THE WORDS "private ownership" still scare hardened VFL/AFL administrators from the 1980s and 1990s.

The names, companies and storylines attached to private ownership frighten the same people even more. Christopher Skase and the Lions. Geoffrey Edelsten and the Swans. Nauru Insurance Corporation and Fitzroy. The Hobart stock exchange and North Melbourne.

For a long time, from the early 1990s through to three years ago, private ownership was not even mentioned, let alone discussed and debated, by anyone attached to the key pillars of the AFL industry. That model was for American sports. The AFL way, by preference, was clubs "owned" by members, all bound and beholden to varying financial distributions from the controlling body.


Private ownership is no longer a dirty concept in AFL industry conversations. It is being discussed, widely, by many people within and attached to the game. Big business operators, particularly some in football's growth states NSW and Queensland, are seriously talking of making official pitches for stakes in clubs.

Private ownership models need to be encouraged, particularly for the expansion franchises

- Jeff Browne

Post the shock of COVID-19, all attached to the game have been forced to review all aspects of financial operations and distributions, and to explore future sources of revenue.

New Collingwood president Jeff Browne believes private ownership, done the right way, could be a way to open revenue streams that are currently bypassing the game.

Collingwood president Jeff Browne and coach Craig McRae after a win over St Kilda in round one, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

"Private ownership is worth very serious consideration, and I think the (AFL) Commission should work very seriously towards building potential models that tap into it," Browne said.

"It could bring enormous benefit, if correctly structured and implemented. Enormous benefit.

"There is no fresh capital coming in to our system, and if the AFL looked at the underlying earnings (of clubs) as opposed to statutory earnings before handouts (from the AFL itself), there are a serious number of clubs in trouble and we can't continue to run the competition that way, and we can't continue to fund the expansion of the competition that way because that is what has caused the pressure in the current economic system.

"We will get more from TV (rights), but not enough to fund expansion. Private ownership models need to be encouraged, particularly for the expansion franchises."

A form of private ownership will effectively be the basis for entry for the Tasmanian team as the AFL's 19th licence. The key criteria for its entry to the AFL will be guaranteed state government financial backing.

Colourful 1980s figure Dr Geoffrey Edelsten

GWS has for many years already explored ways to formally and significantly involve a couple of financially loaded US-based businessmen, and there is a growing view of some traditional AFL clubs that the money drain attached to Gold Coast's 12 seasons in the national competition should at least force an industry-wide discussion on that club's control and backing structure.

Edelsten had a headline-grabbing, exciting but ultimately financially disastrous crack at ownership of the Swans in the '80s. But there are more than a few current, wealthy, NSW-based entrepreneurs who have asked questions of each other, and of those with high-end AFL Commission connections, about heading down the same path, even with the Swans.

Some of AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder's views on private ownership will be aired publicly on April 7 when he speaks as part of a two-day forum run by SportNXT on the future of sports at Centrepiece at Melbourne Park.

Goyder has agreed to be a headline act, and will address the agenda item: Evolving Models For Sport, where "industry experts examine evolving ownership, funding and governance models across sport".

AFL Commission chairman Richard Goyder speaks at the 2021 Brownlow Medal count. Picture: AFL Photos

In his short time as Collingwood boss, Browne has actively sought answers from headquarters about future financial modelling.

"People will say (private ownership) didn’t work for the Bears on the Gold Coast, but we need to be careful that that doesn’t mean it can’t work," Browne said.

"It obviously couldn’t be a plaything, and the right person and the right group would be essential, but people need to understand that with serious people and serious business nous behind it, it would work.

"The AFL has developed the business of football very well. Sponsorships are valuable, they deliver, and they deliver enormous benefit, the dollar value to a brand that is in the AFL system is very appealing, and by extension of that, the value of the club brand is of very strong appeal to investors.

"People can invest in the same metrics. It is all about ROI (return on investment). Investors would need to be patient, particularly in the expanding areas, but I think it would pay off for people with a long-term view.

"I understand that private ownership may carry with it a bad stigma given what has happened in football in the past, but it depends on how you want to characterise it.

"Some may say private ownership has a negative connotation. But what if you call it strong investment from good people and good organisations in clubs in non-traditional areas? That is something to get excited about.

"Thinking outside the square, it would be fresh capital. There is no fresh capital. We have circulating capital."

Post the worst of COVID, the AFL is entering a period where it is seeking to redefine many aspects of its operations. The slashing of each club's soft cap by more than $3.7 million annually was a massive shift; so too the full-steam-ahead nature of aligning every AFL operation with an AFLW team.

After, as expected, the Tasmanian licence is approved in August, work will begin on its actual entry to point to an AFL season, possibly 2028. And while the AFL is prepared to work with an odd number of clubs (meaning a weekly bye will be required in fixturing) for a short period, it ideally wants to have an even number.

After August, discussions will move to whether that even number is 18, which would mean relocation, or 20, which would mean another new licence, with Western Australia, Northern Territory and Far North Queensland the leading options.

"I haven't discussed any of this with the AFL, but they should be, as an organisation, be developing future (financial) models, and I know they will be," Browne said.

"One of key reasons we have a Commission is to have a wide array of people who dare to think outside the square. Obviously, the tax component to all of this would be a factor, there are lot of key issues to work through.

"But as an industry we need to apply thinking that relieves the current pressure on the recirculating capital. The reality is there are strong and well-managed football clubs which have principally funded the expansion of the competition.

"We should have investors funding what is the greatest game in the world."