St Kilda has the poorest record of any AFL club and is sitting precariously close to insolvency but its membership didn’t seek to mind at last night’s AGM.

St Kilda seems to be heading inevitably towards oblivion and nothing that this observer saw at their AGM instils your pessimistic correspondent with any great confidence.

President Rod Butterss has been in the firing line this past year but has the overwhelming support of the members, judging by the generous ovations he received during the night.

But this detached observer is not so impressed.

Butterss’ first clanger to sail way out of bounds on the full was during questioning on the accounts.

The St Kilda supporters showed the usual level of footy fan enthusiasm for scrutinising their club’s accounts – absolutely none at all.

However, this hardy serial AGM attendee had a few curlies to hurl Butterss’ way, thanks to obtaining a proxy from my mate Mopsy’s old man.

I pointed out that the club had a net asset deficiency and although small (just over $1,000), this, coupled with the club’s sizeable trading loss in 2001 (of three quarters of a million cool ones) raised doubts as to solvency. I noted that president Butterss had signed the declaration that the company could meet its liabilities as and when they fall due and asked on what basis this declaration could be supported.

The first part of Butterss’ answer was along the lines of “well, the fact is, the position that this club is in at the moment is that it can meet its liabilities as and when they fall due”.

Thanks for that non-answer, Rod.

Strike one.

He prattled on without adding too much more, but did note something along the lines of the club trimming its costs.

But there was nothing about the club increasing its revenues, getting a handout from the AFL or increasing the returns from the weekly meat tray raffle down at the social club.

The other question I had on the accounts related to the complete lack of disclosure. They were completely useless as far as identifying where the club had incurred its three quarters of a million buck loss. I noted that I was sure they would have been prepared in accordance with the relevant accounting standards, but the one page “Statement of financial performance” was the only hint as to what went wrong during the year.

This was the sort of document that would have had the Corporate Terminator, Jack Tilburn, bristling.

But none of the supporters could give a hoot about what went wrong. If they’d done research before the meeting, all they would have come up with were a few short pieces in the paper where the losses were blamed on injuries to key players, poor returns from the much-maligned Colonial Stadium and periodical downturns in receipts from the AFL.

While the supporters didn’t care for this detail at the AGM, you can bet they’ll be screaming for answers when the next Saints tin-rattling campaign is all that stands between a future as a stand-alone entity and a sad demise a la Fitzroy.

It is little wonder footy clubs do so poorly when this is the level of scrutiny they are put under by their members. Sure, the average mug in the outer is not likely to have much financial sophistication. But it doesn’t take a genius to look at a one-page snapshot of the club’s trading result to figure out that it just poses more questions than it answers.

The chairman’s response to my request for more detail was “we’ll look into that for next year”.

Butterss’ next clanger occurred when he delivered his president’s address.

Like the preceding clanger, it seemed the punters didn’t twig to it at all.

After the intense scrutiny on the accounts – namely, two questions from Crullers – chairman Ray King, the retired wine boss at Foster’s, took the poll and the meeting voted in favour of adopting the accounts.

Somebody forgot to tell Butterss, for he stood up to give his president’s address and opened with a line to the effect of “thank you Ray. It gives me great pleasure in delivering my address on the accounts, and at the conclusion the chairman will move to adopt the accounts”.

I was at first slightly bemused – hadn’t we just taken the vote 30 seconds earlier? – but then alarmed that I was the only one in the meeting having a quiet snigger to myself about Butterss’ faux pas.

Again at the end of his address, Butterss said words to the effect of “I now pass over to Ray King for the formal process of adopting the accounts”.

Butterss had obviously spoken after he was scheduled to, so he wound up with egg on his face, 05or would have, if the knowledgeable St Kilda supporters were paying attention.

The chairman ploughed on, handing over to the club’s new football director Brian Waldron to give his spray on football operations.

Butterss is an interesting club president to say the least. He’s certainly no old school larger than life presidential figure like Big Jack “It’s John not Jack” Elliott. Rather, Butterss is a softly, softly type with a penchant for positive reinforcement and mindless psycho-babble.

Sources close to Butterss have revealed to Crikey that all the psycho-babble – dropping phrases such as “empowerment”, “core values”, “the process” – stems from Butterss swallowing a book on the subject and never being the same.

He certainly is a man of the people, relishing in the press the flesh caper before the AGM and the members showing their approval of him with their loud ovation when he was introduced.

But he provided plenty of fodder for his critics during the year, most notably Caroline Wilson on Talking Footy and in her Age column and Patrick Smith in the Australian.

Carro was right on top of the Malcolm Blight sacking and Butterss’ appearance on Talking Footy, where he sang Malcolm’s praises, was laughable when a week later Carro’s prophecies came true and Malcolm was unceremoniously dumped.

Patrick lampooned the Saints mercilessly and was awarded the top footy column of the year – Lord knows how – for his piece of fiction which revolved solely around one not particularly funny joke. Patrick ingeniously dubbed new coach Grant Thomas “Cornflakes” because Butterss claimed that Thomas “eats pressure for breakfast”.

How Patrick’s 750 words of gumpf was published, let alone awarded, is beyond the scope of this thesis.

Butterss’ popularity was firmly endorsed by the meeting when the contested board election was decided in favour of the board endorsed candidates and firmly against challenger Scott Denison.

Denison had previously tried to unseat Butterss (who was not up for re-election this year) by getting the 100 signatures required to call an EGM. Having found that the board was not required to conduct the EGM for some 2 months, Denison decided instead to stand against the board-endorsed candidates.

The result of the poll was overwhelmingly against Denison. The two board-endorsed candidates both gained around 1,700 proxy votes, Denison a mere 354. While chairman Ray King noted that the result was already known, he went to a show of hands just to let the members at the meeting exercise their democratic right (i.e. rub more salt into Denison’s gaping wound).

