AFL boss Gillon McLachlan: 'Cultural leadership is one of the most difficult parts of the job'

He runs the country’s biggest sporting code, and the growth stats are impressive – but for AFL chief Gillon McLachlan, the thorny soft-power issues are proving hard graft.

21.9.2019

He runs the country’s biggest sporting code, and the growth stats are impressive – but for AFL chief Gillon McLachlan, the thorny soft-power issues are proving hard graft via GoodWeekendMag

He runs the country’s biggest sporting code, and the growth stats are impressive – but for AFL chief Gillon McLachlan, the thorny soft-power issues are proving hard graft.

Turn off the highway near Moriac, down the Cape Otway Road, right-straight-left, through the two brick posts

“Hey man,” he says. “Get here all right?” (He says “man” all the time.)

Fans are also enjoying the sweet spot of a colossal broadcast rights deal that McLachlan negotiated in 2015 with the Seven Network, Foxtel and Telstra, worth a staggering $2.508 billion over six years. Oh, and the AFL Women’s league he launched in 2017 has sparked a grassroots revolution, with a peak of more than 530,000 women and girls participating this year.

There was that Wednesday morning almost two years ago, for instance, when he stood under an AFL logo replaced with a prominent “YES” in support of marriage equality. To some, this was McLachlan as PC thug, “lecturing” and “bullying” footy fans. To others, it was exactly the kind of leadership expected from the head of the most popular sporting code in the country.

, and noted the departures came only after the affairs became public; others whacked McLachlan for overreacting to relationships between consenting adults.

I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to say that it’s racism and create a whole new spot fire?’ I demurred, and I can understand why I did – I just wish I hadn’t.

regular Francis Leach. “It’s not that it was malicious, but dodging the question of racism gave people comfort to avoid looking deeply. But also, what do you expect? Gill’s never known the world not being built in his image. When would he have ever experienced being the outsider? Never in his life. That’s not his fault, but his own world experience perhaps let him down in that moment.”

Constant apologies over this have not gone unnoticed. At the All-Australian awards, whilst shadowing McLachlan, I spoke briefly to Aboriginal MC Shelley Ware, who quietly defended him: “I think Gill listens, and he has the courage to revisit his mistakes, and acknowledge that he was wrong.”

The reigning prince is certainly that very tall person you might recognise in public – long arms drawn nervously near his body, wearing a navy pinstripe suit of armour, like a praying mantis. But he’s also the guy I meet here at the farm, beer in hand, opening the door.

. High ceilings with the original knotty cross-beams. A row of elevated bedrooms built into the old shearing stand. It’s functional, too – with hooks and shelves for riding boots and helmets. McLachlan, his wife Laura and their four kids come here whenever they can, which is, he says, “not often enough,” given the tonnage of weekend sport they watch and play. McLachlan’s happy to show me around but uncertain why he’s doing so. He’s never done an extended profile interview of this sort. “I don’t know how I’m here,” he says, seeming almost anguished. “I don’t really like talking about myself.”

“Because it’s very difficult to say anything in my role and not have people want to play the other side of it. If you sit where I’ve been for this long, you get so paranoid about how each quote can play out. So often it’s a whole game of shutdown.”

His mother, Sylvia, has described the AFL boss as “a serious child, always conscientious” with “a quiet strength”. His dad, Angus (whom his four sons called “Singlet”, because he was always on their backs) made uncompromising demands of his eldest boy.

He studied commerce at Adelaide University, then law at the University of Melbourne, living in at Trinity College. He played more than 200 games for Melbourne’s Uni Blues, a top team in the amateur league, but was not good enough to play professionally, sitting on Carlton’s playing list for a brief time. Peers from his uni days describe him as “sharp, with a streak of ruthlessness” and “a gentleman capable of being a rogue in the nicest way”. According to a former flatmate, ex-St Kilda player and board director Andrew Thompson, McLachlan will not sparkle for the dull: “The only thing you don’t want to be around him is boring.”

