The situation facing North Melbourne and the AFL’s conduct in resolving the matter raises some interesting questions about the AFL Commission and the way it manages the game. As noted in Crikey yesterday, and as Andrew Demetriou said on ABC radio this morning, the AFL will now get on with growing the game in south east Queensland, potentially with a 17th club.

But in pursuing this goal, who does the AFL executive and commission serve? This writer has in the past suggested that the AFL Commission and executive are ultimately beholden to club members. That includes North Melbourne members, who’ve just resisted consummating the Commission’s recent love affair with the Gold Coast.

But here’s what I think should head the charter of the AFL Commission:

  • minimise the cost to members to watch matches;
  • maximise the number of matches able to be viewed; and
  • ensure that more than a century of tradition and loyalty remains intact.

The Commission’s aim should not be to shift clubs to a faster growing region at the first opportunity. Nor provide value for money to broadcast “partners”. In commercial terms, the aim of the AFL executive is to balance the need for increasing player payments and administration expenses with revenues. The AFL is not a company beholden to shareholders requiring a financial return. The AFL does not need to produce earnings-per-share growth, dividends or buy-backs. The AFL has no responsibility to “corporate partners” any more than a public company has a responsibility to its suppliers.

While the AFL should not tolerate mediocrity and incompetence, it must be remembered that unlike the NFL or Premier League, AFL clubs are not privately owned and are not motivated by profit. Instead, they are (North aside) member-owned bodies. It is the AFL’s job to ensure that so long as the competition can afford it, those members can continue to watch their club play.

By trying to shunt North Melbourne to the Gold Coast the AFL was doing the exact opposite. Power clubs like West Coast and Collingwood are able to deliver multi-million profits based on favourable draws and broadcast coverage. Such preferential treatment (Collinwood plays 15 games at the MCG, many on Friday night and enjoys a monopoly on the Anzac Day blockbuster) comes at the expense of struggling clubs like North Melbourne which is forced to play at Telstra Dome on Sundays or interstate. So the commission is effectively starving North Melbourne, then accusing it of being too thin.

In trying to relocate North Melbourne, the AFL is implicitly claiming to be acting on some sort of commercial mandate. The only problem is, the AFL has forgotten what it was created to accomplish. The commission’s goal isn’t to maximise revenue or sponsorship – rather, its aim is to ensure that supporters can continue to watch the game they love. North President-elect James Brayshaw gets it. So did Don Scott, Joseph Gutnick and Peter Gordon. Apparently, no one taught Rhodes Scholar and funds management millionaire, Mike Fitzpatrick, to look after his ultimate stakeholders when he was at Oxford.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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