Friedrich Durrenmatt once wrote ‘Resistance at all cost is the most senseless act there is’. His words would resonate with supporters of the St George-Illawarra Dragons as they watch their club continue to resist change or influence from fans desperate to drive for accountability within club management and bring about democratic change.
The consequences of their efforts has been the topic of much discussion in the media, both social and otherwise, as Dragons fans have displayed a vocal rebellion against the club they claim to support. On the surface, their behaviour and arguments appear incoherent; a symptom of poor on field results rather than any substantial problem existing within the club. However, closer examination of the issues identifies that supporters of the Red V have justified reasons for concern around the future of their club, how it is being run and the very identity of the Dragons.
The challenge in understanding their concerns is it requires piecing together numerous events that could be considered insignificant when viewed in isolation but form a larger, more alarming narrative when viewed in connection to each. What supporters have failed to do is effectively organise themselves to publicise what they essentially see as the dismantling of their club through mismanagement and ulterior motives. The question that remains unanswered is whether they can congregate and constructively enter the conversation to communicate their message for what they see as the future of ‘the Saints’ with one clear and reasoned voice.
Piecing this narrative together sees us reach into the mid-90’s when the St George Dragons were on the verge of merging with the Eastern Suburbs Roosters. While much has been written on the topic, what the event signalled was the first true betrayal of fan trust by those claiming to be the custodians of the club. While the merger failed due to significant supporter resistance in the form of Save Our Saints and Geoff Carr was dumped by the board as a consequence, the events identified to the supporters that the St George Leagues Club board was not to be trusted.
 The Leagues Club and Football Club boards are one in the same.
This fear was justified when, in 1998, a formal joint venture was sanctioned by the NRL and agreed to by the Dragons and Illawarra Steelers Rugby League Club. While the Joint Venture caused enormous fan discord due to the sudden change in identity, what angered supporters most was the Joint Venture’s execution; members of the St George Football Club were never engaged in the decision making process and never allowed to vote on whether they agreed to such a dramatic shift in the clubs future. All negotiations were conducted away from public scrutiny and the terms of the Joint Venture never fully published for fans to digest and understand.
Linked to this is the Joint Venture board structure, which is designed to stymie the democratic process and prevent accountability for board members. The St George Leagues Club appoints the directors of the St George Rugby League Football Club and has done since 1987. This was the result of a questionable decision to effectively roll both boards together and was made without member consultation or voting – a move orchestrated and pushed for by Danny Robinson despite the Football Clubs hesitation. The Leagues Club therefore puts forward seven candidates to sit on the football club, of which four are appointed to the Joint Venture board.
The consequences of the overly complicated structure is that it prevents anyone (quite literally) having a direct say into the running of the club since there is no membership structure allowing voting rights or democratic sway to appropriately drive the right results in the Joint Venture club management. Additional barriers fortify the Joint Venture board since any prospective board member is are required to sit on either the St George or Steelers Leagues Club board. This siege mentality by club officials fostered a toxic ‘Us vs Them’ mentality; the club saw the fans as destructive hooligans bent on anarchy while the supporters view management as a clandestine operation with selfish motives and no longer suitable for leadership. This distrust has festered to such a point that the relationship between club and supporters is virtually irreparable under the current regime.
 The Red V Membership is strictly for game attendance. Consider it more a loyalty scheme than an actual membership, where members hold voting rights and can contribute to the direction of the club
An obvious question is then asked – why don’t supporters interested in generating the right change simply challenge for election at either Leagues Club? It is here that the story begins to turn murky. Significant attempts to elect intelligent, forward thinking men and women with business experience to the board has been made on three separate occasions – 2002, 2006 and 2008. Each of these campaigns saw a spectrum of questionable, to plain undemocratic tactics employed by the club to rebuff the challenges:
- The lack of external accountability to the elections, with Danny Robinson the General Manager of the Leagues Club acting as Returning Officer (which is a direct conflict of interest to the process of democratic elections due to his affiliation with the board)
- Employees of the club handing out ‘how-to-vote’ material for the incumbent directors to voting members (again, a conflict of interest for an election process)
- The mishandling of the ballot box by employed staff of the club on two occasions during the 2006 campaign, which saw the box damaged and votes spilling out to be dispersed by the wind
- Due to the closeness of the 2006 election, in which the club nearly saw change at board room level, the club issued an amendment to the by-laws of the club post the election to prevent the handing out of electoral material on club premises – thereby limiting the ability to democratically voice an alternative option to the incumbents on election day.
- In 2008, a petition to hold an EGM and vote on a motion to introduce the AEC to run elections rather than allow them to be managed internally was rejected.
On this last point, the justification for the petitions rejection was that, while it conformed to the constitution of the club, was in violation of the Corporations Act. This suggested the clubs own constitution was not aligned to industry legal standards and brought into question the validity of all other orders executed by the board under the power of its own constitution.