“It was a day for Gillon to be 20 again, or 30 again – just a fun day,” says publisher Geoff Slattery, a former colleague at the AFL. “He’s actually happy-go-lucky – full of

But of course, he’s also a laced-up lawyer who ended up joining blue-chip Melbourne accounting firm Arthur Andersen (now Accenture) after graduating from Melbourne University. After two years there, aged 27, he was recruited to the AFL in 2000 by then boss Wayne Jackson, who was impressed not just by McLachlan’s acumen but also his bond with footy, as a player and committee member for his local team.

The then AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou and Gillon McLachlan in 2014. Demetriou says McLachlan should now be thinking about his own successor.

I want to chat about the time the NRL came hard for McLachlan, in 2012. Now

I tell this tale back to McLachlan, who nods, smirks, then rolls his eyes: “Andrew always thinks he’s central to everything.” McLachlan was still unsure what answer he was going to blurt out when he walked back into Demetriou’s office later that day. “But I loved the game, and that’s what prevailed.”

A day earlier, we’re in McLachlan’s office adjacent to Marvel Stadium

It’s true that McLachlan loves horses and racing, which is a familial passion. His great-grandfather, Hugh Patterson McLachlan, owned the winner of the 1931 Melbourne Cup, White Nose. He has all sorts of art on this office wall – including a Michael Leunig oil painting of a footballer – but look to the right and there’s his true love: a framed finishing-post photo of Extra Zero, a gelding he owns, trained by David Hayes, which retired two years ago after 109 starts, winning $1.8 million in prize money. (He also co-owns a horse with Tim Worner, who recently resigned as CEO of the Seven Network. That one’s named Live and Free.)

He believes the league’s gambling advertising balance is “self-regulated”, pointing to limitations placed on ads at games and on TV – and keeping bookmakers off most team guernseys. “We’ve been ahead of this,” he says. “Whether we’ve gone far enough is a fair debate.”

Rugby Australia boss Raelene Castle acted decisively when she sacked top player Israel Folau in May following anti-gay comments. Castle won praise in some circles, condemnation in others, and ended up in court. Despite the cost, she arguably showed the kind of moral leadership many expect from the head of the AFL.

These appointments are changing the culture, albeit incrementally. Four hours after Crows coach Phil Walsh was stabbed to death by his mentally unwell son in 2015, McLachlan had a choice to make about whether it was appropriate to play football that weekend. He had to balance “that instinctive male response” to soldier on, with the contrasting view of a number of his female staff, some of whom wanted to cancel the entire round. “And we ended up in the middle,” he says, “because of a diversity of people in our spectrum.” They called off the Adelaide-Geelong match – the first time a game had been cancelled in the history of the AFL. “We didn’t even cancel games in World War II.”

Yet several issues won’t recede around the women’s league, most notably the pay gap, the blink-and-you-miss-it nine-week season, and the absence, until recently, of any kind of long-term growth strategy. “The truth is good leadership gets ahead of a problem, whereas I feel like we’re putting out fires and patching things up,” says broadcaster Emma Race, Hawthorn’s No. 1 ticket-holder and host of the ABC Radio all-female footy podcast

If “too many baby steps” is the major gripe of an impatient AFLW public, McLachlan offers a counter: “There’s a history of female sporting leagues, globally, falling over. And we’re determined that this is going to be sustainable. The speed of growth, expansion, is critical in that.” By next year there will be 14 AFLW clubs launched, and a three-year plan is being thrashed out this month. The AFLW system, he points out, has to be strong not only for a 30-year-old woman playing now, “but for the 17-year-old just starting, for my 12-year-old daughter, and the girl in 20 years’ time. This wasn’t even an idea five years ago.”

the steady transformation of the national draft into a televised spectacle, and exhibition games in China point to a gradual Americanisation of Aussie rules football, to the chagrin of some fans. McLachlan insists there are always solid strategic reasons. “We have to be relevant to a rapidly changing market,” he says. “If you’re not appealing to new Australians, kids, Millennials, Indigenous people, women, to people in western Sydney and the Gold Coast, then you’re not talking to your whole market, and you’re not actually serious about growing and staying relevant and being the dominant sporting opportunity for everybody in Australia.”

