Four Corners really missed the opportunity to nail the AFL in their expose, “For the good of the game”, which went to air on 8 April 2002.

Ticky Fullerton’s piece covered all the issues, but for most of the show it was a case of “tell us something we don’t know”. There wasn’t a whole lot of news in it for people with a passing interest in the AFL. Anyone with half an eye cocked at the footy knows that John Elliott is a boorish, uncouth lout, Eddie McGuire is a self-promoting conflict merchant, and half a dozen Victorian clubs are on life support.

Probably the biggest new yarn in this story was the Institute of Chartered Accountants’ report on the health of the league, which Ticky spent a bit less time on than we would have liked. Even then, this report by the ICA is probably old news.

As one subscriber so eloquently argued, “the ICA stuff is a stunt they pull every year and have done so for the past 4-5 at least. So what does it do? It tells us that some of the clubs are losing money. How do they do that? By looking over the annual reports which tells us what? That some of the clubs are losing money.”

Here’s how the ABC previewed the show on their website:

“For the Good of the Game.

Aussie Rules is on a roll. Cash is flowing in from a new $500 million TV deal; the turnstiles hit nearly 300,000 clicks at the AFL season’s opening round.

But in AFL heartland, clubs are struggling. Why are some clubs facing extinction when the AFL’s product is booming?

This report features a virtual Who’s Who of football including Wayne Jackson, Eddie McGuire, John Elliott, David Smorgon, Richard Colless, Allen Aylett, Peter Jackson, Kevin Sheedy, Paul Kelly and Brendon Gale.

While they delivered on the promised “Who’s Who”, Aunty never got close to the nub of the big question – Why are some clubs facing extinction when the AFL’s product is booming? All we were told was that clubs were making losses. Why? Because their expenses outstripped their income.

A look behind the raw numbers would have been a nice start, as we’ll discuss below.

“I’d like to see that”

Maybe the old AFL advertising slogan has been etched into the sub-conscious, but I constantly found myself throughout the Four Corners program thinking “I’d like to see that”. There are plenty of problems besetting the AFL than the old news that Four Corners tarted up and presented as a scoop.

The hottest issue in the AFL is the television broadcast agreement, which has gone completely pear-shaped in the first two weeks of the season, with Sydney and Brisbane viewers in particular being denied the level of coverage they enjoyed when Channel 7 was the league’s broadcaster.

This week, AFL commissioner Graeme Samuel has held crisis talks with the television consortium to sort out the lack of coverage in the northern states.

Hang on! The deal was signed over a year ago! And the AFL is just sorting out the fine print now?!

Perhaps Ticky Fullerton might have run this transcript from an ABC radio interview back in December 2000 by Wayne Jackson and see if he stood by his comments:

“ZOE DANIEL: AFL chief executive, Wayne Jackson, dismisses concerns the new consortium has a conflict due to its commitment to Rugby League in NSW and Queensland. He argues the deal will see extensive live AFL coverage added in those States.

WAYNE JACKSON: The proposal form Channel 9 and Channel 10 in a free to air sense and from Foxtel in a pay sense is very superior to that which we currently enjoy in those two very important developing States.”

Try telling that to viewers in “those two very important developing States”, Jacko, who in the first round of footy sat through “Britney Spears Live in Las Vegas” and “ET: 20th Anniversary Special” on the Saturday afternoon on Channel 10, instead of watching a thriller between Carlton and St Kilda.

How is that “vastly superior” to Channel 7’s coverage in previous years, which virtually guaran-damn-teed the Saturday and Sunday afternoon game(s) live?

Speaking of the “developing states”, Ticky could have asked Jacko what value the AFL was getting for the approximately $4 million it ploughed into NSW/ACT game development in 2001. AFL Auskick registrations increased by a meagre 3,111 between 2000 and 2001. At over $1,200 per new recruit, that’s not quite as expensive as the armed forces’ recent recruiting drive, but it’s a worry.

Another issue Ticky might have raised with the AFL was the consortium’s running of the new Telstra-AFL website.

This year, fans are being asked to dip into their pockets for something they received for free last year.

It would be justifiable if they were receiving something, but quite often they aren’t receiving what they paid for. There have been far too many reports of coverage from the website failing, with the promised live audio coverage and video streaming frequently dropping out.

The AFL’s website itself is, in our opinion, manifestly inferior to the site in previous years, with many key features missing, and the site itself is just plain slow.

