The Australian Athletes Alliance (AAA), the peak body for Australia’s elite athletes’ associations,successfully held a legal conference on Friday, 22 June 2012 to examine the key issues associated with the governance of Australian sport.

AAA General Secretary Brendan Schwab said, “Australia’s elite athletes understand that only a well governed sport can grow, fairly balance the interests of all stakeholders and protect sport from major threats such as match fixing, prejudice and insolvency.  They also understand that, ultimately, sport exists for the players and the fans.”

The relevance of the conference was highlighted by the fact that many major professional sports including rugby league, football, rugby union and cricket were undergoing or had recently undergone major reviews of their governance and structure.  The extensive work of David Crawford, who has led reviews of the AFL, football, cricket, Victorian horse racing and the Australian Sports Commission, was particularly considered.

Simon Hollingsworth, CEO of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), explained the measures the ASC has been taking to promote the good governance of Australian sports. He also emphasised the importance of good governance and what happens when it fails.

Other leading industry representatives to speak in the morning of the conference were Jo Setright, FFA Head of Legal & Business Affairs, who used FFA’s experience to discuss the issues that arise in the governance of a major sport; former Basketball Australia CEO and legendary Boomer, Larry Sengstock who presented on the consolidation of the leagues and national teams into Basketball Australia, Matt Finis, CEO of the AFLPA and Surfing Australia Board member, who described the divergent interests of stakeholders and contrasted the governance needs of Surfing Australia with those of the much larger AFL; Brendon Gale, CEO of the Richmond Football Club and former player, who discussed the issues that arise from ownership of clubs by members;  and Chris Nikou,a Director of Melbourne Victory, the Melbourne Renegades and the Local Organising Committee for the 2015 AFC Asian (Football) Cup, who compared different structures  of private ownership of professional sports clubs.

The speakers were followed by two panel sessions led by Steve Alessio, AFLPA’s Manager of Alumni and Corporate Programs and former Essendon Premiership player. Audience members, which included lawyers from governing bodies and sports unions, had vigorous exchanges with panel members on the topics discussed that morning.

The afternoon session addressed governance and its direct impact on athletes, especially in addressing the threats to sport from match fixing, doping and financial management.  Ian Prendergast, AFLPA General Manager of Player Relations, discussed recent cases in AFL and European football to examine protection from vilification; Laura Sigal, PFA Manager Player Advocacy, spoke on financial integrity, including the Football Creditors Rule and Financial Fair Play, Ken Woods, AFL’s salary cap investigator, addressed the setting and enforcement of salary caps in football, and Paul Marsh, CEO of the Australian Cricketers’ Association, examined international cricket and match fixing. Mr. Marsh presented on the heels of announcing the negotiation of a five-year MOU with Cricket Australia. The afternoon panel was as lively as the morning panels, with much of the discussion focussed on the protection of athletes’ rights both by and against the governing bodies of their sports.

Schwab said the conference provided many insights into governance for athlete representatives.

“Obviously, when things go wrong with the governance of a sport, athletes together with other major stakeholders can pay a heavy price.  Similarly, key challenges to the health and integrity of sport such as doping, match fixing and financial sustainability require the input and engagement of the athletes themselves to be successfully addressed.

“Ultimately, the conference agreed that sports and the players want the same thing: to ensure the growth and prosperity of their sport.  A strategic partnership between the sports and the players usually through collective bargaining is the means by which this is best achieved.  It is also recommended by leading experts on the governance of sport,including Mr Crawford,” Schwab concluded.