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Reviewing and rebuilding Adelaide Football Club

Football

Crows fans have pleaded for a thorough and fully independent review of their football club, from the top down. To ensure open disclosure from interviewees, new chairman John Olsen took this course during the summer – without a public sideshow. Michelangelo Rucci reports on the tactic being embraced by Australian football.

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“We need a review,” chant the fans when their teams hit the wall. It is always said with the tone that accompanied the Spanish Inquisition – and with the same expectation of delivering a scapegoat or two.

“You hear it,” says former Adelaide Football Club chief executive and chairman Bill Sanders, “when you are in trouble.”

But KPMG (South Australia) chairman Justin Jamieson, whose specialist team last month completed a fully independent review of the Adelaide Football Club board and management structure, questions why sporting clubs wait until doomsday seems on the horizon.

“Clive Woodward,” says Jamieson, loading up a quote from England’s 2003 rugby World Cup-winning coach, “argues you should review when you are at your best – so that you can learn what you are doing well. And keep doing it well.”

“Look what happens in sport – you win a title and get on the beers when you should be assessing what made you successful, so that you can do it again; you lose a grand final, and you go into a deep post-mortem on what went wrong.”

The Adelaide Football Club was at its best in 2017, as measured by winning the minor premiership and playing in its first AFL grand final since 1998. The so-called “Pride of South Australia” hit  bottom at the end of 2020, when the Crows collected their first wooden spoon as the last-ranked team in the 18-team national league.

Outgoing Crows CEO Andrew Fagan. Photo: David Mariuz / AAP

The Melbourne-based club that beat Adelaide for the 2017 national crown, Richmond, a year earlier had put itself through a much-admired review from accountancy firm, Ernst and Young. Another two AFL premierships have followed (2019 and 2020) with Ernst and Young advocating the Woodward approach, with regular audits of how Richmond is functioning as a successful football club. Such success has just heightened the belief among football fans that a club needs to enter review mode when its team finds rocky waters. At Richmond, Ernst and Young tore down the “silo” curse that had several departments working to their own goals rather than a club objective. The correction has built an AFL powerhouse, on and off the field.

By contrast, Adelaide reacted to the 2017 grand final loss by ramping up its association with an outside group – Collective Mind – while senior coach Don Pyke and football chief Brett Burton argued their players were falling mentally short.

The collapse of an AFL pacesetter is well documented, even if the events of the infamous 2018 pre-season camp at south-east Queensland – developed as a bespoke concept for Adelaide by Collective Mind – remain murky and loaded with contentious claims.

From a 15-1-6 win-draw-record as the competition leader in 2017, Adelaide has missed the AFL’s top-eight finals series for the past three years, winning fewer games each season: 12 in 2018, 10 in 2019 and just three in the club’s worst-ever campaign last year.

The Spanish Inquisition theme began among agitated Crows fans during the frustrating 2018 campaign that ended with chief executive Andrew Fagan undertaking a stock-standard (but to the supporters, an unconvincing) review.

“We review constantly,” Fagan said as the 2018 home-and-away season closed, “you’re actually revising things on a week-to-week basis.”

“We bring in external people to do that as well – leading sports scientists reviewing some of our high performance and sports-science departments; they were there (in 2017) and the year before. So it’s a regular part of doing business.”

However, after another disappointing season in 2019, Crows fans were wanting a true review, with independent, external eyes. Fagan called in Hawthorn legend Jason Dunstall to lead a review that included former Fremantle captain Matthew Pavlich. The  fall-out was Pyke’s seemingly forced resignation (with his telling admission he was part of the problem but not the solution) and the sackings of Burton and senior assistant coach Scott Camporeale.

But the fans – as noted with their letters to newspapers, calls to talkback radio and those testy postings across online forums – were not satisfied with the independence of this review and started questioning the leadership of chairman Rob Chapman, Fagan and football director Mark Ricciuto. Today, only Ricciuto remains at the Adelaide Football Club.

Fagan resigned on January 28, after a six-year stint, shortly after KPMG delivered its fully independent review to new chairman John Olsen. It took Olsen’s commitment to “due diligence” to deliver the fans’ wish for South Australia’s largest sporting club to be put under the microscope with external eyes turning the lenses.