Another thing the ABC might have considered is a closer examination of Jeff Browne’s conflict of interest as both Eddie McGuire’s and the AFL’s solicitor. As one subscriber pointed out, “they asked the wrong person. I thought lawyers were supposed to tell their clients if they’re working for the other side, or even refuse to represent them in conflicted matters.”

Another interesting Jeff Browne connection is that he is on the board of Holden Racing Team. And surprise, surprise Channel 9’s Sunday football coverage is sponsored by Holden Monaro! Not that there is anything pernicious in that connection itself, it is just another illustration of the incestuous nature of the football industry.

But it would be a concern to the Kangaroos, who last year were reportedly a potential takeover target as Holden Special Vehicles contemplated purchasing the struggling club. How would they feel if one of the directors of the company that owns them is also the solicitor to a rival club president?!

The ABC could have spent a bit more time pondering what is happened with Colonial Stadium. The much maligned venue was supposed to be a cash cow. Original projections predicted profits for clubs, instead it’s forced losses on the Bulldogs and St Kilda, yet the AFL’s strongest club, Essendon, gets a guaranteed profit out of it each year because they had the AFL by the balls and signed up first when no other club was interested. Good on them for forcing the AFL’s hand and getting an outrageously good deal, but don’t be surprised when the poor clubs complain.

Colonial was saved from the brink of collapse thanks to Channel 7 buying it out, but still profit projections seem optimistic at best.

Every club bar Essendon that plays home games at Colonial has sustained heavy losses thanks to the AFL’s unrealistic expectations, with the most vulnerable – the Bulldogs, St Kilda and Geelong – the hardest hit.

If these clubs go to the wall, the Colonial losses will undoubtedly have played a part.

So Four Corners could have asked the AFL who was responsible for this monumentally unrealistic disaster, and in what way have they been made accountable?

A pet topic of Crikey is what are the business credentials of the people running the game? As we have noted below, league supremo Wayne Jackson had a chequered tenure at Thomas Hardy and Sons, but plenty of clubs have directors with far more incriminating business histories.

We’re putting together a dossier on the good, bad and ugly club directors and would have liked the ABC to have scratched the surface and pointed the finger at people who are controlling the purse strings at $20 million plus a year ventures which are often struggling to keep afloat.

Four Corners might have spent a bit more time challenging AFL Players’ Association president Brendon Gale, who well and truly upset the apple cart regarding the undertaking to maintain 16 teams in the competition and 10 in Victoria.

Four Corners might have asked him how 80 of his union members might feel about losing their jobs if a couple of clubs went to the wall? That’s 12.5% of his constituency.

As one subscriber emailed, “Brendan Gale’s glib statement that rugby league players get paid more as a percentage of the pie was not challenged. We all know those rugby player contracts are only the result of Murdoch’s bidding wars and are unsustainable. He wasn’t put under pressure to admit that the push for player salaries is sending clubs to the wall. He wasn’t pressured to admit that with two fewer clubs, there will be 80-odd unemployed players he supposedly represents – or does he only represent the top players? Or are we expecting 3rd and 4th teams in Adelaide and Perth? Are Sydney or Brisbane going to host 2 clubs each? I think not. No one posed the bald question – What is the alternative to 10 clubs in Victoria?”

The Western Bulldogs’ president David Smorgon appeared the next night on Talking Footy and was completely ropeable at Gale’s comments, which he claimed upset the understanding that he had worked hard to achieve amongst all stakeholders in the game that everyone was committed to a 16 team competition with 10 Victorian clubs.

It’s no coincidence that this fracas has reared its head again now that News Ltd is a significant stakeholder in the game. One would have thought they learnt their lesson from the Super League experience (among other sporting stuff-ups around the world). They’re sick of pumping money into the NRL and obviously don’t want to do the same with the AFL. The first thing they should have done is massaged players’ expectations, but it seems the reverse has happened. As soon as the players hear that the News Ltd consortium is pumping $500 million into the game, they start shopping around for Ferraris and the more “economic rationalist” approach as epitomised by Gale becomes the accepted mantra.

The skipper commits several clangers

We at Crikey have had our doubts about Wayne Jackson’s credentials for a while, and his efforts on Four Corners did nothing to alleviate our concerns.

