Clubs left disappointed by AFL’s offerings despite ‘financial rude health’

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If the AFL was hoping to mend some fences with its disenchanted, budget-stressed football clubs, then Tuesday’s long-overdue gathering of all 18 football bosses fell significantly short of that ambition.

The good news was that the club football general managers met at all after – where AFL gatherings are concerned – a lengthy period in the wilderness. The bad news was that there was no good news for the coaches and their off-field teams, who remain the only group still working under the savage COVID-19 cost cuts.

There are ongoing cuts to the soft cap and the AFL has said it will not budge on an increase of $250,000 next year.Credit: Nic Walker

The inescapable truth is that the football programs from the senior coach down are being forced through the ongoing soft-cap cuts to pay off the industry’s debt.

The majority of clubs had been genuinely hopeful that outgoing football boss/chief executive-elect Andrew Dillon and his team would respond to the game’s successful post-pandemic bounce back and some serious lobbying from their presidents and CEOs. The prevailing view was that the soft cap would be lifted much closer to pre-COVID levels.

Instead, the game’s general manager of clubs David Grossman said the AFL would not budge from its intended increase of $250,000 next year to $7.2 million. That total excludes extra payments for Gather Round and more for health and welfare and accelerated development of women and Indigenous coaches.

In 2019, the soft cap was $9.6 million. Although clubs’ so-called excluded spend can total an annual $1.35 million, this does not help the 180 or so coaches.

The news was delivered barely two months after Gillon McLachlan addressed the 18 senior coaches and extolled the “financial rude health” of the competition. McLachlan cited enviable attendance numbers, the highly attractive spectacle and brilliant ratings.

AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan.Credit: Getty Images

And at a time when clubs are increasing their media, membership, events and marketing teams and are free to poach respected chief executives and commercial bosses, some seemingly with unlimited spend. That was not lost on the coaches then – and this week was not lost on the football bosses.

Players are working towards a significant pay rise and AFL executives, having only briefly salary sacrificed during COVID-19, are well and truly back on track.

If the football industry was overspending and needed a savage correction and the debt-ridden clubs were behaving irresponsibly, the inescapable truth now is that the senior coaches – the frontmen of the game – and their football programs are paying for the past mistakes of their clubs.

And the longer the AFL stalls in lifting the soft cap, the more clubs are presumably paying off their debts via the coaches and their football programs. But given the game’s so-called rude health, surely headquarters should be chipping in by increasing their dividends?

Collingwood have lobbied heavily to increase the football program funding and bosses there hold the view that the AFL will relent on the miserly $250,000 increase before 2024. But CEO Craig Kelly said the players’ association needed to play a part to ensure any extra soft cap money was being spent in the right way.

“There’s an opportunity for the players’ association to work with the AFL on behalf of the football programs,” said Kelly. “They should work together to make sure money is being put aside to be spent by the clubs on behalf of the men and the women players. The AFL and the players’ association should work together to police and audit resources being put into and around the players to better benefit the players and their needs.”

Even some of the poorer club bosses this week questioned the wisdom of the savage cost-cutting of their football programs, pointing out that they were struggling to retain all their coaches, recruiters, high-performance and development teams on the one hand while they were bolstering staff in every other department apart from their core business.

The AFL also unveiled its intention this week to gradually reduce football lists by five in time for Tasmania’s predicted entry in 2028 – a prospect playing out in CBA negotiations but currently being rejected by the players’ association. That prospect, too, was genuinely unpalatable to most of the clubs at Tuesday’s meeting.

The AFL’s relative lack of respect for clubs and coaches can be illustrated in any number of ways.

Starting at the top is the reality that it has been almost 2½ years since a former player sat on the commission – or anyone who has worked full-time at a club. Since Steve Hocking departed almost two years ago, no former player and only Travis Auld with genuine club experience has served on the executive.

Hocking runs Geelong, one in the majority of clubs looking to strengthen their football program financially well beyond the AFL’s projected $250,000.

Most coaches are taking less money to support their assistants. Certainly premiership coach Chris Scott’s most recent contract was worth less than before COVID-19.

The club football general managers – surely crucial to and of top order importance in the game’s hierarchy – feel disengaged with the governing body. One third of the clubs were contacted by this masthead after Tuesday’s meeting and five of those described it as “an information dump” provoking no genuine debate nor strategic insights.

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