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Melbourne Football Club

Gill McLachlan National Press Club speech

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 18: AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan addresses the media during AFL press conference to announce the Broadcast Rights Agreement at AFL House, Melbourne, Australia on August 18, 2015. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 18: AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan addresses the media during AFL press conference to announce the Broadcast Rights Agreement at AFL House, Melbourne, Australia on August 18, 2015. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media)

GILLON McLACHLAN

National Press Club August 19, 2015

Thank you very much for having me here in Canberra.

Tonight we are holding our second AFL Friends of Parliament event in the House - where we hope to have MPs from all parties come together so that we can profile our code with the country's decision-makers. 

This year however, I thought we should also go to the place where the real power is, here at the National Press Club.

It is a place of serious national conversation, where leaders from politics, business and community come to argue their position and press their case.  

In our game, we wrestle daily with your colleagues who inhabit the back pages, and if I could play to my home ground for a moment - I think some of the country’s best writers, journalists, producers and commentators are in the sports round.

I could name them but that would get me into trouble about who I left out – suffice to say we have some wonderful writers and fierce journalistic competitors - who serve our fans and supporters as the best journalists are required to do - breaking stories, going behind the marketing, digging beyond statistics and revealing the individual stories that transcend sport.

The best of our journalists recognise that sport does not take place in a vacuum but reflects the best and worst elements of our society.

That sport has a history, and that we need to understand that history to understand the present.

We do love our history in sport, and the race to turn history into tradition is as fierce as the desire to win.

On the basis of a few fiercely contested games over a couple of years, we suddenly claim a lifelong rivalry. 

Talking up tradition is the lifeblood of all sport - it is the glue that holds our tribes together, it’s what parents hand down to their children to create allegiances to their clubs, it’s what clubs do to cement their supporter base, particularly in the absence of that other highly addictive sporting goal - victory. 

Take one of our most loved clubs in Melbourne - The Richmond Footall Club.

They have a paying membership of over 70,000, and yet their last taste of Grand Final success was 1980. 

Literally, a generation ago.  Many of those members would never have enjoyed the ultimate victory. But the Tiger army is as passionate as any sporting fans anywhere in the world. What keeps them coming, year after year? What keeps them believing?

Tradition.

But - Tradition is one thing - nostalgia is another. 

Those of us who are tasked with looking after the future of this game must be able to separate tradition from nostalgia, and must ensure that nostalgia does not drive our decisions or thinking.

Tradition is passion, nostalgia is hubris.

There are very few places in the world that can claim to have invented their own sport, but Victoria is one of them.

Our game has the right to boast that a number of our  Australian football clubs,  which became the VFL are older than the Manchester Uniteds, Juventus and Real Madrids of Europe.

But our history does not give us the right to claim the future.

Australian Football’s story is Australia’s story, but that story is changing and with the advancements in technology and the march of globalization,  it is changing quicker than ever.

Our task is to make sure we adapt just as quickly.

Last week, Waleed Aly, the academic, TV host, sports commentator and mad Tiger fan spoke at our CEO's conference.

Two things in particular Waleed said have stayed with me and sum up perfectly our challenge, and the challenge of all sports in Australia.

Firstly - Australian sport needs to understand our children are growing up in a truly globalised world providing what he called 'radical choice'.  We can no longer assume each generation will grow up as AFL supporters.

And secondly, for the AFL to continue to be a central part in Australian life, to continue to be Australia’s number one game, we must understand our role in culture and the changes in Australia. 

I believe that the AFL understands its role in the sporting economy

Football is an industry as well as a passion.

Yesterday’s broadcast rights announcement shows that Australian football over the last few decades has made the right decisions to ensure that we remain financially strong in this era of radical change in the sporting economy.

The agreement we launched, in partnership with the Seven Network, News Corporation and Telstra, provides the foundation by which we can grow and sustain our game.

I said yesterday that the rights deal delivered for our four major constituencies:

  • For our supporters – it delivers maximum reach and maximum exposure, and the AFL remains in charge and in control of our fixture.
  • For our clubs and players – its delivers financial security to allow future growth and certainty.
  • And for the community – this agreement will allow us to focus resources to the foundations of our game – to ensure they stay strong, and grow into new areas, into new communities, to create new generations of supporters, members, players and volunteers. .

