Stunning 125-year first just one step in a bigger AFL revolution

·5-min read
Seen here, Melbourne Demons president Kate Roffey and Western Bulldogs counterpart  Kylie Watson-Wheeler.
Melbourne Demons president Kate Roffey and Western Bulldogs counterpart Kylie Watson-Wheeler are central to a stunning piece of AFL history. Pic: Twitter

There’s a slow revolution happening at AFL club land.

It’s been creeping up on us, although you could make the argument that it needs to be turbo-charged.

For the first time in AFL history, Saturday’s grand final between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs will be contested by two clubs led by female presidents.

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One of them will follow in the footsteps of Richmond’s Peggy O’Neal, who has claimed three of the past four flags.

Gender equality in club board rooms isn’t the revolution in this instance though. There’s still a way to go there.

While the Bulldogs’ Kylie Watson-Wheeler chairs a board that is 50 per cent female, Kate Roffey is still the only woman on the Melbourne board.

But the revolution will take another step forward if Roffey’s Demons lift the cup in Perth.

Roffey is from Narrabri, a small agricultural town halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. Not exactly AFL heartland.

She only started following the sport when she moved to Canberra to study, and then picked the then-lowly Dees as her team.

O’Neal was born and raised in a small mining town in West Virginia. There probably wasn’t much AFL news in the Killarney Sentinel either.

She moved to Australia in her early 40s for love, and settled in Richmond, so picked the Tigers when the Melbourne law of having to have a footy team became clear to her.

What’s different about these situations is that both women were not lifelong supporters of the clubs they now lead.

Yes, they were supporters when they joined the board and knew of the clubs’ histories, but they didn’t have the lived experience of decades of success or failure following those teams.

The concept of someone joining an AFL club board is still in many ways mocked and derided.

Almost a decade ago, Jeff Kennett suggested he was best placed to take control of the Melbourne board, having finished his first stint as Hawthorn president.

"Absolutely I'd do it. If I could get the Melbourne supporters to say enough's enough and allow us to put together a board of five, we'd give them six to seven years to rebuild," he said.

The former Victorian premier was roundly dismissed. The very notion that a supporter of one club could lead another was deemed fanciful.

Earlier this year, now former Collingwood director Dr Bridie O’Donnell had to go into damage control after a photo of her wearing a Western Bulldogs jumper emerged on social media.

The biggest concern for the Magpies was that O’Donnell didn’t have voting rights because she hadn’t been a member for two years, but the stigma of the Bulldogs picture stuck.

Pictured here, former Collingwood board member, Dr Bridie O'Donnell.
Western Bulldogs fan Bridie O'Donnell's appointment to the Collingwood board was a highly contentious one. Pic: Twitter

The AFL landscape has changed so much in recent years. Free agency means the movement of players is now more commonly accepted than ever. It’s even encouraged by supporters. 

Club legends, multiple-premiership stars don a new jumper and no one barely batters an eyelid anymore.

Allegiances of coaches, too, are now swapped regularly. The assistant coaching merry-go-round at the end of every season is a whirlwind. 

Tribal drums often dictate AFL boards

So why is it that we are stuck in this notion that the people that fill board positions must be passionate supporters of the club?

Why aren’t clubs looking more outside their supporter base for directors?

Too often, the tribal passion of supporters gets in the way of good governance.

Let’s look at Carlton. They have had several administration and coaching changes in the past two decades because everyone who assumes power is trying to return Carlton to the powerhouse it was in the ‘80s.

Their fixation on their past successes (or having supported a club that has struggled for years) significantly determines the decisions they make.

Someone from another supporter base with the right business skills would see a club with fresh eyes, and unburdened by the emotional attachment to the past, good or bad.

They’d see the organisation for what it is, its strengths and weaknesses, and act accordingly. 

Lindsay Tanner, the former federal Labor finance minister, who was president of Essendon when the supplements scandal broke, once spoke of the limitations of having directors only chosen from the club’s supporter base.

“It’s a significant, continuous problem that we’re all fans,” he said. 

“You end up, from time to time, focusing more on things you’re not supposed to, which will crowd out the things you are supposed to do. So if you spend half a meeting talking about how a particular player’s injuries are going or what are the chances of recruiting a star player — which inevitably some of us will be tempted to do — that can become a problem. 

“We constantly push back against it because you’ve got to get through the stuff that’s less exciting, but is actually central to the board role.”

AFL club boards are now filled with highly skilled, successful business people from all sectors. The elitism of how they are chosen is a story for another day.

But Collingwood’s attempt to bring someone onto the board that may or may not have been a passionate Pies fan should not be ridiculed. It should be encouraged.

As Peggy O’Neal and Kate Roffey have showed us, AFL clubs can be successfully led and governed by people who weren’t indoctrinated as a supporter of a particular club at birth. 

It’s time more clubs got with the times.

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