In February, John Olsen was stepping away from football administration – after a decade as SANFL president – and joining the biggest guessing game in town: Who would be the next Crows chairman?
At the end of August, Olsen was the unexpected – but logical – answer.
“And stunned,” says Olsen of the telephone call from Adelaide Football Club deputy chairman Jim Hazel.
A man who made his name in state and federal politics, serving as State Premier from 1996-2001, Olsen has repeatedly noted “there is more politics in football than in politics”.
There also are more factions – known in the game as “stakeholders” that range from members, fans, sponsors, league headquarters in Melbourne, SANFL clubs, former players and former club leaders – to satisfy in football than in politics. There also is, once again, a bank to serve with the new financing needed amid the COVID pandemic.
But there is one clear agenda with 75-year-old Olsen who will not have the luxury of a nine- or 12-year term granted to most AFL club presidents, including his predecessor Rob Chapman who was Adelaide chairman for a record 13 years.
“We are a football club – and that will be our focus,” Olsen told InDaily in his first week as Crows chairman after being formally elected to the role last Friday.
Refocusing the club
Olsen’s heavy emphasis on the “Football” in the club’s name is more than deliberate. From the outside, Olsen – like many others with deep roots in South Australian football – have taken to questioning what the Crows have come to represent three decades after entering the AFL as the flag-bearer of South Australian football (as much as this title annoys the Port Adelaide alternative).
For the past five years, the Adelaide Football Club – the one-time jewel of the old SANFL – has built an empire under the day-to-day leadership of chief executive Andrew Fagan. The Crows have ventured into national baseball, eSports and lifestyle media with the club’s 2019 accounts showing $2 million (about three per cent of total turnover) made from non-football activities. They even wanted to move into NBL basketball through a partnership with the 36ers.
As one long-standing Crows servant has said, Adelaide has become commercially stronger but culturally weaker under this empire-building strategy. It also has fallen in AFL standings – to last of 18 for the first time in the club’s 30-year history.
While Fagan and his executive will say non-football ventures have never distracted the AFL club – that is without an AFL flag since the 1997-98 double – nor consumed its resources, Olsen is determined no-one ever poses the question again.
Chief operating officer Nigel Smart, the master of the Crows eSports conglomerate, this week left the Adelaide Football Club after 29 years’ service telling InDaily he is still copping questions on the video gaming business – even from his premiership team-mates.
Olsen wants answers, with a business review of these non-football ventures – a prudent move amid a pandemic.
Not in question is how the Crows are to be in tune with AFL, AFLW and SANFL. “Our core function will be football; winning games of football, winning finals … that needs to be our focus,” says Olsen. “We are a football club.
“Football must never be secondary to alternative revenue streams.”
Inside Olsen’s ascension
By August, seemingly everyone inside South Australian football had been asked of their interest in succeeding Rob Chapman – former AFL chief executive Wayne Jackson, former Adelaide chief executive Steven Trigg, Glenelg president and SANFL football legend Peter Carey, former Crows board member Peter Hurley and Crows premiership ruckman David Pittman. All declined. Inaugural chief executive and former chairman Bill Sanders, 78, wished he was younger and stronger for a second stint.
Externally, there was 36ers owner Grant Kelley putting up his hand – and being soundly rebuffed – while banker Jamie McPhee commanded speculation along with Adelaide-based businesswoman and company director Caroline Hewson.
Internally, Brownlow Medallist Mark Ricciuto and fellow board member Kate Ellis were often described as successors but they were not.
Olsen admits the Crows chairmanship was a long-standing “ambition”. But many saw the life-long West Adelaide fan as more “kingmaker” than “king” while differing quarters of Adelaide society and South Australian football sought to find Chapman’s successor with their own powerplays.
As obvious as Olsen was for the role, everyone kept looking to others.
Then the phone rang.
“Would you be prepared to be chair of the Crows?” asked Hazel, the leader of Adelaide’s nominations committee that deals with screening the candidates for the club’s nine-person board.
Olsen’s heart was in for the non-paying job. His mind was more practical.
“I need to work through some issues,” replied Olsen, who had just accepted the national presidency of the federal Liberal Party, a role that is less demanding than the presidency of the state Liberal party – a position he managed while serving as SANFL president.
“Were there any conflicts of interest? Was I the right person? I asked for a week (to consider the role),” Olsen added.
Olsen took two weeks to work through his own questions. He consulted both inside and outside football but, surprisingly, not former Victorian Premier and current Hawthorn Football Club president Jeff Kennett who last week was re-elected to extend his second coming with the Melbourne-based AFL club.
“I spoke to another club president, but not Jeff… as state premiers we were very close allies, we are friends, but I wanted an external view from someone with a different mindset to the one Jeff and I share,” Olsen said.
Those two weeks of consultation left Olsen with more questions – and he asked for another week to consider the demands of leading South Australia’s biggest sporting club where decisions are often more scrutinised in public than those Olsen made as the state’s 42nd Premier.
He met Chapman twice. He sat through one board meeting. And, most critically for due diligence, he sought the reports from the infamous 2018 Collective Mind pre-season camp on the Gold Coast, the “external” review led by Hawthorn great Jason Dunstall at the end of the 2018 season and the club’s financials.
“I took six weeks to thoroughly think through this,” Olsen said. “I was – and am – delighted to have been asked; I am honoured to do this and I intend to tackle the responsibility with enthusiasm.”
Not one of Olsen’s confidants advised him to join the long list of men and women declining the high-profile role – a position which would have left Chapman compelled to see out his term until February 2022 and longer if the COVID pandemic left more and more potential candidates reluctant to step up during challenging times.
