Former AFL boss Ross Oakley has revealed the league was on the brink of financial ruin when he took over in the 1980s with six clubs ‘technically bankrupt’ and crowds and memberships declining rapidly.
Ross Oakley was stunned.
It was 1986, he’d just taken over as the VFL’s new boss and “footy was broke.”
After going through the books he quickly learned the competition wasn’t just in trouble, it was on life support.
In the new ‘No Merger’ podcast, which explores Hawthorn’s narrowly aborted merger with Melbourne in 1996, Oakley declared the then VFL was on the brink of collapse.
“Football was in dire straits,” Oakley told the podcast.
“It hadn’t changed the way it did business for some time.
“If things didn’t change then the VFL, as it was then, was likely to disappear from the landscape.”
Oakley said many of the then 11 Victorian-based clubs were close to shutting their doors.
“There at least six clubs that were technically bankrupt and the league had debts of something like $20 million,” he said.
“In today’s terms, that’s probably more like $50 or $60 million.
“Crowds had been decreasing, memberships had not grown and in fact they’d decreased.
“Player payments were going up at an exponential rate and the competition could just not sustain the developments that were occurring.”
The league needed more eyeballs for the product, and quickly.
Oakley was eyeing a national competition, but he knew the VFL couldn’t go it alone.
“Footy was broke,” he said.
“We had to expand it into the other states in order to have a national profile that would be more attractive to sponsors and television networks.
“But we didn’t have any money to do it, and that’s why we got private enterprise organisations involved.
“Various individuals and various corporations put quite a bit of money into football to get the clubs up and running.
“And that was the only way we could have done it, we couldn’t have done it off our own bat.
“We had debt coming out of ears, so if expansion is what was going to make the league successful in the future then we had to attract people who were close to football and that enjoyed it to provide millions of dollars in order to get the new clubs up and running.”
And it was not just the struggling clubs, of which there were many at the time, that were in the gun.
It was also the suburban grounds such as Victoria Park, Windy Hill and Moorabbin.
Loved by many, but in Oakley’s eyes not up scratch when trying to appeal to a wider audience.
“We had so many grounds that had to be kept up to standard, and in fact they weren’t and people used to stand in the mud to watch the footy,” Oakley recalled.
“Quite often they didn’t mind too much because they loved their footy, but we had to do something to make the experience of going to football more enjoyable.”
THE FIRST NEAR MERGER
It was the late in the piece deal-breaker that derailed one of the first proposed mergers of the 1980s.
From a business sense, it made sense to merge a number of Victorian clubs together.
Emotionally, however, it was a very different story with club members and supporters often fighting tooth and nail in the 1980s and early 1990s to keep their clubs alive.
One of the first near mergers happened in 1986 when Demons officials met with then Fitzroy president Leon Wiegard.
At first, the talks between Melbourne and the Lions progressed fairly well and he two clubs went close to merging.
Public records from the time show Melbourne pulled out of the deal, but Wiegard has a different version of events.
“One of those major issues was the makeup of the board,” he told the podcast.
“We’d agreed to (a) five and five (split), and we went to a meeting in (former VFL-AFL commissioner) Peter Scanlon’s office almost to sign the deal to say now we can go to our committees and then to our members.
“When we got to that meeting they (the Demons officials) said: “yes, five and five plus the two Melbourne Cricket Club members.’
“Hang on, that had never been mentioned before.
“Melbourne insisted they would have five plus two, (to which I said) ‘well I don’t think our members would wear that’.
“That’s where it fell part.”
There would be other close calls in the late 1980s and 90s.
A super three-way trade between Melbourne, Richmond and North Melbourne was flouted but a deal could not be reached.
In 1990, when the VFL officially became the AFL, Richmond was almost broke when it launched its Save Our Skins campaign, which saved the club from extinction.
Fitzroy remained in the league’s sights, and it very nearly merged with first Footscray in 1989 and then North Melbourne in 1996.
The deal with the Kangaroos was scuppered when 14 of the 16 clubs voted against the merger.
Oakley then moved quickly to merge the Lions with the Brisbane Bears, which was achieved with little resistance.
The AFL had got its wish, and it wasn’t done yet.