Crows chairman John Olsen. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

KPMG confirmed Olsen’s understanding, from his private sessions with key stakeholders, that there was need for change. Like Pyke, Fagan is not part of the solution in a strategic refit at West Lakes where Olsen has put up a “football first” focus at a club that under Fagan’s vision moved into baseball and eSports.

As his first major act at West Lakes – after personally sitting through as many as 80 interviews with staff, players, former greats, past club leaders and key stakeholders – Olsen in December decided a more formal approach was needed to assess the Adelaide Football Club.

Enter KPMG.

“It is useful,” says Jamieson, “for an incoming chairman to have the club looked over by a fresh set of eyes.”

Sanders agrees. He was more fortunate when he became Crows chairman in 2004. His understanding of the club was built on his service as Adelaide’s inaugural chief executive from 1990 to 2001 and on the club board as a director in 2003. Olsen has entered from outside the club after a decade in football as the SANFL president and SA Football Commission chairman.

“In John’s position, as a new leader at the Adelaide Football Club, it serves him – and the club – best to get someone from the outside to review the administration,” says Sanders.

“It helps John understand the change that is needed to put the club back on the right path.”

So what are these reviews that have become fashionable in Australian football? Even in the SANFL, with North Adelaide winning a flag in 2018, months after calling in external consultants led by Port Adelaide premiership captain and former Port Adelaide chief executive Brian Cunningham. And why are accounting firms such as KPMG and Ernst and Young now preferred to review football clubs rather than a panel of former football greats such as esteemed premiership coaches David Parkin and Leigh Matthews?

“We’re more than accountants auditing the club’s books,” Jamieson said. “Over the past 20 years, the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst and Young, PricewaterhouseCooper and Deloitte) have significantly broadened their services from the traditional areas of audit and tax.

“Our management consultancy includes advising on operations, human resources, improvement in performance. We are frequently engaged by clients to take on broad-ranging reviews of their strategic and operational performance.”

These accounting firms now have on staff as many specialist consultants as there are accountants. The consultancy growth at KPMG in the past 20 years coincides with reviews becoming a powerful lever at AFL clubs, as noted with Geelong in 2006 when chief executive Brian Cook put the Cats’ underachieving football program – and coach Mark Thompson – under an intense microscope from inside the “bubble”; and in 2016 when Richmond put itself under the scrutiny of outside experts at Ernst and Young.

Those in the business of football have followed those in big corporate business by moving from internal reviews to opening their doors to outside analysts.

Cunningham is not surprised that in a multimillion-dollar environment such as AFL football the national league clubs have moved to independent, external reviews.

“Club members have great expectations with reviews,” said Cunningham. “At the end, they will say: ‘Tell us what it is all about’. But sometimes (as with Olsen’s KPMG review) there are things that must remain confidential if the review is to work. And that is when the fans start to think, ‘The club is telling us nothing, so it must be bad’. That becomes a challenging moment for a club seeking to be seen as transparent to its membership and supporters.

“An independent review carries more weight for credibility,” added Cunningham. “And when the review is done by KPMG, with the skill set such a noted company has, that extra credibility is comforting to the club’s board of directors.

“Football clubs are no longer these small, tight-knit organisations with a management committee that is involved every day, sitting in the grandstand or social club during training nights and making decisions in what was known as the ‘smoke-filled’ board room.

“They are big organisations where the board is there for strategic decisions – and it  leaves the policy to be enacted by the staff. If it goes wrong, the directors will be held responsible. And, in the worst-case scenario, if there is a court hearing, holding a review paper from KPMG is going to carry authority.”

KPMG delivered its report on the Adelaide Football Club to Olsen in mid-January. It was KPMG’s second independent review at the club, following the company’s 2013 study of the governance breakdown between the board and front office during the infamous Kurt Tippett salary cap bungle with the key forward’s contract.

The finer details of that review were – despite earlier promises – never put to Crows members, with Chapman sealing that document on legal grounds.

Jamieson will not – by the need to protect confidentiality – reveal the finer details of the process or conclusions and recommendations of his team’s recent review at West Lakes.

He would only speak on the broader aspect of how external review have become a phenomenon in Australian football in the past 20 years.

