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The silver lining in Crows rebuild


When he arrived in Adelaide last year to take the Crows’ helm, Tim Silvers had been warned by others to expect a “broken, arrogant” club. He tells Michelangelo Rucci about his low-profile rebooting.

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Tim Silvers is in his 15th month as chief executive of the Adelaide Football Club, South Australia’s biggest sporting entity.

He has remarkably kept a low profile – or, more to the point, marked his position at the opposing extreme to his predecessor, Andrew Fagan.

“I am a humble leader,” says Silvers who with his neat casual dress appears far from the Saville Row style of the immaculate Fagan.

In his first 15 months, Silvers publicly has been quoted far less than Fagan was in his first 15 weeks. There certainly is no social media library as Fagan created. And the public positioning is not the only contrast.

Where the museum was taken away at the West Lakes clubhouse and office walls and corridors made bare, Silvers has restored images of the club’s heroes and famous moments.

“We have 32 years of history, how can we connect better with our past?” explains Silver of his repositioning of the Crows. “We recognise where we came from, we make our present people understand that history because it will help us chart our future.”

Silvers, 45, is the fourth chief executive in 32 years at the Crows, following South Australian pair Bill Sanders (1991-2001) and Steven Trigg (2002-2015) and Adelaide-born New South Welshman Fagan (2015-2021).

He is the first since Sanders needing to put together an elite football club delivered through a storm.

Crows chair John Olsen and CEO Tim Silvers. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

“What did I find (on arrival in March last year)? The impression I got, especially from people at the AFL and the industry, was that this was going to be a broken club … a bit of an arrogant club.”

Perception and reality are often out of alignment when it comes to the Adelaide Football Club. But not in doubt was how Silvers intended to lead the refit of the Crows off the field while they were being rebuilt on the park. It is all about that much-quoted but little understood notion of culture in football.

“It is the way you act; the way a group of people act; the way they do things,” answers Silvers.

“What is the change in this footy club? I am a humble leader. I am a passionate person. I am football first. I want success. I am competitive. And I think I know from my history what makes a footy club tick – and I think our culture is starting to change.

“Not that I am saying it was in a bad way, but (the club culture) is more reflective of our current leadership. (Senior coach) Matthew Nicks, prioritises others. It is about having care, having respect. Honesty, trust and respect are my three key pillars. I believe that is filtering through our club.”

Silvers is the first Victorian charged with leading the Adelaide Football Club’s day-to-day management. He knows how South Australians feels about Victorians, particularly in football.

“I’ve watched the 1997 documentary (of the Crows’ first AFL premiership) with the ‘Kick a Vic’ theme which actually made me smile,” says Silvers. “I get that. I get the passion of South Australians. I am part of this club, a custodian. I am passionate to do the best I can for this club. People know I have a passion for the club and I want the best for it.”

The impression I got, especially from people at the AFL and the industry, was that this was going to be a broken club … a bit of an arrogant club

At the Crows’ annual members information meeting at Adelaide Oval in early March, when Silvers was marking his first anniversary as Adelaide FC chief executive, former federal senator Chris Schacht continued his crusade against the Melbourne-based AFL Commission having control of the club’s AFL licence. He said, “I don’t trust Victorians in football.”

“I let that roll off me … I don’t let that (suspicion of Victorians) affect me,” said Silvers..

Who is Tim Silvers?

Born in Victoria in 1976 as the eldest of four, Silvers grew up finding sport was the best way to make new friends and connect in a new locale while the family home kept shifting. His entrepreneurial father Tom tried several business options until the Silvers family settled in Melbourne when Tim was aged 15.

“We lived in a variety of places in Victoria and then moved to Queensland; the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane,” Silvers said. “It was a bit of a challenge in some ways growing up going to new schools and new places. But the best way for me to integrate was by sporting clubs.

“So that is where my love of sport came. I played soccer. I played whatever the school played. But footy was always my passion. I played footy all through Queensland as well.”

And his AFL team was St Kilda.

“My parents always barracked for St Kilda. My mother Kaye went to the 1966 grand final and kept her ticket,” Silvers said. “They would travel the country to watch all St Kilda games.

“We lived close to Moorabbin so it was part of going there every weekend. I remember cold, muddy days … the legends, Tony Lockett, Nicky Winmar. It was sad that St Kilda never had great success in my lifetime. So close a few times, but that is just footy.”

Unable to join his heroes on the field, Silvers put himself on the path to being a football club administrator – even if at times he had to take a step back in his professional status to advance his dream of working in the AFL.

