New Port Adelaide CEO Matthew Richardson talks to The Inner Sanctum about his story and Port moving forward with China, AFLW and the Prison Bar guernsey.

He’s been at Port Adelaide for almost 20 years, and now Matthew Richardson is the new chief executive officer of South Australia’s most successful club.

He speaks with The Inner Sanctum‘s Jack Hudson about his story, the club moving forward including China, AFLW and the Prison Bar guernsey.

Jack Hudson: How have you enjoyed your first month in the role?

Matthew Richardson: It’s been really enjoyable, it doesn’t feel like there’s been a start and a stop point.

It’s been the sort of year where so much has happened through the year and we’ve built terrific momentum off field and on field.

The mindset for the club has been how do we make sure we maximise that momentum and really set us up certainly for 2021, but we feel our club is in a really strong position over the next few years.

JH: The KFC sponsorship is huge, three major sponsors – how great is that?

MR: First time ever that our club has had three major sponsors.

It’s a fantastic achievement by our commercial team and another reflection on the football club as a whole and how people are seeing it.

Our members should be really proud of their football club and it’s a great result to have a great company like KFC on board, we feel there’s some brand alignment energy that they bring and we bring, for them to join MG and GFG as well.

It’s very exciting to have three major partners locked in long term, 2020 has been an extraordinary year.

There’s been some huge challenges and the reality is as good as the back part of the year has felt, there’s still a significant financial hurdle for us to jump over.

I think our revenue hit in the end we finished up about $18 million down and what our original budget was.

It’s affected a huge number of people, we’ve lost a lot of really good people, a lot of people on stand down through the year for large parts with so much uncertainty, and the people who were fortunate enough to stay taking significant salary reductions.

A lot of people made huge sacrifices including our members and partners to improve that financial position, but the reality is it’s still been a serious flesh wound and you don’t recover from that quickly, it’s going to be a number of years.

The thing we’re excited about is we feel we’re in the right position, we’ve got great momentum and our football club is really connected internally and really importantly, our members and community is one of the things that we’ve got out of our 150th year.

We did set out to win the premiership, we didn’t quite get there, but we did set out to make sure we really connected our community in behind the 150th year, because the one thing that does bring us together is the football club and from that perspective we feel like we certainly achieved that.

JH: Tell us a bit about your journey, as you’ve seen the highs and lows of this club?

MR: I made it to Port Adelaide in 2001, my first event was the greatest team function, which was in May.

I’d spent six or seven years at the SACA, started in game development and was keen to move into marketing and saw an opportunity at Port Adelaide.

Always had remarkable respect for Port Adelaide, I think I was lucky when I started, I started on the Magpies side, it gave me a good grounding of what the club is about.

I had that function and it was a crash course in Port Adelaide and the legends of Port Adelaide, you meet these people that you’ve seen and you understand why the club has been so successful as they’re amazing people.

I got the bug then and really my journey at Port Adelaide has been three or four year of projects in a way.

I certainly didn’t set out in 2001 to be where I am now, but I feel that journey has given me a good grounding for the opportunity that are in front of us now.

I took over from Paul Belton as CEO in 2004 and that was enormously challenging, but I learned more in that time about running a business with that pressure from every angle.

Early in 2009 I moved across to the AFL club, the two projects I was working on when came across under Mark Haysman was Adelaide Oval which was bubbling under the surface and pretty quickly we worked out the AFL club and SANFL club models separately wasn’t working, so the next few years we were working on putting Port Adelaide back together and we proven th at was the right thing to do.

The journey into Adelaide Oval, the modelling that took, which was a really exciting project to be a part of and we got into there in great shape in 2014.

More recently I’ve been really lucky to work under Keith (Thomas) in a growth phase in the club where we’ve been able to have a crack at some amazing things like AFL footy in Shanghai, expansion of a lot of the things we’ve done and my focus through that period was more the core part of the business and then COVID hit and now I’m really privileged the board and David (Koch) had the confidence for me to take over from Keith.

