As a born deal-maker, McLachlan was successful in negotiating the vast broadcast revenues that have underpinned the AFL’s ambitious expansion into Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney and the women’s game, and in obtaining – via governments – the obscene amounts of taxpayer money that have gone into stadia and lavish club facilities.
To date, the women’s investment has made faster progress than the 17th and 18th teams, which remain heavily reliant on the AFL for funding and which will need untold millions for the next decade at the least.
Indeed, the broadcast deal acted as the AFL’s answer to Norway’s oil reserves, or Australia’s iron ore, in that the money that flowed into the sport meant that McLachlan – a polo-playing blueblood from rural South Australia – could preside over a heavily socialized and equalized competition, taking funding from the powerful clubs such as West Coast, Collingwood and Hawthorn and subsiding the new teams, the Brisbane Lions, St Kilda, the Bulldogs and Melbourne.
It is not accidental that three hitherto perennially unsuccessful clubs – the Western Bulldogs (2016), Richmond (2017) and Melbourne (2021) have broken premiership droughts that stretched back many decades during McLachlan’s time at the helm; Two of those clubs, the Dogs and Demons, were heavily supported by a funding model and framework – including a soft cap on football department spending from 2013 – that effectively gave them parity with the monster clubs.
McLachlan also inherited the Essendon saga from Demetriou, the most divisive episode to confront footy since the attempted club mergers of the 1990s. As is his wont, McLachlan tried to fashion a deal that would see the players treated leniently, but was unable to stick what was a difficult landing, as the Essendon 34 crashed and burned. “I reckon he handled that as well as he could,” judged Gordon, who acted for two Bulldog players among the 34.
McLachlan also faced the criticism that the AFL on his watch was a confederacy of mates, or “boys club,” and it is evident that the allegation has gained enough traction for the AFL to be more conscious of women’s role in the clubs and head office . McLachlan was also forced, reluctantly, to oversee the exits of his friend and football boss Simon Lethlean and fellow executive Richard Simpkiss over affairs with staff, a move that arguably set a bar for behavior that the league will find problematic.
McLachlan is slated to negotiate another broadcast deal before he leaves, and it will be fascinating to see if he can bring the global tech giants, or a new streaming partner, into the broadcasting mix to secure the dollars that keep the competition relatively robust financially and ahead of the pack.
McLachlan, a University Blues ruckman who trained at Carlton in the ’90s, will likely lead a less public life after footy. “We’ve got big shoes to fill,” said Swans chairman Andrew Pridham of the next CEO.
Whoever takes the baton from him – and the favorites all are from within footy – Gillon McLachlan has made an indelible mark.