“I studied sports management, had a commerce degree, completed a certified public accountant course and had a passion for sport,” Silvers said. “I worked at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre that had just opened at the time. I worked there for a few years, but I always wanted to get into the AFL.

“That was my first job, then a job at Hawthorn came up. It was going backwards in terms of my career. But just to get my foot in the door, I jumped at it.”

At 26, Silvers became the payroll manager at the Hawthorn Football Club. It was 2004 and the once-proud Hawks were on their knees, with Silvers to witness at close hand one of the most-successful rebuilds in Australian football history – experiences that had Adelaide head hunt him as Fagan’s successor.

“In my first six months, the chief executive resigned,” Silvers recalled. “The coach (Peter Schwab) was moved on. There was a potential overthrow of Ian Dicker as the president by Don Scott. Jason Dunstall came in as the interim chief executive and made the bold call to bring in Alastair Clarkson as coach.

“There were all these Hawthorn legends going for the coaching job at the time, so it was very bold decision to appoint Alastair. In my first month of ‘Clarko’ coming in, he basically moved nearly the entire footy department out and it was a full reset. A new footy manager came in, a new coach, a new chief executive and Ian Dicker, who did a great job for a long time, left for Jeff Kennett to come in not long after.

“My passion was to get in the AFL – and my first six months at Hawthorn, well … my head was spinning. But it was great. I liked the ups and downs. There was a lot of downs at the start. There was a crowd of 11,000 against Port Adelaide in 2004.

“The club had won a flag in 1991 and nearly merged with Melbourne in 1996. It felt like Hawthorn was on its knees a little bit. But if you get the right people in the right spots, these things can turn.”

The similarities with Adelaide at the end of 2020 – when the Crows were holding their first AFL wooden spoon – are not lost on Silvers. Nor did it scare him to take up the chance to succeed Fagan, even if there were the warnings from AFL headquarters of a “broken club”, and the uncertainty of a Pandora’s box finally exploding with external, government-run investigations into the Crows 2018 pre-season camp.

We were on the bare bones of our arse in a lot of ways and we had $4.5 million of debt. How were we going to reset and rebuild?

“What I did find,” says Silvers,”is a club that through COVID lost 40 per cent of our staff. There were enormous cuts. The people who remained – and there was a lot of good people still here – were potentially overworked, under-utilised a little bit for their skills and maybe even underpaid.

“So it was about trying to rebuild this club – give it a football-first focus.

“We had lost so many staff that we were on the bare bones of our arse in a lot of ways – and we had $4.5 million of debt. How were we going to reset and rebuild? From my end, it started with an 18-month strategy taking into account COVID issues. Focus on footy.

“Rebuild the men’s program. Look for sustained success in the women’s program. But solely focus on footy. So some of those decisions around (cutting) eSports and baseball were difficult in some ways for the staff who were quite connected to those parts of the club. However, when you have only half of your original workforce, it was an easy management decision. There might be some long-term future in those non-footy (operations), but I just did not see the advantage in the short term.

“I wanted to focus on the people. People make good footy clubs. So I started a people-first approach. I got to know as much as I could about the current staff we have; their aspirations, what their ambitions were and tried to build a club by building roles that got them to perform at their optimum.

“I also got really involved in the footy program. Deep down, that is what you are going to be judged on. I walked into a club that had lost 13 in a row the year before, had some real challenges and had gone into a rebuild … but I found it a pretty good culture within the playing group.

“The spirit was higher than I thought. Matthew Nicks is a wonderful leader. He is very engaging. He had the playing group supporting him. We seemed to have a very good mix of assistant coaches. They are different personalities – Scott Burns who is the old, wise owl; Nathan van Berlo who is a great person with a great footy brain and James Rahilly coming from Geelong with wonderful experience.

“Next was adding and creating more depth in our footy program. We thought we needed support in terms of growing the fitness side of the program. So we brought in Darren Burgess and Sam Dodge in the first six months.”

But the infamous camp?

“It happened in 2018. I came in and it was (still being discussed) in 2021,” Silvers said. “From my end, I got a briefing right at the start. ‘Tell me about the camp, give me all the information. There is a WorkSafe investigation, so keep me up to speed.’

“I just wanted to start by flicking a new page. I was curious. I got the information. I got the facts. But I did not want to delve into our past too much. That was a tough moment for this club and we have been bashed from pillar to post. By my coming in, (chairman) John Olsen and Matthew Nicks, there was an opportunity to recognise it had happened and it was not a great moment for this club. But we are going to move forward.

“We have new objectives, new aims – we need to get past the camp. It was a challenge because there was still the finalisation of the WorkSafe investigation. Thankfully that came to a head not long after I started. I wanted to move past it.

