It’s a very Melbourne moment. I’m sitting with Kylie Rogers, the head of commercial at the AFL, in the top-floor dining room of the Stokehouse restaurant in St Kilda. AFR Weekend’s photographer is circling and it’s clear she’s having a busy day, juggling work with two young kids. As we’re chatting, we notice her son is taking his own photo, armed with his own camera and a look of deep concentration. It’s a scene made all the more adorable because he’s wearing a Richmond Tigers footy jumper.
“Footy is about connection and community, and a place of belonging,” Rogers says. “That’s initially what attracted me to the job – the power of this great brand.”
Juggling family life is a common challenge at league headquarters, too. Rogers, who arrived in Melbourne to take up her role on Australia Day, has three young sons and praises the flexibility afforded by her boss, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan.
“He’s a parent of four kids,” she says. “He gets it. If one of the kids has a concert, go to the concert – just deliver.”
Rogers delivers the line with a laugh, but she’s only half joking.
The AFL might be the richest sporting competition in Australia, with the biggest broadcast deal, but McLachlan’s team is determined to grow the pie and willing to take risks to do it.
A marvel of a deal
In late May, Rogers orchestrated the deal that saw the Disney-owned entertainment company Marvel take the naming rights of the 55,000-seat stadium that the AFL owns in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct. The value of the deal was not disclosed, but one report put it at $70 million.
The eight-year deal raised eyebrows and sparked jokes. Was the AFL really keen to throw its lot in with the home of Spiderman and the Avengers?
But for Rogers, it is exactly the sort of deal the league needs to be doing. It underpins, she tells me, the AFL’s plan to turn its stadium into an entertainment and technology precinct that draws crowds year-round with concerts, Big Bash cricket and even an eSports tournament later this year.
“I didn’t want any old corporate logo or name to be up on that stadium. I wanted it to be strategically right to ensure that it was enabling us to live out our dream for this to be a true family precinct,” she says.
“The way I see it, I have to be bold, I have to innovate, I have to take risks, so we can ensure we sustainably grow, so we’re continually pumping revenue into the community, into pathways and into the clubs.
“If I sit on my hands and play it safe, and grow 3 per cent every year, are we sustainable?”
Rogers’ role is incredibly broad, encompassing every dollar the AFL makes from its fans – think ticketing, AFL membership, events, licensing – through to every dollar the league makes from its direct advertisers and corporate partners. There are 43 of these, ranging from naming rights sponsor Toyota through to specific partners for gambling, alcohol, energy and even batteries.
Before arriving in Melbourne in January, Rogers lived in Sydney for 20 years. She says it’s nice to look out at Port Philip Bay from our window table at the Stokehouse, but in truth it’s freezing and grey. You can just make out the giraffe-like shapes of the cranes at Port of Melbourne through the gloom, and the shirtless jogger who strides by below us is either brave or crazy.
The setting influences our order though, and we start with hiramasa kingfish and seared tuna from the raw bar, plus a glass each of resiling. It’s relatively quiet in The Stokehouse, and diners seem to fall in two camps: casual looking regulars who’ve popped in for lunch and more dressed up patrons here for a special occasion.
Despite her time away from the home of the AFL, Rogers’ connection to game and the city is strong. Her grandfather, Ron Hobba, played eight games for Melbourne before crossing to Footscray, where he played in the reserves.
Rogers’ mother, who grew up near Footscray’s home ground, passed her love of the club, now known as the Western Bulldogs, down to her daughter. In 2016, when the club made it to the Grand Final, Rogers was on holiday with her family on a private island off Singapore.
“I left them all. I flew home and I was lucky enough to get tickets for my sister and my mum and my dad and I, and dreams came true. It was magnificent,” she says of the club’s first premiership since 1954.
Rogers joined the AFL in December 2017 after three years at MammaMia, the digital network founded by journalist Mia Freedman and her husband Jason Lavigne.
Prior to that she’d spent 17 years at Ten Network, including 14 years as national sales director. At Ten she worked for a time with Lachlan Murdoch, who brought AFL to the network between 2007 and 2011.
Rogers describes Murdoch the younger as having a work ethic rarely matched, but says losing the AFL was a turning point for Ten, which she thought was failing to read how the media landscape was changing.
“I was becoming increasingly frustrated at how we continued to look only within our industry. We cared too much about our share, versus revenue growth and profit growth.”
She joined MammaMia in 2014, starting as national sales director before rising to managing director a year later. Her stint there allowed her to develop skills in digital and social media – and to learn how founder-lend start-ups operate.
