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Football in the Age of Instability

4 October  2002 

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At the end of the Australian Football League and National Rugby League seasons, a look at how both codes are faring. Why are a number of AFL clubs in financial strife? Is the salary cap in the NRL too low?

Plus, challenging the Bradman myth - a fresh take on Sir Donald Bradman as the embodiment of Australian nationhood.


Program Transcript

Amanda Smith: An end-of-season review of our two major football codes on The Sports Factor today, as the AFL reached its dénouement last weekend, and with the NRL Grand Final this weekend.

THEME

Amanda Smith: Also coming up: challenging the Bradman myth, by an author who’s taken a very different tack from the long line of books that have been written about Sir Donald Bradman.

Brett Hutchins: The process of writing was very delicate, because I wanted to really interrogate the ways that Bradman has been used by others, and the ways that he has been represented. In other words, I wish to be sceptical about these things, but I didn’t wish to be disrespectful. This is not a character assassination.

Amanda Smith: Phew! And more on Don Bradman, and myth-making, later in the program.

Before that though, to football finances and salary caps and the like. Last week, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Australia released a report on the financial health, or otherwise, of the clubs of the Australian Football League. The numbers they’ve crunched relate to the 2001 season, but the report does extrapolate from this into the current year and beyond. Of the 16 teams in the AFL, four of the Melbourne-based clubs (St Kilda, The Kangaroos, Western Bulldogs and Melbourne) as well as Fremantle, and the League premiers this year and last, Brisbane, all operated at a loss.

Garry Waldron is a Board member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Garry Waldron: You’re right, six clubs did incur losses in excess of half a million dollars, and that’s a significant concern. I don’t think it’s as significant as it might be in the corporate sector, where businesses try to make money as a profit objective, if you like.

Amanda Smith: No, these clubs are really just trying to break even, aren’t they?

Garry Waldron: That’s right. There’s no profit objective in sporting clubs really, so if they can break even on a consistent basis, over time I think they’d be happy with that.

Amanda Smith: But a number of them are not breaking even.

Garry Waldron: That’s right. In the 2001 year there were six of them, and I expected that would be worse in 2002, as a result of declining crowd numbers and pretty flat membership levels of clubs.

Amanda Smith: Just by the by, for how long as the Institute of Chartered Accountants been doing this kind of financial analysis of the AFL clubs, and for whom and what reason?

Garry Waldron: The review is now in its ninth year, so for nine years now the Institute of Chartered Accountants has been taking the financial statements of the clubs and reviewing them, initially with the objective of trying to ensure that the quality of the financial statements produced by the clubs was up to the mark. And we really conduct it just as an independent examination of how the clubs are tracking.

Amanda Smith: OK Gary, so why is it that at a time when there’s surely never been more money turning over in the AFL system, that so many clubs are in financial difficulty?

Garry Waldron: You’re right. Football is bigger business than it’s ever been but the clubs equally are struggling.

Amanda Smith: But why?

Garry Waldron: Well I guess the clubs are in financial difficulty because costs in the AFL have been going up at a pretty substantial rate over the last five years, and many of the clubs are just finding it harder and harder to generate sufficient ongoing revenue to try and cover those costs.

Amanda Smith: And you’re talking there as far as revenue goes, about memberships and sponsorships?

Garry Waldron: Yes, and match day attendances and those sorts of things, which have a direct impact on each club’s ability to raise revenue, that’s right.

Amanda Smith: Well certainly this year, attendances are down by some 5% nationally and I think 10% in Victoria, but what about memberships and sponsorship?

Garry Waldron: On the membership front, over the last three years really, membership has been pretty flat across the board, and clubs are now I think turning their attention not so much to the numbers of members, but the amount of money they get per member.

Amanda Smith: And does the number of members a club has in any way relate to the amount of sponsorship they can attract?

