Footballers and microphones. What could go wrong?
Australian football, unlike many other professional sports around the world, is loaded with conflicts of interest in its closed media shop.
Club presidents, such as Collingwood commanded Eddie McGuire, work play-by-play commentary. McGuire even calls Collingwood games; just on television this season.
Club board members, in particular Crows hero Mark Ricciuto, also are wearing many hats as multi-media presenters. In the past three months, Ricciuto has courted controversy by referring (as his media employers expect) to Adelaide’s rival AFL clubs.
Player agents, such as Lance Franklin’s shrewd manager Liam Pickering, also are behind the microphones on panel shows and in commentary booths on match day. How does an agent pass critical reviews of his client – and keep the four per cent fee for sealing a new contract for the player?
Even the “independent” national broadcaster, the ABC, has clouded its coverage of AFL matches with club board members on the commentary teams. In Adelaide, this applies with Crows director and premiership defender Rod Jameson, who has been more circumspect than Ricciuto.
“You can’t serve two masters,” says former Adelaide Football Club chief executive and chairman Bill Sanders.
At Port Adelaide, national television personality David Koch has been the high-profile president since the AFL-enforced wipe-out of the club’s board at the end of the 2012 season. Koch’s media platforms, both on television and radio, have been a double-edged sword giving the Port Adelaide Football Club much-needed national attention – and loaded Koch with much grief when his remarks have echoed into sensational headlines.
“I don’t comment (in the media) on other (AFL) clubs,” was Koch’s quick response to InDaily when asked how he handled being on the other side of a media grilling.
“It is disrespectful.
“And I have learned the hard way from the early days on how your remarks about your own club become clickbait. So imagine what happens when you start publicly passing comment on other clubs.”
Conflict of interest in AFL media coverage has existed since the first microphones were switched on at football games in the 1930s. Football stars were hired as “experts” even while still working for clubs or leagues – and notably conflicted. But producers loved the “theatre” and the resulting headlines.
In the old VFL, Ron Casey served as president at North Melbourne while also managing HSV Channel Seven. Malcolm Blight tells the story of North Melbourne players in the 1970s following coach Ron Barassi to the HSV studios to watch game-length film of an upcoming opponent, as arranged by Casey – a competitive edge not afforded to other clubs.
All this became intolerable in 2002. Public debate heightened when former ABC sports commentator Tim Lane joined commercial network Channel Nine under the belief McGuire would not call matches involving Collingwood. When Nine announced otherwise, Lane quit in protest – and McGuire’s profile in AFL coverage has continued to grow.
So have the conflicts with more and more board members, league staff members and player agents in the media. The AFL and its 18 league clubs run media divisions, some with more staff than traditional media news rooms in some major metropolitan cities.
Ricciuto – as Koch remembers from his start as Port Adelaide president being characterised for “outspoken” statements – has made many headlines in the past year.
In August last year, Ricciuto was forced to apologise for his radio remarks daring Crows fans to find another club if they did not like the decisions being made at Adelaide. He said: “The supporters need to back in the individuals making decisions that they are making for the betterment of the club … the supporters should back the people in. And if they don’t, well maybe they, you know, don’t need to barrack for the footy club.”
Earlier in the same month, Ricciuto raised eyebrows for his critical assessment of coach Don Pyke’s tactics during the half-time break of a home game at Adelaide Oval where the Brownlow Medallist was working as the Fox Footy Channel’s boundaryside expert.
This year, Ricciuto has annoyed opposition clubs – first in June when he guessed salaries paid to former Crows players at rival clubs, in particular Melbourne defender Jake Lever. Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin, one of Ricciuto’s team-mates in Adelaide’s 1998 premiership side, declared Ricciuto’s guesstimates of Lever’s contract worth at $800,000-$850,000 “aren’t right”.
Goodwin also noted Ricciuto crossed the line because “it doesn’t happen around the industry much where you get out there and talk about specifics of player’s deals (at rival clubs).”
