Perched at the top of the biggest game in Australia’s most sports mad city, the chief of the AFL is always going to demand fealty.
But over the last 12 months, Andrew Demetriou, the North Melbourne wingman turned fake teeth manufacturer turned $2.2 million salary man, has achieved something approaching full-spectrum control.
On the surface, his fiefdom may appear limited — he does, after all, operate inside a billion-dollar bubble of athletes and egos — but his impact extends well beyond the league’s boundary line.
Not only is AFL the spectator sport of choice for 600,000 rabid club members, it’s also the default entertainment option for millions more who choose to spend their Saturday nights soaking up ads in front of the plasma. And there’s the cultural straitjacket imposed on Melburnians forced to pick a team to fit in. No wonder Demetriou took out the No. 1 spot in our 2011 sports list.
In a telling interview in August, Demetriou, who in the words of good friend Red Symons “is the AFL”, admitted what critics have been bleating for years: “We are trying to control as much as we can control …”
And the tin pot strategy’s paying serious dividends.
Last year, the league’s media went nuclear when Demetriou inked a $1.25 billion five-year TV rights deal with Foxtel and Seven. Record revenue of $335.8 million (in 2003 upon Demetriou’s ascension it was $171 million) more than offset a slight decline in attendances. The other codes aren’t within cooee — the NRL is half that, and the A-League barely registers.
Ground zero is AFL corporate headquarters in the Docklands. There, 11 henchmen are paid at least half-a-million dollars each — their salaries alone would single-handedly wipe out the debt of the league’s two most imperilled Victorian clubs — to control a league meant to be run by a nine-person elected commission. Instead, a hulking 300-strong bureaucracy serves just 800 players.
Former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas is scathing of the man angrily labelled a “control freak” by retired Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett. ”He’s allowed to run away with gay abandon and do what he wants whenever he wants and he’s answerable to no one … the issue now is that the Commission is completely toothless,” he says.
And just as Demetriou’s cabal locks down the cash in the form of a “future fund”, they’re also about to seize control of the message — in 2012 the league will start to roll out a total of $140 million to crank up its own propaganda arm, AFL Media.
Two journalists, The Age’s Caroline Wilson and The Australian’s Patrick Smith, are said to have a direct line into Demetriou’s office. The others, excepting some notable warriors like Rohan Connolly and interstate scribes with nothing to lose, play, according to insiders, the courtier role. (Demetriou has twice declined an interview request from The Power Index).
In a rare attack in The Daily Telegraph in August, Rebecca Wilson noted damningly that the league’s media conference room is named after a still-serving journalist — the Herald Sun’s Mike Sheahan.
One spin doctor, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, told us that “journos will get calls from the league’s spinners before they’ve even written their story saying ‘we’ve heard that you might be taking this angle’. And footy journos are not like political journos, they won’t go hard and they’ll back off so there’s fertile ground”.
Meanwhile, the players who create the highlight reels are restless. In the days before Christmas, Demetriou finally agreed, after months of tense negotiations, to a new $1 billion player wages deal. AFL Players Association chief Matt Finnis was not available to tell The Power Index how it went.
But another participant was less reluctant, giving a direct insight into how the AFL does business. In short, the league stands over its target until they get the message across, even after the deal’s been done.
“So they do the CBA [collective bargaining agreement], but Demetriou was absolutely filthy about this three-year review clause [to take stock if the league stumbles across more money] … the AFL and the AFLPA did a joint press conference and said ‘good deal for the AFL, good deal for the players’. But then a few weeks later the AFL was going around town, telling the football industry not to believe anything they read about this being a good deal for players’, gloating about all the ways the AFL had smashed the players,” they say.
Veteran Age scribe Connolly admits the league has power, but says Demetriou’s results speak for themselves.
“The clubs’ survival is now at least guaranteed,” he says. “They’ve got a special distribution fund that about five clubs rely on, their broadcasting agreement’s a real cash cow. There’s not going to be any more Fitzroys … I think they’ve really kind of enshrined the socialist principles if you like.”
He remembers one Demetriou power play fondly: “Christopher Pyne and George Brandis marched into the AFL in 2007 trying to whip up hysteria on the [allegedly weak, three strikes] drugs code and he basically told them to f-ck right off. And was right — Pyne’s criticism of the drugs code was way off the mark.”