Oscar Allen 1, crowd 0!
Could the AFL’s monopoly over Australian rules football be overthrown?
I know, it sounds absurd. The AFL is the dominant sporting competition in Australia. Its economic resources are unmatched, it retains a tight jurisdictional control of the sport domestically and has no international rival to contend with. Not a lot of oxygen for a revolution to breathe.
But to borrow a parlance from the ultimate assassin, Michael Corleone: “If history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”
A recent reminder of this in the sporting universe came with the Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) ‘takeover’ of the PGA tour. With the PIF now setting its sights on professional tennis, it is only responsible (and yes, a little bit fun) to assess how one might affect a coup of the AFL.
Using two case studies, Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket (WSC) and the PIF’s LIV Golf tour, I have identified five key steps necessary to successfully challenge any sporting monopoly:
1. Having substantial financial capital
2. Developing a superior product
3. Establishing legitimacy
4. Achieving a critical mass of popular support
5. Having an exit strategy.
Let’s start with step one – money. The AFL is a financial goliath. It has an annual income of about $800 million, generated through corporate sponsorship, gate and membership receipts, merchandise, and a mouthwatering seven-year $4.5 billion broadcasting cheque from Channel 7 and Foxtel.
However, as a private company, the AFL’s reliance on its internal revenue streams might leave it vulnerable in wartime.
When Packer took on the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) he was able to absorb WSC’s $34 million operating cost by drawing on the financial might of his Consolidated Press Holdings media empire. In contrast, the ACB could only count on fluctuating gate receipts, a $200,000 ABC broadcasting deal, and a $150,000 Benson and Hedges sponsorship to subsidise Australian cricket root and branch.
The lesson is clear: if you are going to take on the AFL, do not rely on pithy gate and membership tickets to foot the bill. Look for help to bankroll your new competition, someone eager to get a piece of the AFL pie.
Paramount+/Channel Ten lost out in football’s latest broadcasting bidding war, so maybe visit their parent company Paramount Global with your pitch. Their address is One Astor Plaza building, 1515 Broadway Street, Manhattan.
Once you have the cash, make sure you use it. Forget what the sceptics say, the AFL provides a wildly entertaining product: fast ball movement, bone-rattling clashes, and high scoring, all executed by some of the best athletes in Australia. Those who watch do so in world-class stadiums, or in the comfort of their homes via exceptional broadcasting services.
To compete, you will need to invest heavily in your own assets. Given we do not have much time, let us focus on the most important asset: the players. This is where you may have to get your hands dirty, just as other revolutionaries did.
As the established overlords of their sports, the PGA and ACB had exclusive access to top-tier talent. The problem was they underpaid their players, believing they would never have to worry about a viable competitor who might steal them away.
From bumper crowds during the 1974-75 Ashes series, the ACB paid their stars just 2 per cent of total gate receipts. Or, in Ian Chappell’s summation, “fish and chip money.”
Knowing fans would only switch sides to see the best, LIV and Packer covertly signed up 13 former Major champions and almost 50 of the world’s best cricketers to play for them. Both ended up in court over this filching, so you will likely need to throw up some more cash to defend your position.
The good news is, if you win, you may further weaken your enemies. Just ask the International Cricket Council, who after losing their case were forced to pay Packer $320,000 in costs. Ouch!
Try going after the big fish – Charlie Curnow, Marcus Bontempelli, Toby Greene – anyone really who is talented and believes they are underpaid. And brace for the storm of lawyers.
The third stage of your coup, establishing legitimacy, is crucial. As soon as you make yourself known to your enemies, they will come after you with everything they have. WSC players were slandered as ‘traitors’ to cricket, while the PGA attacked LIV as an example of Saudia Arabia’s engaging in ‘sportswashing’ to distract from their unquestionably awful human rights record.
These attacks may be true or not, but that does not necessarily matter. What matters is if your customers believe your enemies’ propaganda, as no one wants to associate with a product they find morally offensive. You need to create your own counter-narrative. Hire a good PR firm and some journalists with an axe to grind. Try Michael Warner.
If you somehow achieve all this, a critical mass of popular support should begin to bubble away. It may even come in a rush. Having been comfortably bested during its first summer, WSC exploded 12 months later when 50,000 converts descended on a Tuesday night one-day fixture at the SCG.
LIV’s coming out party may well have been the raucous Adelaide event staged in April.
Television and streaming audiences are, of course, truer indicators of your actual popularity, but nothing will convince your enemies of your victory more than a packed stadium full of people enjoying your product.
Which brings us to the final stage: having an exit strategy. Given the mud-slinging the AFL is likely to throw your way, it will be tempting to throw them into a ‘meat-mangler’, as Packer threatened to do to the ACB. This, however, would be unwise.
Unless you are an arms dealer, war is bad for business. Grinding the AFL down might feel good, but your backers will want to start seeing some profit for their investment soon. Make a deal, otherwise you may soon find yourself cut loose – just ask LIV CEO Greg Norman.
Do not get me wrong, the peace terms should reflect your victory. After the ACB agreed to allow Packer to broadcast cricket in exchange for a return of its monopoly, it received just $2 million of the $134 million extracted from advertising revenue across the next five years.
Let the AFL talk publicly about ‘mergers’ and ‘peace with honour’, as long as you both know who is holding the whip hand behind closed doors.
And there you have it. A foolproof formula to usurp the AFL. But make sure you follow it properly. If you are going to shoot the devil in the back, make sure you do not miss.