlighting individual clubs’ financial exposure, the Hawthorn president wanted McLachlan and his team to provide regular financial updates to the clubs.
Further, Kennett said the clubs were entitled to a full statement of the AFL’s financial dealings from April 2020 on a monthly basis within seven days of the end of each month.
Describing the clubs at various stages as shareholders, stakeholders and custodians of the game, Kennett wrote that the AFL should provide the same financial transparency it was demanding of the clubs.
Kennett’s letter followed two weeks of dramatic negotiations between McLachlan and the clubs as the competition shed up to 80 per cent of its staff and achieved pay cuts with the players as the AFL worked to borrow money to save the game.
The perilous financial plight of at least one-third of the clubs was exposed as the game faced the prospect of no further broadcast revenue or gate takings and a potential exodus of government, commercial, corporate and membership funds.
It has been revealed that McLachlan initially proposed establishing a central treasury to achieve an improved deal with the banks. This would have required every club to turn in its entire cash reserves to the AFL, a move baulked at by a number of club directors.
The combined cash reserves would have amounted to an estimated $100 million. Richmond’s bank balance sits at a reported $25 million with the game’s wealthiest club West Coast exceeding that amount – but ultimately the AFL borrowed against its biggest asset Marvel Stadium, conservatively estimated at being worth between $750 million and $1 billion.
It is not known how many presidents responded to the rebellious Hawthorn boss but several contacted in recent days felt full financial disclosure by head office was an unreasonable demand. Some presidents pointed to the privacy demands of financial institutions and the risk of circulating confidential club information – some of which remained on the brink of insolvency.
The Swans’ proposed Moore Park redevelopment, which was to create a new elite training and administrative facility for the club as well as housing its NEAFL team and academies, has been placed in serious doubt due to the crisis.
Kennett’s misgivings regarding the AFL and its new financial relationship and unprecedented control over the clubs have raised questions – put aside as the game fights for survival – about the wider governance of the game and the new balance of power.
Under the league’s constitution the clubs retain the power to remove or introduce clubs from the competition. Requiring a two-thirds majority the clubs can also vote to remove the AFL Commission or individual commissioners, which happened most recently in 2000 when Melbourne president Joseph Gutnick and Carlton’s John Elliott led a campaign that ultimately ousted Terry O’Connor from the game’s governing board.
In 2018 Kennett and fellow Victorian club presidents Eddie McGuire and Peter Gordon – all of whom sit on the so-called AFL corona cabinet – organised a meeting of Victorian presidents disenchanted at their lack of voice in the AFL landscape.
The function, held at a Richmond property owned by Kennett, addressed a perceived communication breakdown between the AFL and club presidents. The presidents addressed their misgivings in a communique to AFL chairman Richard Goyder.
Caroline Wilson is a Walkley award-winning columnist and former chief football writer for The Age.