21/04/2024

New AFL Competition Manager Laura Kane. Image: NMFC.com.au

It's been an exceptional rise for Laura Kane, the new head of AFL Football Operations. Kane speaks to the Inner Sanctum about her rise to the prominent position.

 Laura Kane, the new AFL operations manager, never thought she’d be here.

She’s now preparing herself to step foot into the offices and get her feet under the desk at AFL HQ as a senior member of the revamped AFL Football Operations team.

After a five-year stint at North Melbourne where she was pivotal in establishing and setting up the Kangaroos entry to the AFLW Competition, she now steps into a role that will see her oversee the entire competition of the game she loves and then some.

In her first interview since accepting the AFL Operations role, Kane speaks exclusively with The Inner Sanctum in a wide-ranging interview about her journey working in the game, her motivations and influences and role models in the industry, and some of the pressing issues that will confront her in her new role.

Nurturing the love of the game

Like many young children who have a connection to the game, Kane was first introduced to Australian Rules football through her family.

Growing up in a mad Collingwood house instilled the love of the game at a very early age through childhood.

A love that has continued throughout her professional career which has taken a turn to working in an industry she never thought she’d get into.

“I think everybody who likes footy or loves footy plays footy as a kid probably has a dream to, I think, play the game. So, for me, the entry was probably non-traditional in the sense that I played Auskick as a kid through junior boys footy.” she said

“I stopped playing because I couldn’t continue playing there was no girls competition past kind of early teenage years.

“I was in grade prep and my mum had to write a letter to the school to say that I didn’t want to play netball, I wanted to play football.

“So, it was probably early days that I felt some level of injustice that I was automatically allocated to netball, and then playing Auskick, junior boys footy.

“I absolutely loved it. I was one of two girls at our local club, which was Chirnside Park, and it was the best. I loved playing, I loved the team aspect and the friends that I would make outside of school.”

A graduate from Victoria University and working as a personal injury lawyer, Kane’s first working involvement in the football industry came when she joined Melbourne Uni Women’s Football Club.

It was there where a love and passion for the game quickly grew to exciting and new opportunities.

“Working in football probably wasn’t an aspiration or something that I thought was possible until I had something to do with the North Melbourne Football Club.

“My local football club was the community partner of North Melbourne at the time and then started to say that a career could be a reality in this space.

“However, I was a personal injury lawyer coaching at Melbourne Uni, on the committee at Melbourne Uni, and didn’t think I would be talking about my new role at the AFL to be completely honest.”

Laying foundations at Arden St

Breaking into what has been a largely male-dominated industry like the AFL one is never easy and certainly had challenges along the way for Kane.

But after assuming the role as head of female talent and pathways at North Melbourne and establishing their women’s football branch of the club, Kane has spent the last few years heading up the football operations with the men’s team.

It was a transition between programs that would be met with its own quirks and adjustments.

But the time in both departments and working across both leagues have presented differences and experiences that give her a much more worldly view of the entire industry as she heads into the main office.

“The greatest realisation I think, is the fundamental difference between the two leagues, so AFL and AFLW … then in turn, what skill set personality what’s required in each of them to be successful,” she said.

“[GWS AFLW coach] Alan McConnell has been involved in the AFL program for a long time and there’s a quote that he made really early on around men or AFL male players need to play well to feel like they belong.

“And AFLW or female players need to feel like they belong to play well.

“If you can understand that distinction, then how you operate within each of those spheres must change because the drivers are different.

“What works in each of the competitions is different and less about my experience in terms of being a female in AFL, for example, because AFLW is relatively seamless and I’ve set up the team and have had a lot of involvement myself but it’s less about your gender I think, and more about your ability to approach a cohort of people that operate in a particular way.”

Add into the switch the curveballs of COVID, hubs, and needing to quickly respond to different scenarios as they would unfold quickly and have to act even quicker.

“I don’t think I’ll ever have a problem answering the interview question or tell us about a time you’ve had a problem that you’ve had to solve,” she laughed.

