Steering the AFL and its clubs through that crisis has occupied him since March and means he is bound to continue in his role as CEO for the duration of 2021. He reports to the AFL Commission, the board of the league, comprised of mainly Australian corporate cream, chaired by ex-Wesfarmers CEO and current Qantas chairman Richard Goyder.
What does he do?
McLachlan is a delegator and consensus-seeking style of leader, though the COVID-19 crisis has seen his hands-on workload expanded as nearly 80 per cent of AFL staff have been stood down.
He is renowned as a dealmaker who seeks to craft outcomes that various parties can live with. This management style led to him being criticised heavily for his handling of the Goodes saga, when he sought to straddle different opinions within clubs and the AFL Commission on Goodes and whether the booing of the Sydney champion was racist, rather than taking a stand.
Conversely, the prevailing sentiment is that his consensus-driven, dealmaking methods are suited to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, when he has had to strike a (reduced) pay deal with the players, renegotiate the broadcast deals with Seven and Foxtel and secure a $600 million line of credit with the banks for the game. He has cut football budgets within clubs and organised first the shutdown and then the complex arrangement that will see the AFL return to play in June.
What has he done this week?
McLachlan’s overriding focus this week has been to organise the return of games, initially without crowds and with clubs from Perth and Adelaide sent for a period to Queensland “hubs”, due to the border restrictions and training rules in those states. He had to tick off on the (light) penalties to 16 Adelaide players and one assistant coach for breaching training rules when in quarantine in the Barossa Valley and has been dealing directly with governments – especially state governments – and their chief health officers on the issue of protocols for players and staff and exemptions for training and playing. The AFL is revamping the fixture for the opening rounds, while he has given clubs an idea of what their heavily reduced football “cap” will be this year and next year.
Why is this important?
As Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews suggested this week, getting footy back on – albeit in empty stadia and only watched on screens – is a boost to public morale and a step towards normalisation; certainly that is how the fans see it.
For McLachlan and his AFL, the imperative is far greater – they need games played that will see broadcast dollars turned back on, sponsors somewhat satisfied and careers and clubs preserved and protected, though there will be heavy job losses.
Without footy played, hundreds of jobs are on the line. The AFL revenues also assist, to some degree, lower tiers and the grass roots of Australian football, which are set to be shut down for longer than the elite level. Arguably, while this is not the AFL’s role, the health ramifications of not playing local and junior sport are enormous and the AFL has an important part to play as a role model and community leader.
As McLachlan told Good Weekend late last year: ”Cultural leadership is one of the most difficult parts of the job.”
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.