“Best practice has you consult widely,” Jamieson said. “You seek out the right number of stakeholders who make up a football club. One of the real benefits of a review is to gather those different views that exist on how an organisation is performing or acting to meet its objectives, both from individuals and as a collective.

“At the end, you are answering these questions – how is everyone going to get better; is the (club’s) approach the right one; is the strategy right?

“The ultimate aim is to be successful. Achieving sustained success is hard. It does require you constantly challenge yourself to look at how things are being done and how your rivals in the competition are acting to lift standards. You also need a culture that encourages people to drive the change that is necessary to maintains success.

“Successful clubs will constantly ask of themselves, ‘How are we doing? Are we prepared to change? Will we make the hard decisions?'”

Sanders revealed to InDaily he was among the 30 people – inside and outside the club and its boardroom – who were consulted. He felt at ease through the sessions. That is not always the case with key club servants, particularly those who have worked under intense pressure while the Crows have failed in the past three AFL seasons – and know the fans want them to be accountable for the club’s disappointing results.

“I was impressed,” said Sanders of his session. “He (Jamieson) had a fair handle on it all.”

Jamieson remains silent when asked of the receptions he – as an “outsider” – gathered while virtually putting a mirror before some highly-strained club servants, including board members. Review leaders from other external consultants at other AFL clubs note there will be an uncomfortable resistance initially from some interviewees. In some cases, as with Thompson at Geelong in 2006, the stone wall never crumbles.

“Difficult, really difficult,” Cook later described the review. Thompson called it “crap” even though Geelong ended a 44-year premiership drought within 12 months of the review changing core parts of the club’s football department, including Thompson’s work duties.

Gaining – and holding – the trust of every interviewee is critical for a successful outcome to the recommendations in a review’s report.

“We all get defensive when we are told we are under review – it is a natural instinct,” Jamieson said. “Look at what happened to the relationship between Brian Cook and Mark Thompson during that review at Geelong in 2006 – but 12 months later they are both celebrating a premiership.”

This tension also was noted at Port Adelaide in the early 2000s when football director Tony Hobby, a former player and assistant coach during the club’s AFL era, looked at coach Mark Williams’ football program with searching questions after the slip-ups – the repetitive “choking” – in finals series across 2001-2003 before the breakthrough AFL flag in 2004. The tension between Hobby and Williams was intense at times, as it was for Cook and Thompson.

Reviews also require the interviewees to be brave in their responses, as was noted at Port Adelaide during it collapse late in the 2000s decade when premiership player Matthew Bishop boldly detailed the disconnect between the football staff and the front-office administration. It became known as the “upstairs-downstairs” syndrome at Alberton – and Bishop was brave enough to go through the “uncomfortable” process of detailing the breakdown at a club tumbling into a financial abyss.

“Good organisations – not just football clubs – will open themselves up to make sure a review works,” Jamieson said. “It is important it be objective and independent. That can be achieved internally.”

The key question – particularly with fans – is which review, internal or external, will carry greater confidence and credibility?

Cunningham has seen the review process from inside a football club and also from the outside with his consultancy firm. Sanders never brought external agencies into the Adelaide Football Club for his reviews during the 1990s.

“Review in the 1990s,” said Sanders, “meant an annual appraisal of the staff to assess salaries and bonuses. It also gave you the opportunity to move on staff who didn’t measure up to expectations.

“By the 2000s reviews were done if you did not feel comfortable with how the club was performing.

“Now, AFL clubs are such big organisations – big operations with an average $60 million annual turnover and, before COVID, big staff with as many as 150 at some clubs that you can understand why a board would call in people like KPMG to review the operations.”

Cunningham recalls Port Adelaide’s rise to the AFL in 1997 in the same way.

“You never saw an independent review in the 1990s at an AFL club,” he said. “Now it is almost commonplace and the Richmond example is quoted often as to why AFL clubs should not fear opening themselves up to independent reviews.

“AFL club boards – unlike those management committees of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – are not close to the day-to-day business of their clubs. Setting up a review allows the directors to understand what is not working, what needs to change – and it holds people accountable. It is the responsibility of the board to ensure there is that scrutiny.”

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