I’m enormously privileged and honoured to have this opportunity.

JH: In terms of uniting the club, how critical was it at the time?

MR: There were so many different elements to it.

I think Port Adelaide, if you go back 1990 and I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Brian Cunningham about a lot of the challenges the club faced, Port Adelaide’s bid to go into the AFL was for the club to move into the AFL.

The strength of the community was the thing really the AFL couldn’t refuse, but the reality was the Port Adelaide that went into the AFL wasn’t the Port Adelaide that the AFL approved if you like, because one of the conditions was the Magpies would remain in the SANFL and Power in the AFL, but they couldn’t have any connection.

In the early years, both clubs were relatively successful and the Magpies were based at Ethelton which was phenomenal and still played in three grand finals and won two premierships, it’s a credit to the people who were involved at the time and the players who hung along for another couple of years because they loved it so much.

Then you look at the AFL side, how quickly it was able to establish itself in its first year under John Cahill, there was a draw and missed out on the finals, and you compare that with GWS and Gold Coast and how long it took for them to establish was extraordinary, but that was the expectation of Port Adelaide.

And through the early 2000s, the club was enormously successful in the AFL, but if you go back and look at that period, it didn’t translate to growth from a member or supporter point of view.

When you get to 2009, 2010 and we have less than 30,000 members, yet in 1997 there were nearly 40,000 members, there was something clearly not working.

The SANFL model wasn’t sustainable, the AFL model on its own wasn’t sustainable, and I don’t think its too much of a stretch to say if we weren’t able to put Port Adelaide back together as one united club and critically one united community, which has always been its strength and the reality was a lot of our people walked away.

We did research in 2009 and 2010 and there was 50,000 lapsed members since 1997, which was that many had been a member at one point since 1997 and in 2010 weren’t.

That’s got to tell you the people who had got us into the AFL and had been our core had walked away.

Putting the club back together, I think the club had tried everything else, it was the only thing left and I think being able to put it back together and then the move of AFL footy to Adelaide Oval had been two of the major factors, in certainly for Port Adelaide, but critically for success of footy in South Australia in the last 10 years.

JH: How much goes into that sort of role of heading the ‘One Club’ campaign?

MR: It’s like anything, it’s never one person it’s a team of people.

There were lots of different elements, the SANFL owned the license so the SANFL clubs and directors we had to really demonstrate that this was in the best interest of football in South Australia because at the time Port Adelaide was not sustainable at Football Park and with the SANFL owning the license and the impact that was having on the SANFL clubs, we had to demonstrate putting Port Adelaide back together was going to be good for them.

There was the financial modelling, membership modelling, brand was a big part of it, the club had to make a decision, ‘are we going to be Port Adelaide or something else?’ and if the decision was to be Port Adelaide, which it obviously was, you couldn’t be Port Adelaide and not bring the Magpies back in as that was the DNA and heart and soul of the club.

The first attempt of the merger, it had been presented and it was right, they’d be gone, the Magpies would be out of the SANFL and it got rejected the first time.

In that week, the Magpies’ SANFL membership went from 3000, which was one of the higher numbers up to 12-15,000.

Tellingly, the Power’s membership went backwards, that was the point that proved to people who doubted what we were trying to say about the heart and soul of Port Adelaide really sat there, you had to rebuild the club and reconnect the supporter base.

That’s when Tim (Ginever), George (Fiacchi) and Brian (Cunningham) got involved, there was a project group working at the second crack at it.

The reality was the model wasn’t any different, it was just after that first time and the impact that had, people realised how important that was and what we were saying was probably correct.

In that modelling we were even talking about membership going from 30,000 to 40,000, now really importantly, and people doubted that would be possible, in 2010, 2011 and 2012, our football was a bottom four level, but our membership grew beyond 40,000, and that was because we got our brand, we made a clear statement that we are the Port Adelaide Football Club.