Garry Waldron: Oh certainly. I think those clubs with higher support bases, whether they be members or supporters, generally have a better capacity to attract sponsors in the marketplace, than clubs with smaller membership bases.

Amanda Smith: Now one could imagine that with at least one of those clubs who performed poorly financially last year, the Brisbane Lions, that they do actually have the potential to further increase their membership and sponsorship. But in general, do you see the trend of financial instability continuing, and the gap between rich and poor clubs increasing?

Garry Waldron: Well I guess that’s the key finding from this year’s report. The clubs that are performing well off the field continue to do so, while those that are struggling are facing a bleak future.

Amanda Smith: At a time of declining attendances, as we’ve seen this year, and as you say when membership numbers have plateaued and sponsor revenue is tight, is what players are being paid out of kilter now with reality? Is the salary cap actually too high for a number of clubs? I mean next year it goes up to $5.9-million per club, plus there is the extra amount that Brisbane and Sydney are allowed, which of course the Collingwood President, Eddie McGuire was so critical of this week. But in effect, by being forced to pay up to a bigger and bigger salary cap so as to stay competitive on the field, are a number of the clubs stretching beyond their means and long-term viability?

Garry Waldron: I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a number of clubs at the moment living beyond their means. Whether it’s directly related just to the salary cap I think is a bit contentious. The AFL has deliberately increased the distribution to clubs to cover the increases in the salary cap, and has been able to do that because of the new media rights deal. But there is a flow-on effect from players’ salaries and the flow-on effect goes to coaching payments and to all of the other support staff that exists within clubs as well. And so while the salary cap is increasing at a healthy rate, that has the flow-on effect that clubs have to fund themselves, and I think that’s where the game is probably living beyond its means at the moment.

Amanda Smith: Gary does the Institute of Chartered Accountants do a similar sort of financial analysis for the clubs of the National Rugby League?

Garry Waldron: No, the Institute is certainly interested in the possibilities of such a review. I guess when we’ve looked at it previously, it’s always been very difficult for us, because of the way the Leagues clubs work, and the social clubs that sit behind the Rugby League clubs in the competition. So that’s a bit of a barrier for the review, but it’s something that we are looking at.

Amanda Smith: Garry Waldron, number-cruncher, and a member of the Board of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Australia.

We take a squiz now at the National Rugby League season, and where it’s up to after all the upheavals and legal battles of the recent past, from super-league to club amalgamations, expulsions and reinstatements.

Braham Dabscheck: Rugby League lost a small fortune in this process and the way in which the League has now tried to overcome its various problems, is to, if you like, force the solution onto players.

Amanda Smith: Braham Dabscheck is a specialist in the industrial relations of professional team sports, from the University of New South Wales.

Braham Dabscheck: And so what we’ve had in Rugby League since, well since National Rugby League started, in 1998 they imposed a salary cap of $3.25-million, and in the original phase, the salary cap was fairly loose. It had a lot of qualifications for players on high contracts from the Super League/Rugby League wars in the preceding period, so whilst it was $3.25-million, in actual practice it was much higher than that, and then as those contracts have expired the real value, if you like, of salaries in Rugby League has come down between 1998 and 2002.

Amanda Smith: Well the big drama of this season, was of course the salary cap breach by Canterbury Bulldogs, which was made much more dramatic by it being revealed during the season, and just before the finals, so that the National Rugby League could, and did, impose an on-field penalty, stripping the club of its right to play in the finals when it was on top of the ladder. That obviously couldn’t have been done if the infringement had come to light out of season. But in the case of the NRL, then is the salary cap too low, Braham?

Braham Dabscheck: Well in my opinion it is too low, because if you’ve got clubs that are prepared to pay players more, and we’re not talking about huge amounts of income, but if you’ve got clubs who are prepared to pay players more, then the salary cap is too low. And the other thing is that between 1998 and 2002, there’s been no increase in the salary cap. Income in Rugby League has gone up, a number of clubs have breached the salary cap in the past and received appropriate penalties so I think part of the problem is that the League’s imposed a relatively low salary cap on players, and one of the problems is that part of this problem could have been resolved by having a different approach to the salary cap, a formula to link players’ income to revenue generated.

