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AFL survives but will be changed forever


A football season like none before ends on Saturday. Michelangelo Rucci speaks to an AFL club leader who says “survival” mode must make way for “consolidation” – and there can be no certainty on when the game can grow again.

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Australian football is already planning for 2021, increasingly hoping to avoid a repeat of 2020. But, as this season proved, any optimistic outlook could quickly fall out of the AFL’s control.

The 2020 script is more likely to roll on. COVID protocols. Hubs or fly-in, fly-out? Floating fixtures. Half capacity at AFL venues. Staff cuts. Debt. Hard borders.

“And with a lot of uncertainty – even fear,” says Port Adelaide chief executive Keith Thomas, who next Saturday (October 31) will – as planned before the COVID pandemic – leave his desk at Alberton after a demanding decade in AFL club administration.

His final year in club administration repeated the agenda of the first in 2011 – keeping Port Adelaide afloat, but against an external threat rather than a failed business model.

Thomas expects 2021 to remain just as challenging for everyone in the AFL and all of Australian football. And just as uncertain.

“We have had to deal with staff asking when does everything return to as it was (before the pandemic)… I can’t give an answer,” Thomas said. “Everyone wants certainty: it is something you can’t give today.”

Thomas has been here before. He took up the Port Adelaide job in 2011 when staff and players were unsure if they would get paid and fans were questioning if their debt-ridden club would keep its AFL licence. He leaves with the entire 18-team national league having endured the same survival mode against the threat posed by the COVID-19 virus.

Thomas also has once before worked through a hygiene “pandemic” that shut down Port Adelaide’s administrative and training headquarters at Alberton in 2018 – and forced the players off-site.

The Norwood SANFL premiership hero will depart Australian football – after four decades in the game – taking lessons that go well beyond the way the big-money AFL has been left vulnerable to an unseen enemy.

“This has been a life-changing year – not just for our club, every AFL club, our game; it has been life-changing for everyone, everywhere,” Thomas said.

Elite Australian football will finish the AFL season with the pandemic leaving $100 million of new debt on the league’s and 18 clubs’ books. This is far better than the original estimate of $400 million forecast at the end of March when the league went into its 12-week shutdown hoping it would “find a way” to Saturday’s AFL grand final, at the Gabba in Brisbane rather than the MCG – and at night for the first time.

“The debt across the league is significant,” Thomas told InDaily. “Not as bad as first feared. From our club’s point of view at Port Adelaide (that carried a $7 million debt profile out of 2019), the new debt is manageable. Given what we have been through this year, this is reassuring…”

Some Victorian-based clubs – with income streams wrecked with the lock-out of fans from March and no home games from June – were facing frightening projections of debt reaching as much as $41 million, particularly if the race for the AFL premiership did not restart.

Port Adelaide lost major revenue gains that were expected from celebrating the club’s 150th anniversary season – one that produced the Power’s best on-field results since 2007, ending with a preliminary final exit to the defending AFL champion Richmond last Friday night. Playing to restricted crowds at Adelaide Oval denied Port Adelaide the turnstile spoils of having the league’s best-performed team during the home-and-away season.

At Adelaide, outgoing Crows chairman Rob Chapman notes eight years of clearing debt – a campaign that last year took all the red ink off his club’s books – has been wiped out by COVID. Adelaide, which for the first time ranked last on the field, could report a loss of $8 million with the AFL financial year closing next Saturday (October 31).

But the Crows will be one of five AFL clubs – the so-called “unassisted club” – financing their debt by a bank loan rather than out of the league’s $600 million line of credit. The others will be Collingwood, Hawthorn, Richmond and West Coast.

All 18 AFL clubs will resume in season 2021 with the league’s strong line of credit ensuring no team will collapse under debt.

“We have survived,” Thomas said. “All of us…

“The game of Australian football stood up… and it also has suffered. We have had reinforced to us just how important our game is to the Australian people. The game has great resilience.

“But we also have lost many good people from the game. There is a price you pay for that – and we are still to see it. You can’t reduce staff numbers by 20-40 per cent and maintain what we had built before the pandemic.

“We survived – and we have new debt. Now we have to move into an era of consolidation in football. The game is now working through the need to reduce staff in football departments and the front-office administration, proposals to cut player list sizes and the salary cap. The growth agenda of recent time – women’s footy, community projects, China – also needs to be tempered. Not abandoned, but carefully managed.

“We need to prepare for the economic hit that is coming. For at least the next two or three years – and, as I said before, that timeframe to clear COVID is uncertain – we have to absorb the debt. We need to consolidate before we can think of moving forward again.

“It is not just football that needs to get back to an even footing before it can grow again. The economic impact to the community is tough – and will continue for some time.”

The paucity of fans on match days this year has reinforced where the soul of the game really lies. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

Thomas was caught in Australian football’s first casualty with the COVID pandemic on March 4. The fourth edition of the Port Adelaide international game in Shanghai, China – this time against St Kilda – was cancelled while travel to the nation that first reported the COVID pandemic posed a serious health risk.

“We were quite naive at the start (of the pandemic),” Thomas said. “Even when we made the decision to cancel that match in Shanghai, we still looked at COVID as predominantly a China problem.

“The following week I was in Whyalla – for the pre-season game against the Western Bulldogs – and met with representatives of the federal government to continue our talks on another club project. When they projected the pandemic was destined to move beyond China and Italy and would hit Australia, potentially putting our economy in recession by June, the penny dropped hard. Real hard. It was best to prepare for a pretty sizeable hit on our game too.