It was a big project but it was great to be able to see, and then Adelaide Oval on the horizon and how exciting that was going to be for our people.

That first game in 2014 in the Showdown was an extraordinary day, that’s when it all came together, we were able to rebuild our community and arrive with a full stadium, played the way we did and it was a very special day.

JH: I still remember walking in and ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ was blaring over the speakers, tell us about the background of it.

MR: We had a marketing committee and we still do, one of the projects they were working on and as far back as 2011 and 2012, when we got back to Adelaide Oval, and we were pretty sure we’re going to come, but our mindset was when people come to a Port Adelaide game, it’s got to be a different experience from anything else they’ve ever been to.

At that time our team did go to the UK as there was a game at The Oval against the Western Bulldogs and a number of people on our marketing committee went across.

They went to Liverpool and Anfield and saw the emotion in the stadium of You’ll Never Walk Alone, and that was one of the things we were trying to play with.

But it probably took us 18 months to land on Never Tear Us Apart, as there were some principles in it, as it had to be authentic and something that genuinely meant something to our people, if you force something on people or no meaning it won’t work.

We threw stuff around for 18 months and I think it was Tara McLeod presented the idea of Never Tear Us Apart and the penny dropped straight away.

It was about our community, our people and they had been torn apart and we’ll never let that happen again, so it was perfect for that sense, and the growth in it has been the core of it.

How we executed it was important, we didn’t want to tell people what to do, we didn’t want to play the music or put the words up, it had to be organic.

Through Benny Demertzis we got the cheer squad involved, said this is what’s going to happen, this is what we’re thinking and we need someone to kick it off for us.

It worked and now it’s probably the iconic game day ritual in Australian sport, and the great thing about that it’s our people who have made it that.

I’ll never forget the INXS moment the next year, we probably fell into the trap that it was so good in 2014, how do you make it better.

I know how we’ll make it better, we’ll bring INXS in and we’re thinking ‘wow, that’ll be massive’.

The reaction from our people that night was only what Port Adelaide people would do, ‘no, no, no, that’s not yours, it’s ours’.

JH: Moving forward, what are you looking forward to in 2021?

MR: First and foremost from a football sense, Ken (Hinkley), Chris (Davies) and the coaches and playing group did an amazing job in 2020 with some enormous speed humps on the way through.

I think now our people can see the evolution of our team and where that team’s going, I think that’s really exciting.

The leaders in Tom (Jonas), Hamish (Hartlett) and Ollie (Wines) really went to another level last year.

Tom did an outstanding job as captain as well, and you look at the talent we haven’t seen yet, and I was only saying to Chris today looking at Miles Bergman out on the track and he looks a serious footballer.

I think our people should be really excited about not only the team they’ve seen, but just as excited about the talent we really haven’t had much of an opportunity to see due to no SANFL.

Then you look at Lachie Jones and Ollie Lord coming in and it’s really exciting.

I think there’s a lot to look forward to in our footy.

I think one of the things we learned in 2020 is that I don’t think any of us will ever take going to the football for granted ever again.

In a way, we were really fortunate in South Australia that our government and community did an amazing job and we got back to 25,000 to 30,000 people at Adelaide Oval.

I can’t even imagine what 50,000 people at Adelaide Oval is going to be like after hearing even that night at the Showdown in Round 2, where there were 2000, I couldn’t believe the noise.

I think everyone’s looking forward on getting back to the footy and now we’re not 100 per cent sure, and there’s still a bit of uncertainty around that, if it was worse case scenario and it was like what we had at the finals, then that’s 30,000.

I know the stadium is working with the government at the moment on how they can reconfigure the stadium and increase that capacity as we get into 2021.

I think the simple thing of getting back to the footy and being able to reconnect as a community again is going to be really special.

JH: What are some of the key plans moving forward; we’ve got China, the AFLW and Prison Bars looking forward?

