The AFL has a long history of conflicts of interest.

A good example is the immediate past Chairman of the AFL commission, the late Ron Evans, who also ran Australia’s largest services company, Spotless. While he was the AFL Chairman, a Spotless subsidiary (Nationwide Venue Management) managed the Docklands Stadium while Spotless had the long-term contract to provide catering services to the MCG.

And VFL visionary and former President, industrialist Sir Kenneth Luke, led the then VFL’s acquisition of the land that would become Waverley Park. It had been alleged that Luke owned part of the land which was sold to the League to develop the now defunct Waverley Park.

It appears tradition is continuing, with former Carlton Premiership captain and the multi-millionaire AFL Chairman, Mike Fitzpatrick, grappling with a few conflicts of his own. Last week, a consortium led by Fitzpatrick, acquired the rights to ANZ Stadium at Homebush.

ANZ Stadium is currently utilised by the Sydney Swans for four matches per year (last week the Swans played at ANZ Stadium in front of a disappointing crowd of only 41,000 spectators). However, the use of ANZ Stadium will become a far greater issue should the AFL decide to introduce a new side in Western Sydney.

Aware of the apparent conflict, Fitzpatrick stated that “as Chairman of the AFL and as the proposed chairman of ANZIS and its investment committee, I will absent myself on any issues relating to ANZ Stadium, at either ANZIS or the AFL and will receive no papers on the ANZ Stadium.”

The problem is despite Fitzpatrick’s best intentions, while he may absent himself from discussions pertaining to the direct use of ANZ stadium, his financial interest in the stadium will lead to Fitzpatrick being placed in a difficult position when the AFL determines the introduction of a second Sydney-based side in the city’s west.

With the AFL planning a boutique stadium at Blacktown (which would hold approximately 10,000 spectators), a West Sydney side would inevitably play the vast majority (if not all) of its matches at ANZ Stadium. Therefore, Fitzpatrick as Chairman of the AFL Commission, is fundamentally conflicted in his determination of whether the AFL should spend upwards of $100 million creating an expansion team in West Sydney. (If the Western Sydney team goes ahead, it is likely that Fitzpatrick will financially benefit through his ownership interest in ANZ Stadium).

While the proposed Gold Coast side has received a deal of criticism, there are few within Sydney who believe that a Western Sydney side would be a practical or financial success. Richard Colless, long-serving President of the Sydney Swans has been increasingly critical of the concept of a Western Sydney side, with Ninemsn reporting Colless’ claims that “despite the Swans reaching the finals every season since 2003, interest in the AFL in Sydney had ‘plateaued’, which did not augur well for a second side to be established.” Colless later told MMM radio that “the message that we would send to the AFL community as a whole is that this is going to be a battle the likes of which the game has never undertaken.”

There is also question marks on the effect of a second Sydney-based side on the Swans, already struggling this year with lower attendances and poor television ratings into the lucrative Sydney market. The Age reported that:

In the first 11 rounds, Sydney’s average match attendance was down almost 10 per cent from last year to about 29,000, while memberships at the club had sagged 15 per cent to the same figure, 29,000.

Swans’ games shown on pay-TV, on current trends, attract about 7.4 per cent fewer viewers than last year, while the number of Sydney siders watching AFL on free-to-air TV has fallen 20 per cent to about 50,000 a match.

Former president of Hawthorn (and current President of Melbourne Victory), Geoff Lord, was especially damning, stating “there’s no way the AFL should go into western Sydney. The battle is too hard to win. Rugby league is so well entrenched, it makes it very difficult. I think there is a huge sympathy and huge support base for soccer in the region.”

The decision to create a team in Western Sydney is possibly the most important the Commission will make this decade. If the wrong choice is made, the cost to existing clubs will be enormous, possibly leading to the collapse of one or more of the less financially secure Victorian sides. That Mike Fitzpatrick now has a substantial financial interest in the creation of the Western Sydney side, despite his considerable business success and vast intellect, he now has little option but to resign from his role as AFL Chairman.