The $2.508 billion figure is important but so are these numbers:

We have over 800,000 financial members of clubs

  • Last year we had an average of  32,000 attendees per game in the season – the forth biggest attendances globally after the NFL, the EPL and the Bundeslega.
  • We have 1 million participants and 15 million spectators across the elite and community level of the game.
  • We have 344,000 people participating in community clubs, with 27,000 school teams and 13,000 community club teams playing each week.

As our Chairman said yesterday – these are the numbers we need to protect and grow.

And we definitely have work to do.

I will address this issue directly later.

We also know our role in community and the impact we can have.

Latrobe University recently released research showing that for every $1 invested in a community football club, $4.40 was returned to the community in social value – delivering better health outcomes (both physical and mental health) and better education, skills and employment outcomes.

The research puts a dollar figure on what we all know intuitively - community sporting clubs deliver much more that just a game on a Saturday. They deliver a social life and social connections. They help make communities – big and small – resilient.

In the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, the Kinglake Football Club became the symbol of that community’s desire to regenerate itself and build something positive from heartbreak and loss.

And last night, at the 2015 Australian Migration and Settlement Awards, the AFL’s Multicultural program was awarded the Sports Leadership Award for our work across many communities – connecting young people to sport and activity.  And our Head of Community at the GWS Giants, Ali Faraj was named Case Worker of the year for his contribution to the work in western Sydney.

We know that football is never just about dollars and cents, goals and points, it is always about people and communities.

The AFL also knows our place in history – and it guides us to the decisions we need to make for the future.

Our game has deep roots in Australia.

And we have grown as Australia has grown.

Our first game was played in 1858 in a paddock in Melbourne. At the time, Australia’s population was 800,000 with half of them living in Victoria – because of the Gold Rush.  About 60,000 people were migrating to Victoria a year.  Over the next 20 years and into Federation, hundreds of clubs were formed, the rules were written, and the first inter-colony game was played.

Of course in the early years, the players were predominantly of English, Scottish and Irish heritage. At the turn of the century though, we had our first player of Chinese descent George Tansing play for Geelong in 1905, and one of our first Greek players, Charlie Panamopoulous played for Collingwood from 1894 – 1906 and for Richmond in 1907 and 08.  (As an aside, Charlie’s great grandson is the legendary Lou Richards.)

Before the end of the 19th century, surnames such as Barrass, Ulbrich, Schoman, Zercho and Brunger began to appear on lists.

50 years later, as the post war migration changed the face of Australia, we too changed – with names such as Epis, Silvagni, Bennetti, Bevilaqua, Pianto,  Varlomo and Pavlou played at the elite level.

And just as Carlton in Melbourne was the Italian suburb, so too Carlton was the Italian club.

And fortunately for our game, we had all layers of Australian society represented in our competition– working class, middle class , upper class – Australian Football was for everyone.

As Australia’s only indigenous game, with strong links to the aboriginal past time known as Marn Grook, we have been fortunate enough to have Indigenous culture and Indigenous Australians help shape our game.  

In this, we also reflect Australia, for better or worse. 

For too long, our game encountered the same prejudices that blighted the lives of generations of Indigenous Australians. Racial abuse on and off the field was just the tip of that iceberg.

But we learnt and changed, and grew.

We created a place where Indigenous Australia can be accepted not just by mimicking White Australia, but by bringing something unique that enriches the game as a whole.

This is still a work in progress, but it is profitable to look back and see how far we’ve come.

Over 15% of Indigenous Australians nationally - about 100,000 people are involved in one of our 80 indigenous programs – and that includes 1 in 3 young indigenous people.

 We contribute about $45million per annum to indigenous programs and direct employment.

We have 78 indigenous players, umpires or coaches at the elite level of our system.

WE have recently been at the center again, of an issue of racism with a great champion of our game, Adam Goodes being targeted by elements in our crowds.

Our game has had its fair share of criticism around this issue.  I want to say this though on behalf of sports fans and supporters - It is hard to think of a national discussion about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that reaches as many people, with as much passion, that has not arisen out of sport.

Whether it is the actions of Nicky Winmar and Michael Long in combating racial abuse in the AFL, or the flack that surrounded Cathy Freeman’s decision to do a victory lap holding an Aboriginal flag at the 1994 Commonwealth Games -  sport engages Australians like nothing else.

As a nation we take much of our sense of who we are and what we value from our sporting champions.