Jackson’s stewardship of the AFL has seen its fair share of controversy. Calls for his sacking reaching a crescendo in 2000, with the Colonial turf and ticketing disasters at their worst, along with criticisms of the AFL’s decisions to plough money into NSW and Queensland, mishandling of Ron Evans’ conflicts of interest, and claims of broken AFL promises on Colonial causing huge losses for the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda and Geelong.

Last year, Kevin Sheedy launched an extraordinary but not particularly well argued attack on Jackson, describing him as “one of those guys that hangs around sport and tries to do his best, and he’s struggling.”

Our concerns with Jackson’s business credentials hark back to his time as Managing Director of Thomas Hardy and Sons. Thomas Hardy was a very successful winemaker until Jackson decided to buy up French chateaus and wineries because he was scared that the EU would block sales of Australian wine in the EU. After BRL Hardy was formed and Jackson was shunted down to business development director, their share price has climbed from around a dollar in December 1992 to as high as $11 in 2001 and around $10 today.

Every Four Corners expose makes somebody look like a goose and this time it was AFL CEO Wayne Jackson’s turn. His avoidance of questions on the Kangaroos’ financial plight were lame, and later his defence of the conflict involving Eddie McGuire’s solicitor – Jeff Browne, who also happens to be the AFL’s solicitor -was worse.

On the Roos’ parlous financial position, Jacko said, “well, you’ll have to ask the President of the Kangaroos about that”. Come off it, Jacko! Either you know, or you’re not doing your job properly.

Fullerton later asked Jacko whether he saw any problem with the AFL’s solicitor also being Eddie McGuire’s solicitor – didn’t that raise questions about the tender process in awarding Channel Eddie the footy broadcasting rights?

All Jacko needed to say was “no, Jeff wasn’t involved in the decision making process”. Or is that asking too much of the hopelessly conflicted footy industry?

Even “no, the News Ltd consortium, which included Channel 9, won fair and square in a competitive tender process” would have been good enough. Is that again asking too much?

Instead, Jacko blustered through a very poor effort to dodge the tackle – “is Jeff Eddie’s solicitor? I wasn’t aware of that” – and then rambled on about what a marvellous contribution Eddie makes to footy in general and the Collingwood Football Club in particular.

Fullerton really could have nailed Jacko on this one. Instead, her half-arsed tackle on Jacko let him slip out of the last line of defence and bundle the ball out of bounds for a throw-in.

Not a very convincing performance from the bloke in charge of an organisation that turned over $116 million last year.

Eddie’s conflicts

We at Crikey would have been more than happy to supply Ticky Fullerton with a list of Eddie McGuire’s conflicts as long as her right arm, but instead she chose to focus only on the conflict of Eddie’s solicitor also being the AFL’s solicitor. In fairness, probably a year of Four Corners couldn’t have done justice to the stories of Eddie’s conflicts of interest, and this issue was as good as any single issue to focus on.

And Eddie’s conflicts of interest weren’t supposed to be the subject of this program anyway, but there is a link between the power that McGuire has in marketing his club, Collingwood, in his various media gigs, to the struggles that the other clubs have in attracting dollars in the highly competitive sponsorship market.

The Western Bulldogs’ David Smorgon lamented that he had approached some 80 companies trying to get a sponsorship deal. Ever thought of hosting your own TV show, David? Perhaps “Who Wants to be a Steel Miller”?

When the conflict question was put to Eddie, what did he do? He avoided the question – again!

FULLERTON: Let me put it to you that you are one of the top faces at Channel 9, yet your lawyer and the AFL’s lawyer are one and the same.

MCGUIRE: Yeah, Jeff Browne. Yeah.

FULLERTON: Doesn’t that present an extraordinary conflict of interest when you’ve got [Channel] 7 competing with [Channel] 9 and Foxtel for those rights?

MCGUIRE: Yeah, he was also the girlfriend, errr, boyfriend of Anne Fulwood, one of 7’s main people and I think he has negotiated contracts for Jennifer Hanson at Channel 10. [Impish grin, shrug of the shoulders.] Ahhhh, so …

FULLERTON: But you and Anne Fulwood are slightly different in the deal making stakes?

MCGUIRE: Yeah, but I don’t think… I mean… I suppose on the surface you could say “oh, yeah it is”. But where?

