Iemma has been a devout fan of the Red V for more than 50 years. As a boy, he stood on the hill at the SCG for the 1975 grand final and watched his beloved Saints get flogged 38-0 at the hands of Eastern Suburbs.
What isn’t commonly known is how Iemma also fronted a group interested in buying Illawarra’s 50 per cent stake in the club in mid-2018 after Bruce Gordon’s WIN Corporation had walked away from negotiations in April that year.
Iemma was chairman of the Southern Expansion bid for an A-League licence. Apart from featuring an all-star cast that included former Socceroos Craig Foster and Craig Johnston, the bid was backed by Chinese property giant JiaYuan Group to the tune of a whopping $17.5 million. In cash. Sitting in a bank account. Ready to roll.
When Football Federation Australia rejected the bid, the group turned its sights on other sporting franchises. Iemma was given authority to approach then-Dragons chief executive Peter Doust, who was looking for a private investor to buy Illawarra’s share of the joint venture.
Iemma declined to comment any further on what happened next, let alone divulge the size of the bid, citing commercial confidence. But we’re pretty sure we’ve seen this movie before.
As revealed in this column last year, Sydney Kings owner Paul Smith and his company Total Sports and Entertainment had offered no less than $12 million to buy out the Steelers’ share.
Smith was led to believe his offer was close to being accepted. It’s understood Southern Expansion felt the same way. Suddenly, though, the Gordons were back in the room and a deal was quickly done.
Nobody knows what the Gordon family stumped up and, given the typical veil of secrecy at the Dragons, nobody will ever say.
The figure rumoured at the time was $10m, but sources close to negotiations reckon it was far less. This column was this week told that WIN Corp wrote off some of the joint venture’s debt to the NRL but question how much cash, if any, was stumped up.
It’s been said that WIN patriarch Bruce Gordon, 91, doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for the club as son Andrew, 49, who was appointed chairman.
Yet here the 91-year-old media mogul was on Tuesday morning, calling into an emergency board meeting via Zoom, in the wake of the Dragons’ 22-2 loss to the Bulldogs.
When the Gordons met with former NRL boss Todd Greenberg in 2018, they talked about their desire to invest, to build, to turn the Dragons into the mega-club one of the most recognisable brands in Australian sport should be.
That was music to the ears of long-suffering fans. How does a club with such a proud history, with such a strong brand, splutter along as it has for 20 years, save for that glorious sliver of time when Wayne Bennett delivered a premiership?
As Smith has said before, the Dragons should be the New York Yankees of Australian sport. Instead, since the club’s restructure, it has slid further into ordinariness.
It has shed staff, cut costs and found itself in a situation so dire it can’t sack coach Paul McGregor because it doesn’t have the money to sack Paul McGregor.
Actually, let’s correct our own misreporting here: the club has the money, it just doesn’t want to spend it.
A cursory glance of St George Leagues Club’s annual reports for the past three years tells the story. In 2017, it contributed $2.5m to the joint venture. In 2018, that was cut to $1.7m. In 2019, it dropped to $500,000. But it has $19m in cash reserves, which is up from $15m the year before.
WIN Corporation is privately owned but, according to the Australian Financial Review’s annual Rich List, Bruce Gordon has an estimated worth of $702m.
Just how much the Dragons would have to pay McGregor to get him out of the building is up for debate, although $1m appears to be the accepted figure of his settlement.
Either way, it would be a significant payout because he’s only four matches into a fresh two-year deal after the board inexplicably re-signed him after five matches last year.
So, instead of moving on the coach, despite the horror start to the season, despite winning just two of their last 17 matches – both of which were against the Titans – with young players wanting out of the club, with the joint in crisis, the Dragons did a very Dragons-like thing …
They did nothing.
“We are committed to Paul as coach of the St George Illawarra Dragons and look forward to seeing him right the wrongs of the opening month of the current campaign,” Andrew Gordon said in a lukewarm statement on Tuesday.
Rather, McGregor is being afforded the opportunity to right the board’s wrongs in re-signing him.
What frustrates the Dragons faithful isn’t so much the losses as not having a say in the club’s direction. Unlike most other clubs, members do not have voting rights because the joint venture is a private entity.
The cliché is that it remains a “boys’ club” and it’s hard to disagree. It’s never been more evident than in recent years.
The WIN Corp deal was facilitated by then-chairman Brian Johnston, who, as part of the deal, replaced Doust as chief executive. After all those years of looking at “Oust Doust” signs on the hill, the one who ousted Doust was Doust.
Then, earlier this year, Johnston resigned just 18 months into the role. Who replaced him on the board? Doust, of course. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Now, fans genuinely fear for the future of their club. The old rumour about the Dragons merging with fierce rivals Cronulla often gains traction in times like this, and it’s certainly been getting a run this week.
You would hope such a move was never on the table but, unless there is a fundamental change in the way St George Illawarra operates, those drums will start beating louder.
Barilaro’s head in the crowds
To crowd or not to crowd? That is the question for sport as it shakes off its COVID-19 slumber.
There will be supporters in corporate boxes at NRL and AFL matches in NSW this week, while members and owners are allowed back to the racetrack. But the push is on to bring everyone back, although opinion is divided on how many and when.
Weirdly, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro has become the NRL’s attack dog in the crowds campaign. He’s been using last Saturday’s Black Lives Matter march that attracted 20,000 people as leverage, although his messaging is hard to follow.
On Tuesday, he branded the protest “reckless and irresponsible”. Two days later, he was telling News Corp the march showed that the NRL should immediately throw open the gates for crowds to return.
“Hypocrisy at its best!” he said.
Which one is it, Deputy Premier?
“You boys train at all during the quarantine or what? 45-0, f..k me dead.” — How bad are the Broncos right now? So bad that Nick Kyrgios is trolling them about having a go.
Sydney has emerged as a possible host of the third heavyweight world title fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, possibly on Boxing Day. Forget the bike, Santa, and make it happen!
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s scripted, nauseous statement in relation to the Black Lives Matter protests is about four years too late, especially for sidelined quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Talk about ticking a box to protect the bottom line.
It’s a big weekend for … Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary, who returns from his TikTok dancing ban for the Friday night clash with Parramatta. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
It’s an even bigger weekend for … the Giants and Swans as the AFL resumes transmission. Giants meet North Melbourne and the Buddy-less Swannies take on Essendon on Sunday.
Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.