Whitten Legends Game charity to get $1m in TV deal

The EJ Whitten Foundation could raise up to $1 million from a bidding war between rival TV networks Nine and Seven for the rights to broadcast the 2016 Legends Game.

It's a dramatic turnaround in fortune for the troubled charity, which until recently had been fighting over the distribution of money raised by the game with the for-profit firm it hired to run the lucrative event.

The Legends Game, which features retired AFL stars and guest celebrity players, is reportedly one of the top rating games of the year.

The EJ Whitten Foundation sacked commercial operator Baker Smith Management late last year amid allegations the charity was not receiving its due share of takings from the event.

It was alleged that BSM earned more than $1 million a year from selling the broadcast rights to Nine, sponsorship agreements and ticket sales, but was donating only about $100,000 of the proceeds to the foundation annually.

BSM, which held the trademark and intellectual property rights associated with the Legends Game, countered that the EJ Whitten Foundation was receiving its due entitlements under an agreement signed in 2010.


The bitter public fight cast the future of the game into doubt, leading long-time broadcast partner Nine to propose a "rescue" plan that would see the match change its name to "The Footy Show All Stars Game".

The deal would have seen Nine fully underwrite the cost of staging the game and donate 100 per cent of the ticket sales to the EJ Whitten Foundation and a proposed new charitable partner, the Shane Warne Foundation.

But the EJ Whitten Foundation ultimately regained control of the Legends Game trademark from BSM in a confidential settlement agreement reached just before Christmas, rendering Nine's rescue plan moot.

The Sunday Age can reveal the foundation has now chosen to open the broadcast rights to a potential bidding war between Nine and Seven, with both networks understood to be interested.

The new competitive environment could see the charity receive up to $1 million in takings from the 2016 event.

The EJ Whitten Foundation estimates the figure is more likely to be $300,000 to $500,000 but could rise from merchandising sales and other fundraising events on the day. It is understood the EJ Whitten Foundation, which raises money for prostate cancer research and awareness programs, had received only $614,000 in total over the last six years under its agreement with BSM.

Foundation chief executive Barry Besanko said negotiations were underway with different potential media partners. "We wanted to explore all options because for the last five years we have been a little behind the eight ball because we have been unable to negotiate ourselves," he said. 

The money will be donated to the Epworth Hospital and Monash University. 

A Nine Network spokeswoman said: "We're aware the foundation is talking to others but we have given them our word we'd be committed for 2016 and beyond."

A representative of Seven did not respond to a request for comment.

The Shane Warne Foundation, which announced on Friday it is shutting down operations, will not receive any money from the revived Legends Game.

Founder and chairman Shane Warne had been banking on the proposed "The Footy Show All Stars Game" or a related event to revitalise the finances of the foundation while substantially cutting costs.

"Our goal is to do one major fundraising event a year where we will hopefully receive a $400,000 to $500,000 cheque to give away to one children's charity. We feel that's now the best way for us to do the most good," Mr Warne said late last year.  

But a source said the Shane Warne Foundation's proposed involvement in Nine's original "rescue" plan was met by stiff opposition amid the philanthropic group's ongoing financial and regulatory problems.

"There was real concern about how it would look to have a charity involved that was still under fire over its distribution and expense levels when the EJ Whitten Foundation was only just recovering from its own issues," the source said.

A spokeswoman for Nine said the network did not have an issue with Mr Warne. "It was Shane's decision to walk away and we would be willing to work again with him in the future," she said.

Consumer Affairs Victoria had been "monitoring" the Shane Warne Foundation since last year after flagging "inconsistencies" in its reporting and accounting practices.

The Sunday Age has previously revealed the foundation has been spending up to 86 per cent of the money it raises for charity on expenses associated with staging lavish, star-studded events such as gala dinners, cricket matches and poker tournaments.

In December, Consumer Affairs Victoria ordered an independent audit be conducted to ensure the money it received in recent years has been "properly accounted for and applied" in compliance with state fundraising laws.

Warne announced on Friday the Foundation was closing due to "unwarranted speculation" about its financial and regulatory problems.

CAV said the audit is still due to be completed in late February.