A former AFL club director told InDaily last month of the challenge many former players, such as Ricciuto, face when they plan their post-playing careers to involve high-profile media roles mixed with official duties at their clubs.
“Ex-players on club boards presume everyone will applaud them, as it was when they were players,” he said. “You are judged differently in this role and are expected to hold up different standards.”
Ricciuto this week moved with the AFL caravan to Queensland, boosting Fox Footy’s on-ground staff for matches in the state hosting the majority of the league’s matches and this year’s grand final on Saturday, October 24.
Asked to comment on his recent headline-creating moments and the general challenge of mixing football and media, Ricciuto politely declined. “Don’t see any upside in me talking (on the issues),” Ricciuto said by text message from the Gold Coast.
Relationships between Ricciuto and in-town rival Port Adelaide are at breaking point. Port Adelaide last year demanded Ricciuto not be sent by Fox to its changerooms for pre-game, half-time or post-game interviews. The tone further soured last week when Ricciuto declared on TripleM breakfast radio that out-of-contract Power key forward Charlie Dixon was rumoured to be courted by Brisbane with a four-year deal.
Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley was not pleased saying last Friday: “Did anyone really think Charlie was going to leave?”
Dixon’s three-year contract extension with Port Adelaide was confirmed on Wednesday afternoon. At Alberton, club officials still question why Ricciuto, who claims he is well informed in AFL matters, put in question Port Adelaide’s ability to retain Dixon when contract talks were at a fruitful point. Radio ratings over reality? Rumour mongering from a would-be club statesman?
Koch faces the same trap of speaking on contentious football issues with his weekly breakfast segment on radio FIVEaa. There also can be testing moments from his Sunrise couch when the AFL is in the news – rather than sports – cycle.
“When I am asked to speak on footy, I’ll comment on my club but never others – that would be disrespectful,” Koch told InDaily.
Sanders told InDaily the Adelaide Football Club had a clear-cut media policy during his two-decade rule at West Lakes.
“Our policy was the only spokespeople for the club on policy matters would be the chairman and the chief executive,” Sanders said. “On football, it would be the coach and football manager.
“No director would speak publicly. When Andrew Payze was on the board and handling the football portfolio, he knew the rules. He never spoke publicly.
“When Nigel Smart was on the board he was approached by The Advertiser to write a column. He came to see me – and I told him to make up his mind: Did he want to be on our board or in the media? He chose not to write.
Graham Cornes was on breakfast radio when he became our senior coach (in 1991). We told Graham he needed to end his radio commitments.
“As a player, Andrew Jarman was asked to write a ‘Brothers In Arms’ column for The Advertiser. He withdrew on club advice.”
At Port Adelaide, Koch maintains the same clear-cut philosophy.
“As a media commentator,” said Koch, “I will be asked to comment on the big issues in the game – like an opinion on whether the grand final should be a twilight or night event.
“From the board, I am the only one who will speak to the media – unless there is a special request that is cleared with me first. That will happen often with (Brownlow Medallist) Gavin Wanganeen, who is a legend of the game and often called to speak because of his reputation as one of the club’s greatest players.
“We are very disciplined.”
Koch has not been spared criticism for his public remarks, particularly at the end of the 2017 elimination final when he spoke to club members at a function at Adelaide Oval after Port Adelaide was knocked out in double extra-time. His speech was considered critical of coach Ken Hinkley and his selections for the final.
“I’ve learned quickly how my remarks will be blown up,” Koch said. “I’ll always discuss the issue with our people at the club before speaking publicly. When I’ve spoken in the media of Ken’s contract, I’ve always discussed it with him first.
“When I’ve spoken on football, I’ve leaned on (club football chief) Chris Davies and (club media chief) Daniel Norton. I’ll get a lot of requests, but I don’t do that many interviews.”