Amanda Smith: So while the salary cap is increasing in the AFL, in the Australian Football League, as we’ve heard, that’s causing problems for a number of clubs in terms of its flow-on effects; what effect is the static salary cap in the NRL having on the competition?

Braham Dabscheck: Well what’s happening is that because the salary cap is low, and Rugby League, as distinct from Australian Football, Rugby League has a natural competitor in sport called Rugby Union, in addition to players being able to go and play overseas, particularly in the United Kingdom. So what’s happened is that Rugby League is losing some of its stars, or if you like, potential stellar players of the future which in turn erodes the ability of Rugby League to attract fans, sponsors, TV deals and so on. So because the salary cap is, in my view, artificially low, they’re losing players to other competitions and that is in fact a disservice to the League as well as the players who play in it.

Amanda Smith: Are our Rugby League players in a weaker bargaining position than, say their peers in the Australian Football League?

Braham Dabscheck: Well I think as everybody knows, the Australian Football League has a robust Players’ Association, and the sport has a salary cap and that salary cap has been part of a collective bargaining deal. And whilst one might argue about the rules of the salary cap and the level of the salary cap, it is something that’s been bargained between the League and the players, and it’s essentially a revenue-linked formula as the revenue and the sport has grown, so has the salary cap. Now whilst there’s a Players’ Association in Rugby League, it’s weak and ineffectual. This is no disrespect to the people trying to run and organise it. It’s failed to establish a collective bargaining relationship; it has some negotiations with the Rugby League but nothing of the ilk or level of the AFL Players’ Association. So a difference between the two salary caps in the sport, is that one’s been collectively bargained, and the other one’s been imposed by the League. And that also raises, because one’s been opposed and one’s been collectively bargained, the one that’s been imposed by the League could potentially be subject to unreasonable restrained trade claim because the salary cap restrict players’ earnings, and if you like there’s no quid pro quo for it. The quid pro quo for the AFL salary cap is in the collective bargaining deal, where there are other concessions that the AFL provides to players, the most major one being the welfare provisions they provide to help players with second careers, education and so on, and other welfare issues that arise. So there’s a marked difference between the two sports and the use of salary caps and the role of player associations.

Amanda Smith: Braham Dabscheck, from the School of Industrial Relations at the University of New South Wales, and whose particular area is in the industrial relations of professional team sports.

And now, with the changing of the season, to our summer game, cricket, and best batsman of them all, The Don.

SONG:

Hero of heroes, mould of the bold,

You dignified the uniform, you blessed the green and gold.

Amanda Smith: In his long lifetime, and since his death in February last year, so much has been said and sung and written about Sir Donald Bradman, that you’d think there’d be nothing left.

SONG:

Sir Don, you gave us pride in ourselves -

Amanda Smith: But Brett Hutchins, who’s the author of a new book called ‘Don Bradman – Challenging the Myth’, disagrees. Brett’s interest is in how and why the Bradman story has been told and re-told, always in the same iconic way. You might remember though, that at the time of Sir Donald Bradman’s death, his son John asked for his father to be remembered not as an icon, but as a man. Not such an easy thing to do, though, according to Brett Hutchins.

