How the Eagles went from the brink of collapse to financial powerhouse



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The mid-80s were a time of great optimism in the West Australian capital.

The economy was ticking along, and Alan Bond was bringing the America's Cup to town, four years after Australia's famous win at the Newport Yacht Club in the United States.

The international exposure was expected to put Perth on the map.

The tourists came and Dennis Conner's 12-metre yacht Stars & Stripes reclaimed the Auld Mug, but Perth got a new casino and Fremantle received a face lift as part of a big infrastructure spend.

Aussie football was broken

The wild west was humming, but the biggest game in town — Australian football — was at a crossroads.

The game was struggling around the country as well.

In the west, WAFL teams were selling players just to stay afloat, while in Melbourne the teams were crippled by the massive player transfer fees they were forced to pay to remain competitive.

The system was fundamentally broken.

The solution was to include a team from Perth and Brisbane to play in the Victorian Football League with the aim of it eventually becoming a national competition.

Indian Pacific Limited, a private company chaired by Richard Colless, — who would become the AFL's longest serving chairman at Sydney — put in an application for a side called West Coast to join the VFL.

They needed to secure the votes of at least eight of the 12 VFL clubs to gain admission to the league.

The agreement with VFL chief executive Ross Oakley was that West Coast would pay $400,000 a year over 10 years.

But on the night of the vote Mr Oakley rang Mr Colless to say he couldn't get the eight votes, because some Victorian clubs who were fighting for survival wanted all the money up front.

It meant West Coast's bid was dead unless the they could come up with $4 million.

WAFL plundered ahead of West Coast's admission

Inaugural Eagles coach and prominent administrator Ron Alexander said a deal was made to secure Fitzroy's support.

"What was happening was, clubs like Footscray and Fitzroy were technically broke and my understanding is that Ross Oakley got Fitzroy's vote by agreeing to give them $600,000, which would keep them afloat for the next year," he said.

The final vote was pushed back until October 1986, but in the meantime the Victorian clubs took the opportunity to plunder the West Australian Football League ahead of the potential inclusion of West Coast in 1987.

Players like Nicky Winmar, Michael Christian and Craig Starcevich all found homes on the eastern seaboard before the new Perth-based club had a chance to recruit them.

A range of corporate investors and shareholders of Indian Pacific eventually came up with the money to guarantee admission.

But the conditions placed on the Eagles meant they were essentially set up to fail.

Cold showers and soaking wet grounds

It was just the beginning of the hostile reception the team received — and it wasn't just in Melbourne, but at home in WA too.

West Coast's relationship with the WAFL clubs was acrimonious at best, as Alexander explains.

"It is hard to describe the political nature and at times toxic nature of what happened," he said.

"There were many prominent members of the football world in Western Australia that didn't get a role at West Coast, and many of those people that didn't get a role worked actively against the club."

A hell of an exisistence

The Eagles weren't allowed to train at Subiaco Oval, where they played their home games, or at any WAFL grounds.

The Victorians didn't roll out the welcome mat either. Sprinklers were left on overnight before West Coast training sessions in Melbourne and cold showers in the changerooms were common.

West Coast was forced to pay for the Melbourne clubs' travel costs when they came to Perth. The draw was tough, on one occasion the Eagles played three times in six days on either side of the country, and the club's squad was restricted to 17 fewer players than other sides.

It was a hell of an existence and it had consequences.

After the 1987 season, and despite winning 11 of 22 games and almost making the finals, the club controversially sacked Alexander as coach, chief executive and chairman, and after three seasons the Eagles had lost around $13 million, were broke and on life support.

Amid public calls in 1989 for the Eagles to be scrapped, the West Australian Football Commission assumed 75 per cent control of Indian Pacific. Brian Cook was appointed chief executive and Mick Malthouse was named coach.

It was the catalyst for rapid growth on and off the field.

As the Eagles now prepare to defend their fourth premiership (the second most flags after Hawthorn in the AFL era) they are closing in on a move to their new $60 million purpose-built facility at Lathlain Park, which will be one of the best facilities in the country.

In 30 years West Coast has gone from the brink of insolvency to arguably the financial powerhouse of Australian sport.

Last year, financial analysts labelled West Coast the most profitable sports club in the country, and off the back of last year's premiership it's understood the Eagles profit has increased again to around $7.5 million.

It's a story of resilience and it shows success can be built and sustained in a reasonably short period, even off the back of trying times.