Ricciuto has the red light sparkle on his microphone every weekday morning on TripleM breakfast. Industry watchers say the former Crows captain is the highest-paid radio announcer in Adelaide, earning $340,000 a year in the pre-COVID salaries.
For that money – and all that Foxtel pays him on AFL match days – there is an expectation to say something worth hearing.
“And that is where you are vulnerable to divulging confidences that need to be kept at the club,” says Sanders. “You are walking a very, very fine line. You do that as the club’s official spokesperson when you are chairman or chief executive – and that is why you see some very awkward responses to questions posed at media conferences. There are times when you are challenged to speak when you simply should not.”
Ricciuto joined the Crows board in June 2014 when Adelaide was preparing to cover the losses of John Sutton and the long-serving Peter Hurley, Ricciuto’s guardian in the pub world.
At that time, Adelaide felt Ricciuto’s reach in newspapers at The Advertiser, radio at TripleM and television with Fox would help the club in controlling the media message.
Jameson at the weekend on ABC radio – in a bizarre moment in which the pot looked after the kettle – explained the Crows had removed the ban on its directors being in the media to “provide some balance and some truth opposed to innuendo and rumour”. Ricciuto, however, immerses himself in rumour on radio, as highlighted with the Dixon case.
Sanders is perplexed by this change in club policy, particularly when the Crows are self publishing in digital space and producing their own weekly television program that is shown on Channel Seven.
“I find that odd,” Sanders said.
Why do you have a big media department at the club if you can’t get your message out there?
Ricciuto is a volunteer as a Crows board member. He is highly paid as a media personality. And the Adelaide Football Club says he has the best telephone contact book in the game that is a vital asset to the Crows – and everyone answers his calls.
If Ricciuto was forced to choose between club and media – to live by the Adelaide Football Club’s old standards – he would be unlikely to give up a $500,000 annual pay cheque.
Also, Adelaide would find it more difficult with Ricciuto “outside the tent” passing his regular critiques on the Crows.
“Yes, you volunteer as a club board member, but that’s not the point,” Sanders said. “The key here is the way you become compromised by serving two masters.”
Ricciuto, Koch, Jameson, McGuire and Jimmy Bartel from the Greater Western Sydney board are all well known for being club officials while behind a microphone.
Not so obvious is how many football commentators are like Pickering in also managing players. There certainly is no disclosure during the calls that the commentators also act on behalf of one or many players on show in the match.
Geoff Kingston in the 1960s combined a top-level level football career with a start in journalism – with no shortcuts in his cadetship at The Advertiser – in 1965. Honoured with Hall of Fame status as a player at the SANFL and in the media at Adelaide Oval, he shares Sanders’ concern for how the game and its media is compromised today.
“You can’t live in the past, but it sure is good to visit every so often,” said Kingston, a 130-game player who West Torrens from 1960-1968 with honours of 15 State games, selection in the 1961 All-Australian team and the SANFL’s leading goalkicker in 1961.
Kingston “ghosted” some of the game’s biggest names as columnists when he a senior and chief football writer at The Advertiser in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion when they comment on football … or anything,” Kingston said. “But you are not entitled to your own facts.
“What we have today in football is a media populated by gossips or people who will put you to sleep with scripted answers. And worse still is you have people who are far from impartial because they are compromised by their official roles in the game.
“It is appalling how that is not being challenged.”
McGuire has built a powerful media empire while dusting off the questions on how often he is conflicted while serving as Collingwood Football Club president. He has survived controversy for his remarks that offended Sydney champion Adam Goodes. He even was unscathed after annoying the Crows during the 2011 season by accurately declaring their star young defender Phil Davis was to join the new Greater Western Sydney franchise.
“And he has created a power base in the game that stops him being challenged,” says Kingston of McGuire.
Ricciuto appears to be testing the same waters without concern for the resultant waves.
Disclaimer: The author is a freelance writer with commissions at the AFL, SANFL and Port Adelaide Football Club.
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