“Every day it was working your way out of a problem and being extremely flexible and I know that kind of agile, flexible, descriptors are overused through COVID.

“I remember even just this season, I was at the gym, I’ve got my watch on and I had a couple of calls from our GM of Football (Brady Rawlings), and I think I sent him an auto-reply back saying ‘I’m busy, I’ll call you in half an hour.’

“He said ‘no, you need to call me now and three and a half hours later, we were wheels up to Brisbane, not knowing how long we were going for.

“The biggest thing I learnt from, that I reflect on over the past 18 months is to never forget how people feel through all of that.

“It’s kind of culminated in me, even working on some of the strategy work at North Melbourne making sure we are constantly assessing ourselves on what we do, but then also how we do it.

“How we do it is less about the actual actions are more about how to other people feel about the way we’re going about it.

“Just to have a sensitivity, realise that not everyone has the ability to just pack their pillow and be okay with it.”

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The pressing issues

There are many layers when it comes to the multi-faceted role that Kane takes on as competition manager.

With COVID not going away and mandates from state governments about vaccinations and policies in place, it seems to be the barrier and roadblock that Kane and the AFL will keep butting heads with almost certainly next season.

“I think where we’re still going to be dealing with the COVID interrupted season in our base at least early in the new year,” she said.

“I don’t think we’ll be moving freely and easily across states and the kind of next practical challenge that we’ll be dealing with higher rates of COVID in the community.

The AFL is yet to publicly release its vaccination policy but with the Victorian Government and airlines around the country mandating vaccinations for essential workers and travellers which could take the decision out of their hands.

With the community open and exposed to COVID, there are risks attached for the AFL and its people which Kane has front of mind.

“Regardless of vaccination status for the AFL, our people, our players will be vaccinated and still exposed,” she said.

“So that transition piece is notable I think around how clubs can manage that, how we’re able to manage getting back to some kind of normal at clubland.

“We’ve got hundreds and thousands of admin staff that have all worked from home for the better part of the last two years.” 

Luckily for Kane and the AFL, she will be able to draw on the experiences and scenarios that have presented themselves over the past couple of years if flexibility is indeed required.

“Thankfully, we’re proudly sponsored by Virgin Australia,” she said, praising the airline for its loyalty and hard work over a tough period.

“They’ve been unbelievable … nothing is too hard. And they move mountains literally to tip keep the game going.”

PATHWAYS AND COACHING

It’s often a question or a gripe when the question is raised about coaching and why are the numbers and demographics so skewed towards one side.

Having completed her Level 2 Coaching course, Kane noted the intricacies of how to connect a training program and a structure and how to deliver a session.

One of the big questions around the game – particularly the women’s game at the moment, is why is there a lack of female coaches coaching women?

While Kane said that the skills acquired are transferable across both games (AFL & AFLW) the fundamental differences are still a question and area that Kane is keen on exploring and answering.

“There are a whole heap of education resources and different things, you can tap into a clubland, in relation to women’s footy, or specifically coaching female athletes,” she said.

“Where it differs [When coaching women’s football] is that in AFLW in its infancy, the biggest issues for the competition is not whether girls can kick to the right spot. 

“There’s a few things that we need to consider before they even get to the starting line, like their propensity to be injured or predisposition to ACLs or health-injury related considerations that doesn’t matter if they can keep on up, they’re not going to be on the field.

“So, the education piece for us at North Melbourne was a lot about what makes this different and then, once we’ve kind of worked through that, and we think we’ve got a good plan to deal with all of those things. Now, how do we fast-track the development?

“It’s prioritising it, it’s investing it. And then at the end of the day, you would hope that women can go through a coaching education pathway just like the boys can, or then the men can post-playing post working in other roles in footy.

Image: Mark Stewart

“When I first started at North Melbourne, almost all the development coaches came from the NAB League or VFL, state league equivalent sides, that was kind of the first place you would go.

