Today Frank Lowy steps aside from his role as Chairman of the Football Federation of Australia. It is the end of an era, of that there can be no doubt.
There are some who will say it was a magnificent era, others with a slightly wider view will not be so quick to heap praise on the man who has ruled the game with an iron fist, some would argue in a very undemocratic way, and in a way that has seen him have a far too ‘hands on’ approach for a Chairman of the Board.
There is no doubt that when the Ian Knopp started down the path of change, to try and save the game in Australia from destroying itself, and also from Bankruptcy, Lowy was the ideal man for the top job. He is one of the most powerful businessmen in Australia and had a direct line to the Prime Minister; something that proved extremely useful over the past ten years as the FFA repeatedly went cup-in-hand to the Government for money.
The FFA has had three CEO’s since its formation and all three have been handpicked by the Chairman. One would have thought under the “new football” regime a more open procedure would have taken place.
What has tainted Lowy’s time at the helm of the game has been what many would describe as, conflicts of interest. He however couches them as showing his commitment to the game. Lowy’s company Westfield has sponsored the Matildas, it has sponsored the W-League and is now the sponsor of the FFA Cup. The prize money for the latter amounts to $131,000 in 2015. How much on top of that has been thrown into the pot by Westfield?
When one looks at the media coverage that the Westfield brand has picked up with its sponsorship one would hope that it is sitting up around the $1-2million dollar mark, as most companies would have to invest those sorts of sums to gain so much air time on television alone.
There are many sporting constitutions that prohibit sponsors from holding positions on the board, for the obvious reason that they are privy to exclusive information. The FFA’s does not have any such clause. Some people still seem to think that Mr Lowy and Westfield took out these sponsorship packages out of the goodness of his heart, but they forget he is one of the shrewdest and successful businessmen in the country.
In all of the State Body Constitutions a person holding an official position at a club, and let us not forget that most at that level are amateur, may not hold a position on the Board of their state body. Yet Mr Lowy is, and has been since day one of the A-League, a part owner of Sydney FC. To many outside the game this is a major conflict of interest and always has been. Following his departure as Chairman he has confirmed that he will still maintain his very small ownership stake in A-League club Sydney FC, but says he will not move to take a bigger shareholding or fund any other club.
Mr Lowy’s final Board meeting at the helm of the FFA is incredibly not being held at the Offices of the FFA. It is being held at his Westfield Corporate Offices in Sydney. More free publicity for Westfield, and surely another example of a conflict of interest. How many Board meetings has the FFA held at the Offices of Hyundai, the sponsor that has helped keep the A-League afloat?
Interestingly it was Lowy and John O’Neill who ignored the recommendations for the make-up of the A-League which suggested having two teams in Sydney and Melbourne from the start, to create the rivalries which have assisted so much in boosting the overall attendance figures at the end of the season. Had they heeded that advice many believe the competition would now be realising a profit.
Later today the new Board will be unveiled and at the helm will be none other than Frank Lowy’s son, Steven. Hopefully the other new appointees will ensure that there are some changes made in the way the game is run. Whereas their predecessors may have been too timid to stand up to Lowy senior they may now find their voices with his son in charge.
Frank Lowy was quoted today in the Financial Review that he wants to be remembered “For making Australia a better place by changing football from an ethnic game to a multicultural and mainstream sport. I think that was a big service to Australia. And for exposing Australia’s sporting prowess to the world and for Australia becoming a more known and respected place.”
Some would argue that by dismissing the ethnic side of the game he has strangled its history, and it is always dangerous to ignore history, in fact one can learn so much from it. Has he really ‘helped Australia become a more known and respected place?’
The fact that Australia on his watch has been embroiled in corruption allegations in trying to win the World Cup hosting rights has hardly enhanced our reputation, some would say it has harmed it. Australia has always been respected as a sporting nation punching above its weight and now that reputation has been cemented in football, yet we are still a long way off being one of the top sides in the world. Had he invested more in our women they could well be claiming that mantle.
One thing that Mr Lowy has done during his reign in charge is forget that there is more to Australia than Sydney and Melbourne. If football is to truly become a national sport it needs to truly embrace all corners of the country and not be guilty of tokenism. It needs to truly take the game across the country and have FFA Cup finals hosted in cities where the game has been and is starved of top flight games, rather than simply chasing the biggest payday.
It needs to be serious about its indigenous and other programs. The former was abandoned once the World Cup bid was over despite the FFA announcing a ten year commitment to the program. It needs to also ensure that money filters down to all the clubs around the country that are currently developing the future A-League and Socceroos players. It needs to ensure that development monies owed are paid on time and that sacked coaches and players are also paid what they are owed.
Mr Lowy undoubtedly achieved a great deal during his rein as Chairman of the FFA, but his management style was at times far from democratic. He will tell you that was what was needed to get results. Yet as he departs there is still much work to be done if the game is indeed to become a strong financially viable mainstream sport in Australia. Hopefully in his son Steven we have the right man guiding the ship in the coming years, and we will see less issues that have opened the Chairman of the sport up to accusations of conflicts of interest.
As for Mr Lowy’s legacy, let us wait a few years before being so quick to praise. Let us judge based on the foundations on which his successors have to build.