“You are HR, you’re legal, you’re sales, you’re marketing. You’re everything – and that’s exciting,” she says.
Towards the end of her time at MammaMia, the network formed a partnership with AFL to help with the promotion of its new AFL Women’s league. A connection with the league’s top brass was born.
The creation of the women’s league has arguably been the biggest change in the past 50 years of the game. Participation by women has soared at all levels; there are now more than 1000 women’s teams in local competitions around Victoria.
The sport’s governing body has changed too. Forty percent of Gillon McLachlan’s direct reports are women, and two members of the nine-person AFL commission. Diversity is improving at club level too.
“That’s another byproduct,” Rogers says. “We are attracting more terrific female talent, whether on-field or off-field. That’s becoming much easier.”
The AFL’s determination to walk the talk on diversity was underlined just before Rogers’ arrival.
Her predecessor, Richard Simkiss, departed in controversial circumstances, resigning after it was discovered the married executive had been having an affair with a younger, single colleague. Some saw the men as being among the first Australian casualties of the #MeToo movement, but McLachlan was decisive.
“We feel that we’ve addressed the issues strongly today,” he said last July, as football operations manager Simon Lethlean also departed over a similar relationship. “And we’ll continue to make change because it’s a journey and we’re not where we want to be yet.”
The #MeToo challenge
Rogers says it’s hard for her to say how the episode changed the AFL, but she says the organisation is determined to be authentic in its push for diversity. She argues that is underlined by the fact 40 per cent of its executives are female, and also by its very public support for same sex marriage.
Having started her career in the highly charged, very male world of television, she’s supportive of the #MeToo movement and can see it helping the women in the AFL’s ranks.
“It gives them confidence to have a voice when they know there will be support out there – and that’s really important.
“Back in the day when we were young executives, we couldn’t necessarily use our voice. We learnt to survive the best way we could. I’d like to think I thrived more than survived, and humour helped. But we weren’t immune to it.”
But Rogers is quick to say she can see potential dangers in #MeToo. “We can take the movement too far, and women start to not be employed because it’s all too hard.
“It goes back to being grown up,” Rogers says, giving the example of office romances. “I hope the young people of today who are working together can meet each other and fall in love – I mean, I met my husband at work. It’s a normal thing.
“Extramarital affairs are a different thing. Forcing yourself upon someone is a different thing.”
Rogers has chosen the barramundi for her main course, while I’ve plumped for the flat iron steak. But it’s the sides that grab the attention – Brussels sprouts with smoked ham hock and pickled raisins, and Hasselback potatoes with wagyu fat. We’re sure the deliciousness of the latter dish is inversely proportional to its health benefits.
Rogers has a few key priorities for the year ahead, perhaps led by renewals of 10 key partner agreements, including with the league’s airline and accommodation providers.
She’s also leading a review of the entire partnership program, including looking at service levels (all partners currently get the same level of service, and Rogers wants a tiered structure) and whether the league should really have as many partners as it does.
“I want to ensure I have the right number of partners, and that we can look each other in the eye and say, ‘We’re better together.'”
Rogers is also driven by the need to ensure the AFL Women’s league has the right partners to ensure its stability, and developing the commercialisation of digital properties.
The league stopped outsourcing its digital advertising and marketing this year, and hit budget before the season started. But Rogers sees the scope to triple digital revenue.
“Sporting bodies have been quite traditional in the way they have sold their assets to their partners,” she says. “For me it’s about opening up new media, the disciplines and the benefits of new media to our partners.”
Longer-term, she has an eye on bigger expansion possibilities. The AFL has now played a game in China in the past two seasons, and Rogers is keen to grow. She’d like to see two games played either side of a Chinese version of G’Day USA and muses on setting up an AFL House in China, with commercial executives stationed permanently in this new frontier.
It’s a bold idea and exactly the sort of thinking Rogers has been brought in to provide. But for all the focus on the future and expansion, she insists the league won’t forget its heartland: those kids in footy jumpers.
“Our contract is with the fans. All of my commercial decisions, and everything we do has that lens. There’s a line at my office door of people who want to become famous on the back of the AFL. You can’t be distracted by that.”
The Stokehouse restaurant, St Kilda
- 1 San Pellegrino 1 Litre $11
- 1 Kingfish $20
- 1 Seared Tuna $22
- 1 Barramundi $40
- 1 Flat Iron Beef $40
- 1 Hasselback Potatoes $16
- 1 Brussells Sprouts $12
- 3 Frankland Estate Riesling $42