It is a stance that appears likely to bring debate and potentially opposition from players, who have accepted 50 per cent pay cuts for the rest of this year but are hoping to preserve the most of their pay and conditions for 2021 and 2022, the term of the broadcast deal. Stronger clubs, meanwhile, do not want the cap on football spending to be too restrictive.
“There’s two parts to it – there’s what is our peak debt and what does it look like and how aggressively do you want to pay it?” McLachlan explained.
“And part of that is what happens with your cost base, what happens obviously with revenue, and the other part is much how you want to keep investing in your game as opposed to paying down debt.”
But McLachlan was adamant that the austerity the game faced would not come at the expense of Indigenous players and the participation of women and the AFLW – despite the fears expressed within clubs such as Richmond that Indigenous players face a harder road to get drafted, given the risk averse nature of recruiting, if list sizes are heavily cut.
“When you narrow it down to our Indigenous players, they are core to the game of Australian rules football and it is incumbent upon us, the AFL, our clubs, to lead on this issue and make sure that reduced soft caps and other decisions don’t come at the expense of diversity,” said McLachlan, putting the onus on clubs to “take risks” and lead on diversity.
“Expanded involvement of women and the women’s game, Indigenous players, taking risks, it has to be preserved in whatever decision making we make,” he said. “I think our clubs have got to lead [on] this issue … and I know they will.”
McLachlan said the AFL would have 18 clubs in future “full stop”. When asked if there was a time frame on guaranteeing the survival of the 18 clubs though, he said nothing was guaranteed indefinitely.
“From my perspective, I am committed to 18 teams full stop. We know that there is a broadcast arrangement that guarantees it, there is conviction from me and the chairman [Richard Goyder]. There are strong commitments and it’s strong as I can be knowing that nothing in the world is guaranteed indefinitely.
“That is the definitive position from me at the moment, that we’re an 18 team competition and there is no plans to rationalise that.”
McLachlan disputed that the AFL had prioritised the survival of every club over jobs, given the employment carnage at clubs and clashing of budgets. “The premise there is that somehow the economics of the industry would work better with less clubs and given the broadcast, big sponsorship and broader corporate arrangements, I don’t agree with it,” he said.
“The history of growth in other leagues is expansion … it doesn’t follow to me that less clubs means less jobs.”
McLachlan confirmed that the AFL would not rush clubs into repaying the debt that they ran up when borrowing from the league during the COVID-19 crisis.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.