Who Owns AFL Clubs

Multi-million dollar takeovers, fan revolts against owners, and franchise relocations are all very common themes in sporting leagues around the world.

However, down under in Australia where AFL is synonymous with Australian culture, things are a little different.

With no Russian princes and Saudi billionaires buying their way into the league and instigating these decisions, who does own our AFL clubs?

As it currently stands:

  • 11 AFL clubs are owned by the members.
  • 2 AFL clubs are owned by the West Australian Football Commission.
  • 5 AFL clubs are owned by the AFL itself.

What does member ownership look like?

Before we dive in and explore exactly who owns the AFL clubs, it’s important to explain exactly what member ownership means.

There are 11 clubs that are currently owned by members:

  1. Brisbane Lions
  2. Western Bulldogs
  3. Essendon
  4. Melbourne Demons
  5. Hawthorn Hawks
  6. Geelong Cats
  7. St Kilda
  8. Richmond
  9. North Melbourne
  10. Collingwood
  11. Carlton

Each club has been set up as a Limited Liability Company and run by a board of directors that is anywhere between six and 10 people.

From these directors:

  • One is appointed as a CEO
  • One is elected as chairperson: this person is also known as the President of the club. He is the one calling the shots. But, he is not the one who owns the club.

In fact, most AFL clubs are owned by its members (11 to be exact). They are the ones who decide who sits on the board, and as a result have the final say in the running of the club.

An annual general meeting is held where members get to have their say on how the team is run.

Of course, every AFL club is different and you’ll find variations in the way they structure this.

Let’s use Richmond as an example:

  • The members get to elect six people to the board.
  • These six then elect three more to join them.

In comparison, when we take a look at Collingwood, it’s a different story.

  • Members elect seven people to the board. No other members are elected.

What does AFL ownership look like?

Another five clubs remain under the ownership of the AFL:

  1. Sydney Swans
  2. Greater Western Sydney Giants
  3. Gold Coast Suns
  4. Adelaide Crows
  5. Port Adelaide

The AFL elects seven of the nine board members, while the members then have a say in the remaining two.

What does private ownership look like?

There are currently two clubs that are privately owned:

  1. West Coast Eagles
  2. Fremantle Dockers

Both these Western Australian teams are owned by the West Australian Football Commission Inc.

How to become an AFL member?

Credit: AFI

It’s clear that the majority of clubs are owned by their members – even if they don’t have final say on the decisions, they vote in the people who do.

So, how do you become a club member and have your say?

Becoming a member of an AFL club typically costs between $195 and $565 for a season, depending on the type of seating you’re after.

The cheaper seats include access to all the team’s games. The more expensive options can include a reserved seat, complimentary food, and other perks that come with the membership.

Here are the types of membership that are generally on offer within AFL clubs:

  • General admission: access to team matches at the home stadium.
  • Reserved membership: access to better seating, or a reserved seat at the home ground.
  • Long distance: membership for those who live interstate or in the country.

It’s important to note that there’s a difference between AFL membership and AFL club membership.

With AFL membership, you can access a number of matches at the MCG or Marvel Stadium, not just the club matches. This means you have a choice when choosing your membership.

If you decided to purchase a club membership for St Kilda, you can go to any of their home games and get seats to their matches.

If you join the AFL membership, then you can watch any match at the MCG, regardless of whether St Kilda is playing there.

If you’re looking to become a member of your club, then simply ask and be willing to pay the money needed.

What role do members actually play?

There are a number of roles that need to be filled within a football club, so how does it all get decided?

The majority of these roles are done on a voluntary basis, by people who are committed to the sport and how it is played.

If we start at the top, we have the leadership management committee, who is generally voted in by the members – with a few differences between clubs.

The key roles are:

  • Chairperson/President
  • Vice President
  • Treasurer
  • Secretary

The committee itself will set their own ground rules on how they make decisions and the overall culture of the team.

Beyond that, there are a number of roles within a club that members can fulfill.