“So how can we create that model and pathway for female coaches as well given we have female NAB League competition state leagues all around the country?

“It just takes time, it takes time to do it properly and I guess finally, we shouldn’t assume that the men’s model is right, and that it can’t be different for both and that men and women could actually we could create a new pathway or new and improved models that could help both genders. 

“With that in mind, how do we create opportunities that are sustainable? 

“We’re assuming that the pathway and the model for men is the right one.

“It’s not for women, it’s not even close. So how do we adjust that? But celebrate the people that are passionate and that talk about it? Because they’re the ones we should thank that we’re even having the conversation.”

STATE LEAGUES

One of the biggest portfolios that falls under Kane’s watch in the competition management role is the management and overseeing football in the state leagues.

It has been a trying time over the past two seasons for state league and local football, something that is front of mind of both Kane and Brad Scott.

Community football has been the hardest hit in Victoria over the pandemic years. With seasons being completely cancelled and cut short in consecutive years.

After vacating the role as Chief Executive of AFL Victoria, Brad Scott’s experience in that role, combined with what he’s seen of the local level will provide both of them greater context around the health of both state and community footy, according to Kane.

“It is incredibly important that we get the rebuild of [Community Football] that right,” she said

“The talent pathway which has been seriously interrupted the draft coming up.” Will need serious rebuilding to ensure young boys and girls coming into the system can have the adequate preparation throughout their junior years.

“Some boys have played less than games than fingers I have on both hands. So, their runway into the late pathway has been seriously interrupted.

“Similarly, the young boys on lists last year through the hub whose exposure to match practice was for teams coming together to play a scratch match against each other. 

“The talent pathways all around the country have been severely interrupted.

“What it looks like, exactly, I’m not sure. But we know we have the ability to top up teams, mid-season draft for example, with players out of those competitions.

“So we want to be able to give them the platform to expose their talent and find their way onto lists even in non-traditional ways.”

Influences and leading women in the industry

Women in the footy industry and footy clubs are only growing in stature with every passing year.

It’s why Kane understands her appointment to her new role is significant but also a natural next step. Not just in her own career but in progression in the game.

She needs not look far for inspiration though. As part of the Gen W leadership program, Kane continues to work closely with Kylie Rogers [Executive General Manager Customer and Commercial], Kate Roffey [Melbourne President], Peggy O’Neal [Richmond President], and many more.

“The women on that group are doing amazing things,” she said.

“Whether it’s across the community, media, football, data, there’s just every facet of our game. you get a lot of inspiration from them and they’re just a terrific source of advice to kind of bounce ideas off.

“There’s nothing that you can ask or say that is silly and that’s where I draw my inspiration from.”

Kane knows that stepping into a high-profile role like the one she is stepping into comes with its own level of conjecture and scrutiny attached.

But, with experience behind her and inspirational women around the league in different roles, Kane is ready to forge her own path as a trailblazer.

“I think that there are so many wonderful opportunities for women in our industry and if it takes them seeing other women, do it, then I’m proud to take those titles,” she said.

“As uncomfortable as it is to say that, but it’s just like me watching Peggy O’Neal, get appointed to Richmond and then have unbelievable success – they’re the greatest team of the modern era.

“If that is the knock-on effects, then terrific and I’m proud of it. And I’ll keep persisting and keep trying to drive change through the community, not just our industry.”

Without fear or trepidation, Kane is ready to step into the hot seat and make a difference.

“I’m really excited. It’s the same when I started at North Melbourne, I was excited to work in the industry,” she said.

“I’m excited to see how it operates and how the industry and the operation operates from the other side. We’re only one cog in the operations, so to see it from the other side I’m really excited about.

“Similarly, I’m really excited to work with people that I’ve loved working across but now being able to work alongside them.

“That extends to people at other clubs who I’ve worked with on different committees and working groups, I’m really excited to see how they operate in a more intimate way as compared with what I can see from a competitor.”

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