Brett Hutchins: The man and the myth are inseparable. The man has been lost, if it was ever possible to separate the two, and I’d add that. The man has been lost long ago behind the various biographies, documentaries, souvenirs, merchandise items, auctions, endless amount of literature, museum displays. I think John Bradman’s quote was that he didn’t wish his father to be enshrined with worship, or certainly something along those lines. In that sense I thought he was asking for a grounded understanding of his father to put him in proper context, and I would hope that that is what this book does. It seeks to actually situate him, not only within cricketing culture, but within Australian culture and nationalism, which is something that the biographies do not do. They take a very down-the-line, what Bradman was doing at this time, what were his best innings, who was he hanging around with; but it seemed to me when I looked through all this, that no-one had attempted to do what I’ve done here. Yet we’ve had books that you could argue are similar to mine on people such as Simpson and the Donkey, articles on Dame Nellie Melba, Ginger Meggs, ‘Weary’ Dunlop, yet no-one had touched Bradman, and that was a source of fascination for me, and something that drove much of my inquiry.

Amanda Smith: Well as a batsman, of course no-one did it better than The Don, but your point is that Donald Bradman the cricketer, has been idealised as the embodiment of Australian nationhood, and that what’s always been emphasised, and what’s always been de-emphasised about him, has been in the service of this ideal. So let’s look at some of the strands to this. Firstly the tag about ‘the boy from Bowral’, ‘the kid from the bush who conquers the world’. How does this fit with your argument about what’s being over or under emphasised.

Brett Hutchins: With ‘the boy from Bowral’ stories, I think is possibly the most important in the Bradman story in connecting him to ideals of Australian nationhood. It struck me upon examination that the biographers and others, and people who have sought to glorify or deify Bradman, have had little choice but to emphasise this story. He wasn’t a larrikin, he was a very grounded, private, quiet person, and in terms of connecting him to notions of typical Australian blokehood, or masculinity, if you will, it was almost the only thing that people had to grab hold of, was ‘the boy from Bowral’ story. Even the notion of an Aussie Ocker craving to stick it up the Poms is very difficult with Bradman, because in his autobiography he speaks repeatedly about his love of England and its people. He appears as a Monarchist. So the ‘boy from Bowral’ story is exceptionally important, and in this process it is being pushed to the front of the Bradman story, even the founding of the museum in the late 1980s was in Bowral, it wasn’t in Sydney or Adelaide. And you could argue that Adelaide, where Bradman spent the most years out of his life, might have been a better spot for it, but it wouldn’t have had that romance of going back to the place of Bradman’s boyhood in an Australian country town, the notions of kids playing cricket in the backyard.

Amanda Smith: Because it does connect with the bush myth of Australian nationhood, doesn’t it?

Brett Hutchins: It certainly does. The notion of ingenuity and innocence that come from a country background can certainly, compared to often what we see as the alienation and depravity of an urban experience. Rural life is idealised, and in the Bradman story, it definitely is. You hear of his humble and upstanding parents; the famous story I think if you want to talk about iconic images, the notion of a young boy standing in front of a water tank with a golf ball and a cricket stump.

Amanda Smith: But that’s all true, isn’t it?

Brett Hutchins: It is, it is no doubt. But when you actually get to stories, where you hear stories such as the notion of Bradman meeting Banjo Paterson in a sports store, and the story of how in the schoolyard he used a tree stump as a bat, you get that notion that this is all about improvisation in much the manner of the jackeroos in these things. I think the thing that strikes me about ‘the boy from Bowral’ story is there’s this sense that Bradman had absolutely no assistance, no help. When you read the stories it’s as if Bradman lived in a vacuum, and how could anyone of any talent come from this background and play cricket the way he did. And I’m not seeking to underplay his achievements in any way, I am just seeking to point out that he did come from a cricketing background, that he did have support and resources, and this wasn’t a case of talent that sort of developed without help, and that is the inference of many of the narratives that are available on him.

SONG:

Born a country boy, and we are proud,

You built upon your legend with the power of you blade,

You fought against the odds and put others in the shade.

Amanda Smith: Well now we are coming up to the 70th anniversary of the famous, infamous Bodyline Series of the summer of 1932-33. I’m interested in your thoughts, Brett, on how this series adds to the Bradman aura. I mean just say the England cricket team had decided against using this type of aggressive bowling and field placement. If Bodyline never happened, would the Bradman mystique be the same?