These include:

  • Auskick Coordinator
  • Auskick Liaison Officer
  • Bar Operations
  • Boundary Umpire (Club)
  • Canteen Operations
  • Coach Coordinator
  • Council Liaison Officer
  • Facility Management
  • Field Umpire (Club)
  • Football Manager
  • Functions and Events Coordinator
  • Gate Keeper
  • Goal Umpire (Club)
  • Head Medical Trainer
  • Interchange Steward
  • Junior Coach
  • Junior Development Officer
  • Marketing Promotions Officer
  • Match Manager
  • Medical Trainer
  • Membership Coordinator
  • Merchandising Sales Coordinator
  • Multicultural Community Ambassador
  • Publicity Officer
  • Raffles Coordinator
  • Registrar
  • Reserves Coach
  • Roster Coordinator
  • Runner
  • Senior Coach
  • Sponsorship Coordinator
  • Team Manager
  • Time Keeper
  • Tribunal Advocate
  • Umpires Escort
  • Volunteer Coordinator

AFL’s equalisation model

The AFL uses a funding model, which is designed to promote competitive equity amongst the AFL clubs. Every club is treated on an equal basis, regardless of their individual revenue-raising ability.

Every club funded is expected to pay 100% of the salary cap, and to spend as much money off-field on football-related matters.

If we take a look at the four major American leagues: NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, they directly take money from club revenue streams and redistribute it where it’s needed. This doesn’t happen in AFL.

All clubs keep their own revenues. The AFL ensures that all clubs can fully pay players and spend a competitive amount off the field, no matter what their financial situation is.

Debt-ridden clubs like St Kilda and Brisbane have received generous yearly handouts from the AFL under the league’s equalisation model.

History of AFL ownership

Credit: DailyCare

These member’s model hasn’t always been the landscape of AFL.

It was in 1986 that the Victorian Football League (VFL) announced their plans to set up privately owned clubs in both Perth and Brisbane.

At the time, a number of Victorian teams were struggling financially and half the competition had been left insolvent. The idea was to save their licenses, which is why private ownership seemed like the best option.

A consortium headed by former actor Paul Cronin and bankrolled by entrepreneur Christopher Skase was awarded the Brisbane license and the Brisbane Bears were established. It’s safe to say it was a rough road for the team.

The club ended up in severe financial stress when Christopher Skase’s business empire collapsed and he departed for Spain in 1989. Players then threatened to strike and Paul Cronin resigned. The club was taken over by the AFL and then resold to Reuben Pelerman.

The AFL had to spend large amounts of money in an effort to help the Bear survive., giving them priority draft picks and special recruiting zones with some of the nation’s best talent.

Pelerman ended up losing millions of dollars on the club each year, which saw him releasing the club for private ownership and reverting the to traditional club structure we see above.

The Bears weren’t alone in their private ownership struggles.

Geoffrey Edelsten purchased the Sydney Swans on 31 July 1985. In 1986, the club discovered that Edelsten was not the sole owner of the Swans and the license was held by Powerplay, a public company linked to WEsteq. It saw the resignation of Edelstein.

Powerplay then lunged into financial difficulty and ended up getting ride of some of their best players at the end of the 1987 season.  Craig Davis, a formers Carlton, North Melbourne and Collingwood forward stepped out of his four-year retirement to make a comeback and help the team.

In 1988, the bankrupt Powerplay gave up the license to the club, but there were no serious bidders willing to take it over. Instead, the AFL ended up paying $10 to regain the private license and taking back ownership of the club.

More and more teams struggled with the private ownership.

Australian sport simply doesn’t have the same allure that comes with American Football and other international sports, which means they don’t attract the attention from people who have the money to privately own a club.

Private ownership of AFL clubs

As we have seen when looking into the past of the AFL privatisation never worked for the AFL clubs. But is history set to repeat itself?

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic had its effect on the AFL – much like all other sporting games – turning the focus away from the game itself and onto who’s running the show behind the scenes. It has once again brought to light the issue of private ownership of AFL clubs and placed it on the agenda once again.

This isn’t the first time this question has been asked (as we have seen earlier in the article), but the financial holes that have been opened through the COVID-19 pandemic have tested the AFL’s economy and how it’s run.

But would it work?

History suggests no, with many believing that AFL clubs actually thrive off the loyalty that comes from their passionate members. There’s a belief that they wouldn’t hold the same attachment to a privately owned club.

This doesn’t mean that it won’t be done. It’s the question that everyone with an interest is asking: will COVID-19 force the AFL to change the answer to the question, who owns the AFL?

At the moment, we all do as members. But that may be set to change.

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