Others say the AFL could turn to two broadcast CEOs who took center stage as the AFL negotiated a $4.5 billion blockbuster broadcast deal with Seven Network and Foxtel. These include Seven CEO James Warburton and Foxtel boss Patrick Delany.
There’s also some formidable competition within the AFL ranks.
Andrew Dillon, the AFL’s general manager of football operations, is still regarded as the frontrunner. A lawyer by trade who started at the AFL in the same year as McLachlan, Dillon also has media connections forged inside Village Roadshow where he served as in-house counsel before joining the AFL. Critically, the senior executive has also had the benefit of learning first-hand from McLachlan, under whose management Dillon has emerged in a succession-planning structure.
Travis Auld, the AFL’s finance, clubs and broadcast boss, is another favored candidate and has the experience of being on the top rungs of management inside two football clubs, including Essendon where he served as chief operating officer, and the Gold Coast Suns, where he was appointed inaugural chief executive from 2009 to 2014.
Western Bulldogs chairman and Disney executive Kylie Watson-Wheeler is also seen as an outside contender who could bring both club credentials and serious media and rights negotiation experience to the role.
The contenders are expected to be inside the room on Saturday when the AFL’s annual luncheon kicks off at 11am AEST. The function that attracts more than 500 guests is one of two high points in the annual corporate and sporting calendar, alongside the Australian Open in January.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will be in the room, as will Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and wealthy powerbrokers including Kerry Stokes and News Corp Australasia’s executive chairman, Michael Miller.
Shocking revelations this week detailing racism and the abhorrent treatment of Indigenous players at the Hawthorn Football Club will cast a pall over the room, but several attendees at the event say the match will be front of mind.
Even so, McLachlan will be center stage.
“It’s the biggest and best corporate invitation there is and so when Gillon stands up to give his speech, he has the captains of industry, every politician that matters, he’s got everyone that carries some form of power listening to him in that moment,” one seasoned sports administrator told AFR Weekend, adding“That’s a very powerful thing to have”.
For the successor, the task of filling McLachlan’s shoes is a big one. One senior political figure pointed to McLachlan’s landmark deal with the Victorian government over Marvel Stadium, which had the government agreeing to tip in $225 million to upgrade the aging venue, of which the AFL is the sole owner.
In the same deal, the government agreed to spend another $241.6 million upgrading suburban football pitches, including $20 million to redevelop Ikon Park as the home of AFLW. During the pandemic, the AFL was then able to leverage the upgraded Marvel to help fund the game over the two quiet years.
Others point to McLachlan’s success in keeping the game running throughout COVID-19, including the relocation of the 2021 grand final to Perth, as proof of the enormous clout he wields. Keeping the game running throughout the pandemic required close co-ordination with state governments in five states and a compelling case to enter what was then Fortress WA.
“Most MPs love the AFL and will bend over backwards for it off the bat – but those who don’t follow the game also know that for the bulk of constituents, this is like a religion to them, it’s their church, and they have to pay attention to what the boss of the game is saying,” another powerbroker said.
“It just isn’t the same for NRL or soccer or cricket.”