Carlton supporters will be hoping that the rapid ascension of Richard Pratt to the Carlton presidency will mark a turnaround in the club’s ailing fortunes.

The club, which only ten years ago was a leading AFL team both off and on the field, is now in chaos. So much so that former finance director, Marcus Rose, claimed last week that its finances were in a worse state than those of Fitzroy before it merged with the Brisbane Bears. On-field, the club, which prior to 2002 had never finished last, has collected three wooden spoons in the last 6 years.

Currently surviving courtesy of a $2 million lifeline from the AFL last year, the club has struggled to overcome the debt burden created by the construction of the $8.7 million Legends Stand at Princes Park.

While Pratt has offered his assistance to the club in the past, The Age noted that the chances of Pratt becoming “[a] white knight for the club were dismissed as wishful thinking.” Yet that’s exactly what the club needs.

Pratt, Australia’s third richest man (he’s worth $5.2 billion according to BRW), is the most recent in a long line of business people to take the reigns at sporting clubs, and if ever there was a club in need of a shrewd businessman at the helm it’s Carlton.

The most well-known business figure to head an AFL club was Pratt’s erstwhile accomplice in the 1985 BHP-Elders cross shareholding arrangement, John Elliott. Elliott was president of Carlton between 1983 and 2002, and while his reign started well it ended disastrously, with the club being pinged for rorting the salary cap, losing draft picks, finishing last and reporting a record $7.56 million loss in 2002.

Trucking magnate Lindsay Fox was appointed chairman of St.Kilda in 1979 when the club was teetering on bankruptcy. While the Fox tenure brought little on-field success, he arguably saved the club by negotiating a settlement whereby commercial creditors received 7.5 cents in the dollar and former player creditors (who included former club greats Trevor Barker and Barry Breen) received 22.5 cents in the dollar.

Joseph Gutnick’s tenure as Melbourne President was even more controversial. Gutnick ascended to the top job soon after Melbourne’s failed merger attempt with Hawthorn (Gutnick promised to donate $1 million to Melbourne if the merger didn’t proceed). He eventually donated $2.7 million over five years and was defeated in a landslide by Gabriel Szondy in 2001, receiving only 35% of the popular vote despite his largesse.

The least successful reign by a rich-lister was the late Christopher Skase’s stint as the first “owner’ of the Brisbane Bears. The disgraced entrepreneur was the then broadcaster of the VFL (he owned Channel 7) and owned the Mirage Resorts, which were headquartered near the Bears’ home ground of Carrara. The Skase era ended terribly, with the businessman fleeing to Spain, leaving the club near-bankrupt, owing $28 million. Brisbane were saved by restaurateur Rueben Pellerman, who lost a bundle in the process.

While corporate titans have a mixed record at the AFL, Frank Lowy’s business nous has turned Australia’s national soccer competition into a financial bonanza. The success of the Socceroos and A-League have been largely attributed to Lowy’s careful planning and intelligent choice of John O’Neill and more recently, the highly regarded Ben Buckley, as CEOs.

Carlton is in desperate need of financial assistance and strategic direction. Carlton supporters will be hoping that Pratt’s business knowledge, his corporate smarts and deep-pocketed contacts can breathe new life into a club that is still broken from its last affair with a corporate high flyer.

Peter Fray

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