MR: With China clearly, we’ll just hibernate that for a moment while our business and political leaders deal with the tensions between the two countries.

We do have some really strong partners that those relationships are intact and we’ll maintain those.

At some point, Australia is going to have to build its commercial relationship with China, we know that there’s a model there.

Our commercial strategy to deal with China was not purely based on playing a game, we know that that works and that sports diplomacy is a great way for governments and business to repair those relationships.

That’s there, we know that works and we’ll continue to maintain the partnerships we have got and let all that play out over the next period however long that takes.

We’ve been on record to say we’re keen on getting into the AFLW and have a Port Adelaide AFLW team as soon as we possibly can.

The AFL clearly given the year they’ve had, they’re in a little of a holding pattern, but it’s great to see in 2021 the fixture’s out and it’s a normal fixture, there are all but four of the AFL clubs with AFLW teams.

Hopefully in 2022 or 2023 we’re ready, the development of our facilities here at Alberton Oval are really important for that, the reality is we need to upgrade our facilities in order to be ready for AFLW.

We’re really excited to see what Alberton Oval can look like on a Friday or Saturday night during February and March, it’ll be a really exciting venue to be able to watch AFLW and our SANFL program, so we’re excited about that.

The Prison Bars of course, again we’ve been really open in our position on that.

The AFL have had an incredibly challenging year, a lot of the key people in the AFL haven’t been home for four or five months, they’re still disjointed, so at the right time, which will be early in the new year, we’ll get back in front of the AFL.

We think the request is reasonable.

I think one of the things COVID has taught everyone, and this relates to sport all around the world, anything you can do to strengthen the fans with clubs, because let’s not forget fans don’t follow leagues or competitions, they follow clubs, that’s the strength of the game.

Anything you can do to strengthen that, you should be doing, and this is the perfect example of that.

We’re confident that in the Showdowns, which we think that fits perfectly, it talks to the rivalry and heritage of South Australian footy perfectly, we’ll be in and having that conversation early in the new year.

JH: Have the Adelaide Crows had much of a say on that?

MR: At the end of the day, it’s a decision for the AFL, that’s where our conversation will be.

JH: On the women’s footy program as well, we’ve seen AFLW sides have teams in the VFLW, is it possible for Port to go down that path with SANFLW?

MR: I know our preference would be to have a SANFLW team as a pathway into AFLW.

I know we’ve had that conversation previously with the SANFL, that hasn’t happened to this point.

We’ve got a really successful female academy program, I think the last three years we played games against the Adelaide academy program which has been successful.

Our preference is to build to AFLW from the ground up, build a development pathway through the junior zones.

Credit to Adelaide here and the SANFL the way they’ve developed women’s footy in particular and the growing numbers of young girls playing footy is outstanding.

We think we can support that and can help grow women’s footy in South Australia.

That pathway into an AFLW team through having an SANFLW team, we think we can support the growth of girls and women’s footy.

JH: Is there anything extra you’d like to add at all, Richo?

MR: Probably the only other thing is to thank our community.

It’s been well documented it’s been an incredible year for everyone.

I mentioned it before, but I genuinely haven’t felt this sense of connection from our members, our partners and the broader stakeholders.

Whether it be past players, life members, ex-directors, all those networks are really important to our football club.

Going into our 150th year that was something really important to us.

The team gave us an amazing ride in 2020, we didn’t get to where we were aiming, but I think our people should have a great deal of confidence moving forward about where their club is going.

Really it’s a message of thank you and gratitude for what the Port Adelaide community has done in 2020, but the reality is we’ve still got a lot of hard work to do in order to get where we want to get as a football club.

But we’ve got that platform, we’ve got great people here, we’ve got a really clear plan about where we’re going and I think like everyone else we’re looking forward to having a bit of a break.

To our members, supporters and partners, I hope they all have a safe and Merry Christmas.

Before we know it, it’ll be mid-January, February and we’ll be away playing footy and I’m really excited about that.

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