“We have done this to death. I knew a lot about it from Victoria, through the Melbourne media. There was such an appetite for more information. I get how the media works. That was a big story, but it was a long time ago and people have had their careers ruined because of it.”

Silvers’ agenda at West Lakes is widespread and includes finding a new home away from West Lakes. But ultimately, as he has noted, it will be about the results on the football field.

“I know the rhetoric is we are starting to stall (with the rebuild),” Silvers said. “But my view is that these things take time. I have been part of a successful rebuild (at Hawthorn). When you make the decision, you need to stay the course.”

Off field, Silvers has a clear vision.

“Our priority is to restore respect for this club, in this town and in this competition,” Silvers said. “We have taken a little hit over the last period of time. We have made a tough decision to rebuild, after we had never gone through a rebuild before. We have to get the right people in the right seats to deliver the ultimate success.

“We are currently building a new five-year strategic plan we would like to launch at the end of this year. It is about coming out of COVID. That is going to be based on building respect. We want to be a destination club and we want to be successful both on and off the field. We want people to come and want to work for us.

“We will have a really positive year financially. We are well and truly back in the black.  We held our expenses and tempered our expectations around crowds and membership. So we have reduced our cost base significantly. It is the way for us to be profitable this year. We are looking to pay a major portion of that debt before the end of the year.”

Adelaide’s home crowds have fallen to a record low averaging 31,491 in seven games this season. The biggest for a home game was 39,190 at the home Showdown on April 1; the lowest was 22,859 at the last outing on June 4 against West Coast.

In the pre-COVID era, Fagan noted he would not sleep if Adelaide’s home attendance figure ever fell to less than 45,000.

“I am disappointed with where the crowds are at,” Silver said. “There is no way that should have come to that. However, we are coming through a global pandemic. We have to understand there are challenges with getting people back to the footy. My view is the best way to consume footy is to be there, see it, feel the contest. But people have had a different lifestyle over the past couple of years and habits have changed.

“We need to get people back to the footy to remind them of the great and wonderful match-day experience. We need to invest as a club and as an industry on finding other ways to attract people back to the footy because once they are there, we have the product to sell.

“It is just about getting people back to the footy. Our membership is still pretty strong (more than 60,000 today). Our people are paid up and passionate, but they are not necessarily coming to the game. We have done some research even in the past four weeks that shows the covid impact was around 60 per cent of our members have said they have not been attending the footy in some weeks because of COVID. They have COVID or they are a close contact or they are nervous about getting on a bus or the COVID experience in general has put them off coming to the footy. But they also have said that is not a long-term view.”

Our priority is to restore respect for this club, in this town and in this competition

Adelaide had planned to have a new home declared by June. The wait continues.

“It has been a challenge,” Silvers said. “We were really disappointed to miss out on the Brompton site. We put nine months of work into that project and it did not come off. There was always the big threat of a developer putting up a big cheque. We thought we were the ‘Best for the State’ solution. But that did not win us the bid.

“We have kept our bid on the table by request from Renewal SA. It is still on the table while there is a review. However, we have had to shift our focus to Thebarton. We are starting to design what we call a Torrens Sports Precinct. These things take time. There are negotiations with City of West Torrens and SANFL that are being undertaken at the moment.

“We need to get this right because our next home is for a generation. At Hawthorn, I saw the move from Glenferrie to Waverley Park and, unfortunately, they did not have the foresight for what a property development around the edges would do. The club was not able to grow, so 10 years into that new facility it needs to move again. So I am acutely aware of making the right decision for a long period of time. I am a custodian of the club – and this is a generational decision. We need to get it right.”

Silvers’ biggest “get it right” call at Adelaide, according to those inside the West Lakes offices, has been in changing the tone of the clubhouse where he has almost 100 full-time staff today.

“I try to get here as early as I can to beat the traffic,” says Silvers of his workday at Adelaide that is virtually 24/7 “and hard to shut down”.

“I am a big believer in speaking to your people. I try to start the day with a coffee catch-up with one of my staff or someone who is influential to our club.”

Silvers listens more than he speaks. In many ways he is still absorbing an environment that is obsessed with football.

“What surprised me is the passion of people who barrack for the Crows, and the state itself,” Silvers said. “The passion for footy is extreme. I love that. I underestimated that so many people in this town supported footy, like footy and want to talk footy. The Crows and Port are a massive part of that.

“The other thing that surprised me a little bit was the media focus in South Australia. I knew what I was getting into, but I underestimated a touch the amount and focus. You can use that for good. It is great exposure for your partners and corporates. But there is an insatiable appetite from the SA media.”

Silvers has just made sure he has not become a major player in that field.

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