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Closing the deal with Andrew Demetriou

The position of AFL chief executive is a singular job, as can be told from the fact that we appear to care so much about who holds it and how. We are talking, after all, about an administrator. Usually, people pay attention to CEOs only in times of crises and collapse. Ask Alan Joyce.

The AFL's condition could scarcely be more robust. In Andrew Demetriou's 11 years, it has further entrenched itself as the most prosperous and powerful sports body in the land. Prima facie, it has expanded successfully without sacrificing the confidence and viability of its heartland.

It has used its corporate standing and strength to claim moral leadership on drugs, on violence, on respect for and empowerment of women, on aspects of integrity. Most recently, and so most vividly in the public imagination, it efficiently faced down Essendon on an immensely fraught and divisive issue.

Yet Demetriou pleases barely half the people not even half the time. Partly, this is because of simplification by which one man is made to embody an organisation in all of its strength and weakness, nuance and complexity. As the curtain rose at AFL HQ on Monday's media conference, someone asked what Mike Fitzpatrick was doing there; the chairman of the commission was only dimly recognisable. Demetriou is so lavishly paid mostly to be the stopping place of the buck.

Partly, it is because the public tends to view politics and business in terms of convenient and even lazy consensus, but football as deeply and viscerally personal. It makes every issue the biggest in the history of the game, and every decision an affront to someone. It does not admit grey areas. The Essendon saga is a classic example.

Partly, it is because the AFL chief executive will never be right even when he is. To elaborate on Demetriou's own metaphor on Monday, his AFL is the police force that is damned both for revenue raising if it books too many speeding motorists, and carelessness if it misses one.


Two years ago, he voiced concern about the increasing role of sports scientists in football, specifically that they were outranking doctors, and was condemned in some quarters for being behind the times.

Demetriou sneered at the scientist "phys-edders". He can be blunt, is intolerant of fools and contemptuous of critics, who are myriad. If he has read Carnegie, it was on a street sign. It is easy to characterise him as an ex-footballer, poacher-turned-gamekeeper type who learned to keep his feet in kick-to-kick with his brothers in a concrete Woolworth's carpark, survived a Leigh Matthews shirtfront and was once reported for striking David Rhys-Jones.

Of course, there is much more to him, much more. His roots also imbued him with the conviction that football must be a game for all. He once worked for and still is a director of a false teeth retailer, whose Italian supplier impressed on him the importance of doing business in person and negotiating so that no one feels dudded (and that if you must dissemble, do it through high-class teeth?).

Demetriou is a dealmaker. In an ever-changing game of such wide compass, high emotion, passion and so many agendas, rounding up and containing the many skittish elements is his chief virtue. If it sometimes seems that closing the deal is more important than any philosophy underpinning it, it also means the job gets done. Is the draw, for instance, a conspiracy, a necessary evil or what it is? Whatever Melbourne and Essendon were punished for last year, everyone clearly knows what not to do henceforth.

Demetriou says his foremost priority as CEO has been the welfare of the players. In a sense, everyone in football is a player, intently participating even as we watch. It conjoins us to the CEO of the AFL ever more intimately than with the managing director at work, or publican, or pastor. It is why we will care about Demetriou until his last day in office, as much as we did on his first.

Demetriou's Achievements

1. More money in the game.
In 2012, the AFL generated $425 million – four times any other domestic sport in Australia. Much of the wealth comes from the record $1.25 billion TV rights deal Demetriou helped negotiate for seasons 2012-16.

2. More teams.
Demetriou has overseen the risky expansion from 16 teams to 18 with the introduction of Gold Coast in 2011 and Greater Western Sydney in 2012. The “20 to 30-year project” gives the AFL a two-team foothold in the NSW, Queensland, South Australian and West Australian markets.

3. Better stadiums.
Demetriou has driven $2 billion worth of stadium and facility development, including the transformation of Adelaide Oval into an AFL venue, an undertaking he described as his favourite achievement given the difficulty involving the state’s football and cricket bodies and its government.

4. Sporting culture.
The AFL, on Demetriou’s watch, has invested time and resources into educating the public and its players about the importance of creating a culturally inclusive environment, of taking a tough stand on racial vilification, of respect towards women and of responsibly to the community.

5. Globalisation.
Demetriou has helped push the game into the world globally. Twenty-one countries currently compete in the International Cup, and clubs are now drafting international players from all different backgrounds. The first ever game played outside Australia for premiership points – the Anzac Day match in New Zealand – occurred last year and pre-season games have been played in Los Angeles, China, South Africa, and Abu Dahbi.

Demetriou's controversies

1. Essendon supplements.
The biggest scandal ever to hit the game happened with Demetriou in charge. It became clear that the AFL was not as protected as it thought from performance enhancing drugs.

2. Melbourne tanking.
Demetriou had denied teams conspired to lose games to obtain draft picks, but the Demons were eventually fined heavily and key figures suspended.

3. Drugs in sport.
The AFL introduced its often criticised ‘‘three strikes’’ drugs policy under Demetriou. It came under serious scrutiny when clubs demanded a summit to address the issue. Brownlow medallist Ben Cousins was suspended for ‘‘bringing the game into disrepute’’ after being arrested on drug-related charges.

4. Media malfunctions.
Late last year Demetriou laughed uncontrollably on national television when told a St Kilda player was accused of setting fire to a short-statured entertainer during mad Monday celebrations, and he famously stated ‘‘go to his grave’’ knowing not be paid by Essendon

5. Eyes off the ball.
Demetriou was slammed for taking a six-week break during the 2012 season. There was a flow of minor controversies including Brock McLean’s comments about Melbourne that sparked the tanking investigation.