Brett Hutchins: Put it this way: biographers and others would have had to find something else to hang an independent Australian nationalism off. Bradman, due to his sheer dominance on the cricket field, is a ready vehicle for this notion that he stood up in the face of English bastardry, if you will, particularly during ’32-’33 against Jardine and Larwood in particular. It’s fascinating to me that the Bodyline story gets told in a way that’s very similar to the Anzac myth: you’re talking about a comprehensive moral victory, facing up to injustice, despite the fact of comprehensive defeat on the field, be it the battlefield or the sporting field. And that notion of sport and war being inseparable in many ways. I think if the Bodyline series hadn’t happened, perhaps it may well have been a story that has already been emphasised and used quite extensively in the Bradman story, the ’48 Ashes series.

Amanda Smith: The Invincible?

Brett Hutchins: Yes, the Invincible Bradman, the man who was the beacon of repair after the war, the durability of Empire in many ways. But Bodyline in many senses, is so perfect in terms of a clear-cut statement of independence against injustice, that Bradman comes to embody that. And I can’t underestimate that it’s probably since the Bodyline mini-series in ’84, that we’ve understood Bradman in this sense. People like Bill O’Reilly and some of his team-mates didn’t necessarily have a great opinion of Bradman’s performance in the Bodyline Series, but due to his longevity and the way that the mini-series was written and the way that Bradman’s been remembered since the 1980s, it’s hard to envisage him as anything but almost this super-human sort of batsman who stood up in the face of incredible odds, and somehow emerged victorious. When compared to many other series as I say, he wasn’t successful; that’s not to say that he wasn’t successful completely, but his dominance was cut back by Bodyline tactics.

Amanda Smith: Part of the Australian bushman/digger/sportsman archetype that you’re really referring to is of the larrikin who values loyalty and mateship above individual success and glory. Now Donald Bradman was never the larrikin ‘mate’ type, and he was a one-man run machine for most of his career. How has this departure from the archetype been managed, so to speak, in the story?

Brett Hutchins: The way that it has been explained away, because he wasn’t necessarily that popular with some of his team-mates, at least prior to World War II.

Amanda Smith: And he was a teetotaller, and wasn’t ‘one of the lads’.

Brett Hutchins: No, he didn’t gamble, he didn’t smoke, he certainly didn’t join in shouts around the bar, and the complaints against him for basically being over-frugal with his money, not putting it across the bar after he received large amounts of it, these things cut at the notion of the egalitarian ethos and the way that mates behave towards one another, and he wasn’t necessarily friends with many of his team-mates. But in place of that you’ve seen an emphasis on that he was as hard as nails on the field, that he didn’t take a backward step, that he played the game within the rules, but never gave much quarter. So while his masculinity off the field can perhaps be brought into question in terms of the way Australian men are supposed to behave, (and I’d emphasise that) on the field he was as manly as anyone else, perhaps more manly due to the fact that he played the game so hard, and so successfully. He never lost a series as Captain. Other ways of course is the stress on his heterosexual appeal that women liked to come out and watch Bradman. Perhaps they just liked to come out and watch cricket, but the way the story gets told is that they were there for Bradman.

SONG:

When Auntie Duckie danced with Donald Bradman

She said it was the highlight of her life,

That wizard of the willow swept her off her feet,

Along with all Australians, every man on the street …

Amanda Smith: I’m speaking with Brett Hutchins, who’s the author of ‘Don Bradman – Challenging the Myth’. So, Brett, what need does the Don Bradman story, as its always told, fulfil for us? Is it that he stands for this kind of golden and unsullied age, however imaginary that might be, and not just in cricket, but in Australia in General?