Well, we’ll tell you where, Eddie. You pay Jeff Browne to act as your solicitor. Presumably a fair bit of money given your myriad business interests. Jeff Browne, as the AFL’s solicitor, has the ear of the AFL’s top brass. Presumably they would have asked him for legal advice on the deal that saw your television station awarded the television rights. If he abuses that position to appease one of his significant clients, that’s a conflict of interest.

True, this is really Jeff Browne’s conflict, not Eddie’s, but all we needed to know from either Jacko or Eddie was that Browne was in no way involved in the decision to award the television rights to the News Ltd consortium. That may well have been the case, but nobody answered that question directly.

Northern Exposure?

Perhaps the ABC realised the lack of AFL coverage in Sydney and attempted to redress the problem.

As we said from the top, the yarn really didn’t tell us anything that anyone with a passing interest in the AFL didn’t already know.

That means the entire population of Victoria, and most of Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania.

It seemed the entire exercise was just an effort to clue the northern states viewers in on what is happening in the AFL.

It certainly did nothing to alleviate the old stereotypes of the ABC being a Sydney-centric bunch of cultural elites with little idea of what is happening outside of their own backyard.

With all due respect to Tick Fullerton’s investigative journalism skills, why wasn’t a Tim Lane or his ilk corralled in to doing the story, or at least to play a significant part in the on-screen interviews? Someone at the very least who had more than a passing interest in football politics over the past decade would have been a good start.

Eddie and Dickie’s tit for tat

Sydney president Richard Colless and Eddie McGuire carried on their petty spat, which has been simmering for quite some time.

The nub of the squabble is McGuire’s complaint that Sydney (and Brisbane) get preferential treatment from the AFL, while Colless’ counterclaim is that they don’t get enough assistance from the AFL and the parochialism of certain Melbourne clubs hinders development of the clubs in the northern states.

It was a childish and embarrassing performance from two supposedly grown men, Eddie at one stage responding to one of Colless’ digs with “well, good on him”.

Colless responded by giving Eddie the bird. He offered this lame apology / explanation to Swans members:

“Sydney Swans Chairman Richard Colless has today contacted the AFL, voluntarily offering to pay a self-imposed fine equivalent to that levelled at Western Bulldogs player Nathan Brown.

Mr Colless said that although there were mitigating circumstances to his on-air gesture towards Collingwood President Eddie McGuire, on last night’s ABC Four Corners program, he was emphatic in his belief that AFL Club officials must abide by the same standards that players are subjected to.

“My gesture was intended to be light-hearted and contained no malice at all, and I know Eddie feels the same way”, Mr Colless said.

“However because I was concerned it may be misinterpreted I thought I had obtained an undertaking that this part of the interview would not go to air.

“Nevertheless I have made this offer to the AFL as a matter of principle, and suggested they might consider forwarding the amount to a charity of their choice.”

– Ends –

We wonder if Colless had made this gesture a week ago and there was no Nathan Brown precedent, would he have coughed up?

And what were those “mitigating circumstances”? Does he have some motor neuron malfunction which causes him to involuntarily flip the bird?

The facts checker must have been dragged

Now we don’t want to get into petty nit-picking here, but we will because Melbourne people are particular about their footy, and it sounded like Ticky wasn’t a local yokel.

Ticky told us that “Scotch College played the first game of AFL in 1858”. Memo to Ticky – the sport is “Australian rules football”, the premier league is the “AFL”. Back in 1858, there was no “AFL” – in fact there wasn’t any “A”, just a game played in the Colony of Victoria.

One subscriber adds: “As for the argument that footy is on the decline because Scotch doesn’t have as many teams as they used to…what rubbish. Any idiot can tell you that those APS Schools are recruiting an increasing number of students from overseas. Can’t see too many of them taking up footy.”

And she asked Bennie Gale whether the league could sustain 10 clubs in Melbourne. Memo to Ticky – last time we checked, Geelong wasn’t a lazy 10 minute tram trip across the other side of town.

Oh and Ticky, Brendon Gale was never captain of Richmond.

But Ticky hit the mark when she referred to the “Collingwood heathens”. Once they figure out what that means, Ticky can expect to wake up with a horse head on the pillow next to her!

And this post-script

A subscriber tells us “it was pretty funny watching the Channel Seven late news where they actually thought the ABC stuff was worthy of a yarn – and who was the newsreader talking about the conflict of interest over Eddie McGuire? None other than Jeff Browne’s former partner Anne Fulwood.”

Overall, a pretty disappointing effort from the Four Corners team.

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