Samuel said the AFL’s “impeccable” administration and governance were coming to the fore now, but that the NRL was “clearly not in the same position” as its rival code.
Samuel, who resigned from the ARL commission (which governs NRL) after disagreements with the direction under chairman John Grant – particularly over the ability of clubs to influence decisions – said unlike the AFL’s governing body, which was independent of clubs, the ARL commission was “largely controlled by clubs”.
Samuel and another commissioner, Jeremy Smith, resigned from the ARL board, objecting to the commission allowing the clubs to raid the sustainability fund.
He said the AFL made its commission independent of clubs in 1992 via a report by David Crawford.
“The NRL is yet to get to that stage, although it set up its commission,” Samuel told the Sunday Age and Sun-Herald.
“The commission is still one that has some of the relics of what the AFL had pre-1992, which is a commission which is largely controlled by the clubs and so you know it’s still got to get to the stage of being a professional governance structure.”
Samuel said the AFL had been “the strongest financial based sporting competition” in Australia since the ’90s. “That is demonstrated now by its ability to protect itself in the context of the current crisis.”
He said the NRL experienced two financial crises, the first being Super League. The second was “at the end of 2016 and early 2017, because the clubs were in difficulty, the NRL committed its capital base, its sustainability fund, in a way that has left it in a weakened position to be able to deal with the current crisis.
“What the AFL has demonstrated is that it is a highly professional organisation, with impeccable administration and impeccable governance arrangements and that I think is showing through now.”
Samuel said the AFL’s crucial financial decision was to sell Waverley Park and purchase what is now Marvel Stadium at the Docklands – decisions he was heavily involved in. He said the AFL [when the VFL] established a commission in the mid-1980s, had net assets of only $3 million and “half the clubs were bankrupt”.
“The AFL’s financial coup was the setting up, you know, the structure that it set up to what was then Colonial Stadium and the subsequent sale of Waverley Park – that, you’ve got to remember in ’84 or ’85 when the commission was established … That [$3 million] was the total net value of the league … and half the clubs were bankrupt.
“It’s now in a position, where it’s got in a stadium, that is worth, on any analysis, between three quarters and a billion dollars. And that’s an extraordinary position to be in and that reflects the professional governance and professional administration of the league.”
Samuel said he did not know what the NRL had to do to survive. ”I just don’t know. I don’t know enough about the NRL and its financial affairs and the like to tell you what it’s got to do. But you know it’s clearly not in the same position as the AFL.”
Samuel, who called for a series of mergers between Melbourne clubs in 1995 and was a proponent of mergers in the ’80s and ’90s before recanting, said the AFL’s ability to support weaker clubs, via a centralised administration, was a strength of the competition.
“That’s part of the strength of the AFL, is that it’s able to, you know, in normal circumstances, is able to sustain weaker clubs, those that don’t have the strength of the Collingwoods and the Richmonds, the West Coast Eagles, and the Hawthorns.
“That’s the great strength of the AFL and that’s the role of the central body, is to maintain a successful, highly competitive competition.”
Samuel said the AFL’s bank deal – it has a line of credit for $600 million, using Marvel Stadium as security – was “fantastic” but he hoped the AFL did not need to use all that amount.
“I only hope they don’t have to use it all because whatever debt you raise you’ve got to repay it all.”
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.