In a country where sport means more than religion, Andrew Demetriou’s church is the biggest and most dominant. But it’s not enough for the AFL pontiff. He wants even more disciples, even if it means gambling on the game’s future.

He’s already got the audience: of the four big codes this year, the AFL boasted the highest crowd attendance (more than 7 million), the most club members (more than 650,000), the biggest TV deal (more than $1.25 billion over five years) and the largest revenue ($336 million).

He’s also got the reach: the game’s TV ratings are enormous. And unlike its main rivals (bar soccer), the AFL’s got a presence in every mainland state capital — with two new teams on the way. In Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, its grip on the media is inescapable.

And lucky for Demetriou, he’s got the salary too: Demetriou’s the best-paid sports boss in the land, taking home a $2.2 million pay cheque.

They’re big numbers — record breakers, in fact, for a league that continues to swell in size. And at the centre of it all is Demetriou, the man with the booming voice who keeps it all together.

“Andrew has several great characteristics as a CEO. He has grown in the role and is a clear leader of Australia’s most popular sport,” long-time sports administrator and former ICC president Malcolm Speed tells The Power Index. “He is always in control of the situation and has a deep understanding of sport in general. ”

Demetriou’s been in charge of the game since 2003. Back then the son of Greek Cypriot immigrants was the players’ union rep and a wealthy dental products manufacturer. And before that he played 106 VFL games on the wing for North Melbourne and Hawthorn (“unobtrusive,” is how friend Red Symons labelled his playing style). Now he’s the country’s leading sports administrator.

Inside the all-powerful AFL commission Demetriou’s bosses have given him enough influence during his tenure to make some pretty powerful moves. Like reforming the game’s drug policy.

Introduced in 2005, the AFL’s “three-strikes” rule keeps a player’s identity anonymous should they fail two illicit drug tests. It’s a stance Demetriou has staunchly defended over the years as encouraging rehabilitation, despite a number of drug scandals and accusations of him being “soft on drugs”.

It could simply be a matter of politics. Some observers of the game say the policy is evidence of Demetriou’s bleeding heart, which might explain his friendship with former Paul Keating speechwriter Don Watson. Others say his egalitarian reputation and ability to “tap into the psyche of the left” with such policies are good for business.

“The AFL are incredibly good at leveraging causes into money. They’ll have a women’s round, an indigenous round, a tie-a-ribbon-around-everything round,” sportswriter Richard Hinds told Fairfax in a profile of Demetriou recently, referring to the AFL’s different tolerance-themed rounds. “That’s not to say he’s not respected. People think he’s a bit of a dealmaker, but he’s massively respected in terms of making money for the game.”

Malcolm Speed says Demetriou’s approach is not unlike a typical big business CEO: “He has managed a period of rapid change very well and has adopted a distant horizon — he is focused on the future and delegates much of the day-to-day running of the AFL to his senior managers,” he tells The Power Index.

Regardless of his style, it’s clear Demetriou still likes to operate in the trenches. He even seemed to take responsibility for the AFL’s choice of pre-match entertainment for this year’s grand final (Meat Loaf, most observers agreed, was a terrible decision).

But where the 50-year-old has been truly aggressive, almost evangelical-like, is in his driving thirst to expand the size of the league.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index