“We were very naive in thinking we would not be affected.

“From the moment the pandemic put the AFL season on hold on the first Sunday of the home-and-away season on March 22, we had a game and 18 clubs in survival mode. And this is where we saw the value in the clarity of leadership. All across the league, we asked, ‘What are we prepared to do?’ And we addressed every option – finishing in December; a reduced season; shorter games … everything was on the table. Absolutely everything.

“As the AFL said, we would find a way. The key questions were – what needs to be done; how do we embrace this challenge; where are there opportunities … and what hit are we needing to absorb?

“Not in question was our mindset. Our objective was clear – this season was going to happen. And we had to be ready for anything, including being locked out of Victoria.”

After a 12-week shutdown, the AFL resumed with the clubs each facing 17 home-and-away games rather than the well-established model of 22 matches. Quarters were reduced from 20 minutes plus time-on to 16 with time-on. Games also were played in quick succession – the “compressed” festival of footy.

Much of this could be repeated next year.

The silver lining in this dark chapter is the reassuring note on how enormously resilient Australian football is

Season 2018 did prepare Thomas for the protocols demanded by health authorities dealing with the uncertainty of the COVID virus. There was a similar hygiene scare at Alberton that year.

“A very scary one too,” Thomas said. “We were thrown into crisis mode with our thinking. The health of our people became the No.1 priority. It was a mini-version of COVID with hospital-grade cleaning of our facility and players kept off site.”

But even this experience does not fully prepare anyone for the COVID pandemic.

In late 2018, Thomas was averting Port Adelaide members abandoning their seats at Adelaide Oval to take issue with on-field results while Ken Hinkley’s team failed to grasp a top-eight finals berth. This year, with Port Adelaide claiming the minor premiership, Thomas and his staff had a fight to get greater access for Power members to the Oval while SA Health imposed constantly changing restrictions on crowd capacity.

“When I arrived in 2011, we had members who had voted with their feet, staying away from games to declare how agitated they were with the club and where we were at,” Thomas said. “It was not dissimilar in 2018 or last year. The members and Port Adelaide community were well connected to their club, but also knew how to make their feelings known to the club’s leaders.

“This year, they reaffirmed just what this football club means to them. They understood the club was at risk. They immediately responded by holding their membership money with the club,” added Thomas of a theme that has resonated across the national league.

“In 2011 at Port Adelaide, we had to convince our members that change was afoot and we were listening to their demand for the club to return to core values. This year, the message on what the club means to the Port Adelaide community has been heard even stronger – and with greater appreciation.”

The soul of the game

The absence of fans on match days at Adelaide Oval and during training sessions at Alberton, has reinforced where the real soul of Australian football lies during an era of the increased attention for the corporate dollar.

“It is in our fans, in their passion and the atmosphere they create at our games – and for the broadcasters on both radio and television,” Thomas said. “We certainly would never take the fans for granted. Nor the energy they create at our games and how special their presence is at our venues.

“What this pandemic does is make us more grateful for how the fans enhance the game. You will hear coaches and players say they try to block out the influence of a crowd. Some (such as Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley in Perth during the first weekend of the AFL finals) will downplay the dynamics a crowd has on the game. But it is not true; you can’t do that at all – the power of the fans in the crowd is too strong.”

So is the game of Australian football itself, says Thomas.

“The silver lining in this dark chapter is the reassuring note on how enormously resilient Australian football is,” Thomas said. “The important reminder to the people in positions of responsibility is the love the Australian people have for their game.

“As a club, we have learned the importance of leadership to achieve success in challenging circumstances – and the strong personal connections that are needed, particularly when the COVID protocols put distance between us. This requires honesty, transparency and a strong collective purpose. It has worked for us at Port Adelaide.

“Every AFL club has been forced to think very carefully on how to engage with its members and partners. We have had to reinvent how we stay connected. We have been caught in a game of survival that has tested us all to be innovative and more accessible, despite the COVID barriers.

“And when we move back to what we knew as the ‘old normal’ we will have these new methods to add to the old. We can work with the best of both worlds.”

Thomas will be away from the day-to-day football world at Port Adelaide from the close of the AFL financial year on October 31. He did speak with club president David Koch in April offering to stay on for 12 months to offer stability and experience in testing times.

“It looked really hairy in April – and I was prepared to steady the ship for another 12 months into 2021,” Thomas said. “I left that with David to consider for a couple of months … and the board then came back with the thought we had stabilised. So I will take a breather now.”

Thomas’ successor and those who will remain in “AFL club land” for season 2021 will work to smaller budgets, with reduced staff and with great uncertainty while the COVID virus exists.

“The game survived the Great Depression in the 1930s and two World Wars,” said Thomas. “Our modern generation is facing a level of hardship we have never experienced before. This is a life-changing moment.”


Aged 59 (September 1, 1961)

Currently (until the end of the month) Port Adelaide Football Club chief executive. Joined PAFC in 2011 after previously serving on the board at SANFL club Norwood.

Played 304 SANFL league games with Norwood (1979-1986 and 1989-1993) and 28 VFL-AFL matches with Fitzroy (1987-1988).

SA Football Hall of Fame inductee; SANFL premiership player, 1982 and 1984; Jack Oatey Medallist as best-afield in 1984 SANFL grand final; Norwood best-and-fairest champion in 1985.

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