The challenge for Australian Football is to continue to grow and change as Australia grows and changes.

And while we can be proud of our history – a I said - it doesn’t mean we own the future.

Australia is changing, and if we want to continue to be Australia’s game, we have to change as with it.

 A few salient facts:

- 50% Australians have at least one parent born overseas

- 27% Australians are born overseas

- 20% speak a language other then English at home

- 55% of migrants are settling in NSW and Vic

This is our challenge.

The question is not how do we safeguard or protect the AFL from globalisation, from a connected world and from a changing Australia.

It is how do we adapt to these trends to strengthen the game and ensure its future.

In 1858 there was not even a telegraph connecting Australia to the rest of the world.

Now we can choose to watch sport from just about anywhere

Kids can choose from their sporting heroes from global sports – Le Bron James, Christiano Renaldo, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams.

We can’t ignore this challenge -  and we have the resources and the commitment to confront it head on.

The same day we heard from Waleed Aly a few weeks ago, the CEO’s of our clubs considered a new and radical idea for developing talent in new and emerging communities and in our suburbs, regions and remote Australia.

Our Clubs have elite facilities and infrastructure. They have a desire to grow and to win.

There is more than $180m invested in football, coaching and development staff around the country and $300 million invested in elite AFL clubs and training facilities. There are thousands of highly professional football staff in development, community, coaching, training and welfare positions.

We have a machine and we need to pivot to focus on new and emerging communities.

After a positive discussion with the Commission, the AFL has also received support from our CEOs to examine a new zoning system – where a region is assigned to each Club and the Clubs are empowered and funded to develop talent and recruit in indigenous or multicultural communities.

It would mean carving up areas in our suburbs and outer communities for clubs to grow their talent base.  The talent developed in those zones would be available to clubs through a priority draft bidding system, and the investment in these new Multicultural and Indigenous Academies could potentially be supported by resources from the AFL.

For the political journalists in here, it’s like we have defined our marginal seats – and the Clubs would fight to win them as hard as the political parties do.

It would mean more resources, new rules for the talent system, and a new focus for the elite level of the game to grow into new communities.

Nothing spurs action in our game like the challenge of another club getting an unfair disadvantage.

I believe if we can develop a program that has industry support, it will change the face of our game.

And the face of our game does need to change.  

We have been part of Australia’s story as Australia’s game. 

But we can’t take this for granted.  As Australia’s story gets bigger and more diverse, so must we.

Recently,  I started reading the “Narrow Road to the Deep North”-  Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning novel based loosely on the story of Weary Dunlop and the building of the Burma railway.

At the beginning of the book, the main character, Dorrigo Evans remembers back to the school yard to an incident that marks his sense of belonging and knowing.

It describes him watching the boys play kick to kick in the yard for a few days in a row.

Richard writes:

“…..And on the third day, he found himself up close to the back of the pack, when, over their shoulders he saw a wobbly drop punt lofting high towards them. For a moment it sat in the sun, and he understood that the ball was his to pluck. He could smell the piss ants in the eucalypts, feel the ropy shadows of their branches fall away as he began running forward into the pack. Time slowed, he found all the space he needed into which the biggest, strongest boys were now rushing.  He understood the ball dangling from the sky was his and all he had to do was rise.”

He goes on to catch the mark, fall to earth, have the wind knocked out of him – and he stands up and looks around him.

The writer goes on :

“Who the hell are you?” asked one big boy.

Dorrigo Evans.

That was a blinder, Dorrigo. Your kick.”

The writer describes the sense of standing on a new threshold, of having taken a chance, or standing up in a new world – where he belonged and had triumphed. 

That passage for me captured the specific beauty of our game as well as a universal sense of the triumph of sporting success, and what it can mean to an individual.

That is my story today, and the sense of Australia that I grew up with.  I recognize the light he describes, the trees, the dirt. I certainly recognize the desperate desire to beat the bigger boys in the yard.  I never made it in the AFL, but the love of the game has never ever left me. 

I think it’s the most beautiful game, and I am determined that it stays Australia’s game.

For this to happen, our game needs to be able to tell stories that all Australians can recognize, men and women, and kids and families who have arrived here from the Sudan, from China, from India – from wherever.  

It must be their story too.

We need heroes that they can idolize and a clear pathway they can follow.

That’s our challenge, and I believe our game is up to it.

Thanks very much.