Brett Hutchins: I don’t think there’s any doubt that he stands for stability and in many ways, conservatism. He comes from a game that indeed its roots are particularly conservative, being a game of the British Empire. However, interestingly enough in the building of Bradman’s heroism, it is that consistency, that lack of unpredictability that has come to play in his favour. I think in many senses, the further he withdrew from public life, the more people became fascinated with him. Yet at the same time as he did this, others did the work for him. Organisations like the media, like the Bradman Museum and the Bradman Foundation. So you see someone who is never going to be contradictory or confounding in his public representations as I stated earlier. There’s no dirt to uncover, if you will, although perhaps that’s not quite the case if you look at David Nason’s feature articles from The Australian. But there certainly isn’t much dirt to uncover, and that is in some senses, what we’ve come to appreciate in an age of corruption and scandal, where particularly Gareth and Cheryl, drug controversies in sport, things like this. Bradman offers none of that sort of uncertainty, that distaste that those things leave in some people’s mouths, he offers consistency and clarity.

Amanda Smith: Yes, well you mentioned those newspaper features that appeared some months after Donald Bradman’s death last year that did present him in a somewhat unflattering light, that he wasn’t as nice to some of his family as he might have been, he didn’t go to either of his parents’ funerals when he could have, and also allegations that some of his business dealings as a stockbroker in Adelaide, weren’t entirely above board. It did strike me though at the time of those newspaper articles that the criticisms actually fell rather flat, that no-one really wanted to know. Does this accord with your view that we’ve always had, and still have, a desire to see Don Bradman in the idealised form, rather than with any complexity as a person?

Brett Hutchins: They fell flat I think in some senses, because you write something that goes against the grain of common or collective understandings of an icon like Bradman, that’s been built up over the past 70 years, so you’re fighting an awful big tidal wave of accepted understanding. That doesn’t necessarily mean these things shouldn’t be written, but it is to state that it does go against a lot that’s gone on before. And I still think people, or many people, don’t have much interest in iconoclasm, and that’s of course the challenge of making my book, while to revise the Bradman myth, not to actually write something that’s a character assassination in any way, or seeks to dig dirt, more or less seeking to understand how this heroic and idealised image got created in the first place.

Amanda Smith: Well do you think subsequent generations of Australians will continue to honour and revere The Don, and continue to see him as the ideal Australian?

Brett Hutchins: I think the stakeholders in the Bradman industry, if that’s what you want to call it, people like the foundation, such as journalists, Mike Gibson for example, who professed to an undying of love of Bradman it seems, have a challenge on their hands. It’s difficult to see sometimes why a bush cricketer from the age of the White Australia Policy should necessarily be seen as a fitting representation of the Australian culture now, in all its complexities.

Amanda Smith: Yes, but he is, so my question is, will that continue?

Brett Hutchins: I have the feeling that coming generations are going to have to be sold particularly hard on why Bradman should represent them in terms of the complexity, as I was saying, the complexity of the Australian society, the way it’s made up, different cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs, values. The other thing about that is that it will also depend very much on cricket’s continuing relevance and popularity within Australian society, which is another issue. If people do start moving away from it, there is a challenge there as to why Bradman should be thought of as an ideal or the ideal Australian as some would have us believe.

SONG:

Sir Don you gave us pride in ourselves,

Please come out for just one more parade…

Amanda Smith: And with a bit of help from John Williamson and his song, ‘Sir Don’, I was speaking there with Brett Hutchins, whose book ‘Don Bradman – Challenging the Myth’, is just out.

And that’s The Sports Factor for this Friday. Maria Tickle is the program producer; Carey Dell’s the technical producer today, and I’m Amanda Smith.


Publications:
Don Bradman
Author: Brett Hutchins
Publisher: Cambridge Univeristy Press

Guests on this program:

Braham Dabscheck - Industrial Relations of Professional Sport, University of NSW
Brett Hutchins - Sports Writer
Garry Waldron - Board Member, Australian Institute of Chartered Accountants, Aust.

Presenter: Amanda Smith
Producer: Maria Tickle
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