Denison would have only had about 10 to 15 votes in his favour, the board-endorsed candidates of Glen Casey and John Gdanski getting overwhelming majorities on show of hands.

So even though the club has had a terrible year on the field, sacked its coach before his first season was done (and the board alone must accept full responsibility for that), and returned a sizeable loss that has put them perilously close to oblivion, the fans overwhelming endorse their board’s recommended candidates.

Yep, you’ve stuffed the club up this year – we’ll go along with your recommendations for the board.

Little wonder this club is in the poo.

It’s beyond the scope of this column to analyse Denison’s credentials, but he certainly doesn’t seem like a complete dud. So the fact that he received bugger all votes is a sad indictment on the complacent St Kilda membership when they really should be agitating for change, or at the very least calling the current board to account for their poor performance.

But no, the only message sent to the board was “we tolerate mediocrity”.

Rod Butterss is nothing if not optimistic, and despite all that is wrong about St Kilda he emphasised the positives. Thankfully he seems to have dropped the psycho-babble, which is a step in the right direction.

Butterss proudly announced the club’s new sponsorship deal with Mortgage House Australia, one of those non-bank lending institutions, the type of entity which must immediately set alarm bells ringing. This mob definitely aren’t players at the top end of town – their Sydney office is based in Parramatta (hello, Ross Cameron) and they have a rep office in North Melbourne and are hoping to have a permanent office in Melbourne mid-2002.

MHA’s existing sponsorship deals are with clubs which sit well against St Kilda – the Parramatta Eels, last year’s NRL minor premiers but grand final chokers (a la St Kilda in 1997) and the Sydney Kings basketball team, the NBL’s perennial underachievers. Although, it’s probably stretching it a bit to call the Saints “under-achievers” – no one expects much of them anyway.

The press release trumpeting the new deal – conveniently stitched up on the day of the AGM – piqued my interest, with the quote that the three-year deal “gives the club the opportunity to earn in excess of one million dollars per annum”.

I questioned Butterss about this during the discussion on general business and said that this suggests there is some sort of formula attached to the sponsorship arrangement. I asked whether he could put any figures on what the minimum amount they would receive is and a figure on the top dollar per year.

Butterss said that this was a ground-breaking sponsorship deal which he was very excited about and explained that there was a base payment component and a “performance based” component, which would depend on both the Saints’ on-field performance and on the Saints’ effect in assisting their sponsor to tap into the Victorian market.

He couldn’t put exact dollar figures on the sponsorship but said that if the Saints made the finals, they would pocket more than they would under existing sponsorship arrangements.

For mine, this is a high risk offence and one the Saints can ill afford.

If it comes off, Butterss will look like a genius and good luck to him. But I’m backing the Saints to come a cropper again this year and this revolutionary sponsorship deal to generate nary a cracker.

The big problem with this deal is that it puts virtually all of the club’s income sources at risk.

The main receipts of footy clubs are sponsorship dollars, membership subscriptions and gate receipts.

If clubs play poorly (especially early in the season), gate receipts and to a lesser extent memberships (which are settled early in the season) go down.

But under conventional sponsorship arrangements, they at least have their sponsors’ dollars locked in before the start of the season.

Not under the Saints’ revolutionary scheme.

This too is dependent upon on-field performance. So if the Saints suck again this year, their income will doubly suck.

That is a risk I would not be happy about my club taking – but the Saints supporters didn’t seem to mind, letting Butterss bask in his moment of glory without question.

The meeting heard from new football director Brian Waldron and new coach Grant Thomas about their grand dreams for the future, and the supporters seemed to be as optimistic as the club that things would improve in 2002.

Four people were given life memberships, including Ian “Molly” Meldrum, who gave a surprisingly erudite speech following a glowing introduction from mate turned enemy turned mate again, Michael Gudinski.

Former coach Ken Sheldon received the biggest cheer of the night when introduced as new assistant coach. Both coach Thomas and football director Waldron referred to Sheldon as a “true St Kilda man”.

Hardly! His three premiership medallions from 10 years at Carlton are foreign to anyone else at Moorabbin.

During general questioning I also asked what the club was going to do to stop the leaks that flowed freely from Linton Street straight to Carro regarding the Malcolm Blight sacking. Waldron said that the club had hired a PR consultant and he, Butterss and Thomas would be the official mouthpieces of the club from now on.

All well and good, but what had they done to put a stop to the loose lips that had done plenty of ship sinking during the year?

The board took plenty of questioning and most of it was on the money as far as the football side of things goes. Several people mentioned Rex Hunt’s continual bagging of the Saints and the board conceded there was nothing much they could do in his rants in favour of his old mate, deposed Saints coach Stan Alves.

Rod Butterss suggested everyone at the meeting write a letter to the Bearded Burbler!

A questioner following me suggested the club get all employees to sign confidentiality agreements, just as many employees in the real world are forced to do. Not a bad idea, but we’d hate to see the footy rumour mill dry up.

While most seemed upbeat and positive at the AGM, nothing that was said imbues yours truly with any optimism that the current regime will turn around the Saints’ performance.

Several speakers noted their love of the club and its proud history, but that is a load of bollocks. St Kilda is a pathetic club with the worst history of any – only 1 premiership (and that was by the narrowest possible margin) and more wooden spoons than any other club.

But to talk of the failures and criticise the club is almost “un-St Kilda”. One speaker got up and bemoaned all the negativity during the evening and pointed out some positives. But he really was clutching at straws – 3 wins and 19 losses doth not a good season maketh.

Once St Kilda people get a grip on these bare facts then maybe a cold dose of reality will shake them out of their complacency.

Until then, all the talk at their AGM will remain just that – talk.

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Peter Fray

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