The AFL Commission that holds the one and only vote recognised in the club’s constitution did not get involved in Adelaide’s push for 75-year-old Olsen. League headquarters knows very well how Olsen wisely led the SANFL through the challenges of wiping out record debt, selling the Football Park land package, releasing the Crows and Port Adelaide licences to the AFL and endorsing AFL reserves teams in the state league.
“Everyone said I should do it,” said Olsen. “The common response was it would be a good outcome for all involved.”
His wife Julie, who thought the farewell party at the SANFL in February marked the definitive exit from football politics, “rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders… and said,” as Olsen recalls it: “Here we go again.”
Perception versus reality
Former Crows football boss John Reid once noted nothing is ever as good nor as bad as publicly stated of the Adelaide Football Club.
For now, even after reading the club’s internal reports, Olsen says it is “too early” to work through where external perception and internal reality sits with the Crows. He does question – after reading internal reports rather than media accounts – why the Collective Mind training camp became a saga loaded with extraordinary claims as to how some Crows players were treated by an external group.
Olsen continues, as he puts it, to absorb the “download” of information from one-on-one meetings with key folk inside and outside the clubhouse.
“What I do know is that in the past 12 months this club has made the tough decisions,” Olsen said. “And the benefits of those tough calls are playing out now. The announcements on the changes to the football department are a credit to the board I join.
“The financial independence the club has kept as one of five AFL clubs without a financial lifeline to league headquarters is very important.
“The decisions made to restructure our costs are timely to deal with the COVID pandemic. The benefits will play out next year and the year after.”
Adelaide was expecting to take an $8 million hit from the pandemic that this season denied the Crows the chance to play home games to full houses at the 53,500-seat Adelaide Oval. It will be, at worst, $6 million, putting the Crows back in debt – manageable debt – after clearing the red ink from its books last year.
After building a reputation as a “debt buster” at the SANFL, Olsen says he will not make clearing liabilities an overwhelming priority at the expense of funding Adelaide’s football program and member facilities. He will spend where it is a necessity to rebuild the Adelaide Football Club to serve its football and member needs.
The Olsen agenda: football and fans
Olsen’s agenda is very clear.
“Our task,” Olsen says of the board’s responsibility, “is to make sure the football department is supported to get top performances from our teams.
“And to engage with our members and fans. That includes working towards a new headquarters in the CBD.”
Football will be at the centre of Olsen’s manifesto that will focus on “building our standing, our reputation and the respect the Adelaide Football Club earns on and off the field”.
Rebuilding Adelaide’s status as an AFL powerhouse – and repeatedly challenging for the league premiership – starts this month in the trade market and next month at the national draft table where the Crows will hold its best cache of picks in 30 years.
In question – particularly when list manager Justin Reid has been under fire, even from club premiership captain Mark Bickley – is how the Crows will capitalise in a heavily compromised draft pool of young talent. For the first time, Adelaide has the prized No.1 pick and could potentially make five calls in the first 25 picks on December 7.
“I am impressed by (senior coach) Matthew Nicks and I know from my time at the SANFL that (Crows football boss) Adam Kelly is a gem,” Olsen said. “So that gives me confidence that the club will be served very well in what is a critical phase. This is a really important moment for our club.”
Adelaide was the major loser in the move from Football Park at West Lakes – where Crows members had for two decades enjoyed the social aspects of club life at “The Shed” – to the redeveloped Adelaide Oval in 2014. Fagan’s call to close the Crows museum at the club’s multimillion-dollar West Lakes facility also denied the members a meeting point – and a place of pride while reflecting on the club’s heritage. This walk through history is now being turned into an official website.
The COVID pandemic put an end to Adelaide seeking permission from the Adelaide City Council to remodel – with a $60 million budget including $15 million from the Federal Government – the Aquatic Centre and nearby parklands at North Adelaide for an administrative headquarters, social base and training facility.
Olsen will this month seek to have a working party consider six to eight potential sites and ultimately determine the best option in or close the CBD. This could include the Showgrounds at Wayville, Thebarton Oval and possibly, still, North Adelaide.
The West End brewing site on Port Road, Thebarton, also will draw attention, but land developers are more likely to prefer converting the vast area along the River Torrens with high-end accommodation rather than a football club with two training ovals.
Olsen has vowed to listen more than he speaks. He has been overwhelmed by the text messages he has received from so many people who connect to the Adelaide Football Club. He will reach out to club greats such as Andrew McLeod who this year declared his despair from his disconnect to the club where most recently he has been an AFLW team assistant coach to Matthew Clarke.
“We have so many people who love this football club – and I want to talk with them,” Olsen said. “I want to listen, I want to understand their views on the football club.
“I want a fan base that is more engaged with its club and more enthused by the performances of their players, their team – and I want our club to have the best shot of winning every football game we play.
“If we get the base right, we will get the outcomes we all want for the Adelaide Football Club.”
This agenda has filled Olsen’s diary. He has a long list of one-on-one meetings with key staff and key stakeholders. He is putting his face to every critical session with people who want to be involved in a Crows revival.
“All the club executives, all the key stakeholders, all the sponsors, everyone on the board – and more,” Olsen said. “And in two years we will reach a point of judgment – one where I expect people will see our key objective is with the football department, making sure we are delivering a football program to make us the best we can be on the football field.”
At the same time, Olsen expects his successor will be obvious. There should not be a grand guessing game to repeat this year’s events.
“I will always have that in mind,” Olsen said. “We will address the skills set we need in the (nine-person) board.
“It is just critical that I encourage an alternative leader to emerge so that – should there be need for a new chairman at any time – the board has continuity with our objectives and operations.”
Olsen does not expect his tenure to be more than four years.
“And then, my next job,” said Olsen, “will be whatever my wife Julie wants to do.”
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