He goes to a lot of football, too, at all levels, and people there let him know what’s on their mind. “I get the most

Mental health in football: “It is clearly now the biggest issue from our playing group. It’s also broader, including staff and coaches. The very visible binary nature of success and failure in our industry, and the way it’s dissected every day, has a huge toll, and that’s a worry for me. It’s brutal, and people are breaking.” (The AFL recently appointed a mental health manager to work with a clinical psychiatrist to help AFL staff, clubs, players, umpires and coaches.)

A team for Tasmania, a state which footy’s poet laureate, Martin Flanagan, says has been badly let down by the AFL, to the point he’s lost faith in those running the code: “It’s always deserved its own team, but the economics of it never added up,” McLachlan says. “But we’ve got a plan now. Get community football growing again, get the talent pathway producing AFL-level players, and the government have a task force looking to unify the state and make a pitch to the AFL. I’m hopeful that there will be a team in Tasmania at some point.”

Everyone on his team knows this. They see it made manifest, too, in the way he walks the room before every AFL function, checking seating arrangements. He did it before the All-Australian night, making sure this woman was sitting next to that woman, because one had flown in to see the other. “Success and failure is in the last three per cent – not the first 97,” he says. “It’s the extra phone call, the email, the seating arrangement, whatever.” What does he do in those moments, though, when the footy public is out to get him? “I compartmentalise,” he says. “If you don’t have mechanisms and resilience and conviction to do this job, don’t do it.”

Timeline aside, is there another public-facing role in his future? Another sporting body in need of a skipper? What interests him? “Sincerely, I don’t know,” he says, shrugging. “I like leading teams. I like working with people. I’m enjoying the role,” he says, pausing. He stays silent for a long time, then smiles. “I’ve gone back into my shell, haven’t I?”

Read more: The Age

GoodWeekendMag He is not respecting women’s football GoodWeekendMag His done nothing to address the worsening drug problem in the AFL. GoodWeekendMag He is a flop!

Toby Greene's appeal rejected, ruled out of Giants' AFL preliminary finalToby Greene fails in his bid to be cleared for Greater Western Sydney's AFL preliminary final against Collingwood after his appeal against a one-match suspension is rejected. Yer Probably Eddies Mates. Ops did I say that out loud? Crazy decision. This weeks Charge greater than last week? Give me a break. It’s a joke.

Live: Tigers and Cats face off for spot in AFL grand finalRichmond is looking to move a step closer to winning its second flag in three seasons, but they must get past the challenge of minor premiers Geelong in the opening AFL preliminary final at the MCG. Follow all the live scores, stats and commentary in our live ScoreCentre. Geelong by 23 points.

Toby Greene's appeal rejected, ruled out of Giants' AFL preliminary finalToby Greene fails in his bid to be cleared for Greater Western Sydney's AFL preliminary final against Collingwood after his appeal against a one-match suspension is rejected. Yer Probably Eddies Mates. Ops did I say that out loud? Crazy decision. This weeks Charge greater than last week? Give me a break. It’s a joke.

‘Utter crap’: Ben Cousins rumour quashedRumours began to swirl on social media on Thursday morning regarding former AFL superstar Ben Cousins. It's a pity cousins went downwards spiral with the drugs, he had it all. These damm drugs have destroy many lives, families 😰😥 No chance Lance!!! Or .....No chance Larnce..take your pick!!!! No comprende Gupta!!!

Former Fukushima bosses cleared of negligence over deadly disasterVictims of one of the world's worst nuclear crisis are left disappointed after a court in Tokyo ruled former Fukushima bosses were not guilty of negligence. Oh it was just a force of nature... Apparently I have to jump through more OHSW hoops and take more responsibility taking a class on an excursion than Japanese nuclear officials dealing with an earthquake and tsunami prone country. I need to get paid more! The Bosses May be..but

Live: Tigers and Cats face off for spot in AFL grand finalRichmond is looking to move a step closer to winning its second flag in three seasons, but they must get past the challenge of minor premiers Geelong in the opening AFL preliminary final at the MCG. Follow all the live scores, stats and commentary in our live ScoreCentre. Geelong by 23 points.

Write Comment

Thank you for your comment.
Please try again later.

Latest News

News

21 September 2019, Saturday News

Previous news

Jittery Japan open Rugby World Cup with scrappy win

Next news

Twenty years on, J-Lo shuts down the internet again in iconic Versace
Previous news Next news