This situation escalated when the club’s solicitor filed a notice to the owners of the petition (who were club members) citing it was fraudulent and had been handed over to the police for further investigation. Police attempted a house visit to one club member, seeking arrest, but were unsuccessful in finding him and requested his attendance at Kogarah police station. After engaging a lawyer, the club member attended Kogarah police station to discover they intended to lay charges but were unable to articulate under what act they could do so since their allegations were proven untenable in relation to fraud. The club member was released without further issue. These types of situations have identified the board as surreptitious in the eyes of the supporters.
Recounting the history of the dealings with club management is important context to understand why supporter concern is continuing to escalate and why fans appear to be in open defiance to the club. Numerous movements are correlating to suggest the survival and identity of the club is at risk from those employed to protect it:
- The decline in Leagues Club funding (essentially the same board who controls the JV is reducing its income stream) has created a financial ‘hole’ for the club and forced NRL intervention. This revenue stream saw the annual $5m grant from the Leagues Club lower to $790k by 2013/14 and has cause financial stress on the Joint Venture. Supporters saw the cut in funds as the neglect by the Leagues Club to its intended purpose and board mismanagement and collusion; it was a robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario.
- This retraction of funding is to allow the Leagues Club to redevelop its location into a premium medical facility; eradicating the ‘Taj’ and destroying a link to the club’s history. This would leave the St George side of the merger without a historical link to its geographical home. As part of ‘Project Integrate’ (see page 5 of the 2014 Year in Review), supporters are sceptical of the diversification attempt and are worried it has never been publicly discussed nor the implications on the club explained appropriately.
- Noticing the move toward Third Party Agreements as a tool for attracting marquee signings to the club, the Joint Venture launched the St George Illawarra Dragons Dynasty Fund. This fund was designed to support TPA’s to players but has remained empty since its inception. Supporters view the attempted use of TPA’s as a positive business decision by the club but believe the poor uptake is a reflection of external perception of club management; third parties are not inclined to partner with us as they don’t trust the club officials.
- To help mitigate the decline in Leagues Club funding, the JV with the NRL initiated the Right Game, Right Venue policy to generate revenue by farming out home games to larger Sydney stadiums. This was met with fan derision and has seen annual crowd figures drop year on year. By taking games away from spiritual homes, supporters believe they are paying the price for poor financial management by the club.
- The WIN Corporation purchase, which would see three WIN board members, three St George board members and a WIN appointed chairman who controlled the balance of power, is seen as the final act of treachery by the club to fans.
These issues might be overlooked if football operations were perceived as running smoothly. Supporters often ignore the front desk if they are still treated appropriately and results on field show the team as competitive – a case in point is Manly, who have challenges at board level but are still performing strongly. Unfortunately this is not the case with Saints; coaching appointments belie the ‘very detailed process [which] was undertaken’ by the club, the treatment of players by the club when negotiating new terms and the ongoing churn of employees sourced externally, who inevitably have short tenures. Add to this the poor engagement by the club with fans and local community events in contrast with the historical frequency of these events and supporters are feeling more like a ‘number’ and less like a ‘partner’ in the clubs ongoing existence.
This has led to declining membership (Red V dropped in 2015 below the levels achieved in 2009 – a regression of 6,000 members over four years), declining crowd numbers (with an average of 12,352, the lowest since 2008) and have declining partnership revenue streams. The club is ranked 12th in digital performance among the rest of the NRL clubs despite having one of the largest and most engaging supporter bases in the game; a dangerous sign that they are being left behind in the digital age and unable to capture new, young supporters who communicate best via social media.
All this paints a dire picture for the club that was once the richest, most well organised and highly professional rugby league organisation in Australia.
Despite consistent calls for organisational and managerial overhaul, the clubs officials have stood their ground. Under intense pressure in 2015, CEO Peter Doust sought to appease the near revolt by fans over Twitter when he proposed a review of the structure and governance as a way to quieten attention pointed at the clubs closed off management structure. No review was ever formally presented, only adding further reason for fans to distrust the club.
What followed this announcement was an ironic plot twist to the narrative. Approached by Bruce Gordon, owner of WIN Corporation, the club and the NRL were presented with a plan for Gordon to underwrite the Dragons debt and finance its ongoing operation. The sticking point was Gordon’s desire to not only purchase the Illawarra Steelers share in the Joint Venture, but that he would only do so if the balance of power sat in his favour. What this signifies is the club would forever be taken out of the hands of it supporters.
Despite Gordon’s ‘white knight’ appearance, Doust and the board have stymied negotiations. The great irony of the story is the man supporters have blamed for the clubs decline was now acting with custodial integrity for its protection.
It is here that the narrative peers to the future as the story unwinds. Supporters are left with little they can act on. A poor 2016 season, coupled with a supporter email that left many fans feeling patronised for voicing their displeasure at the clubs behaviour and the ongoing support of ailing coach Paul McGregor is likely to add to fan dismay and strengthen their call for change.
Yet attempts to plead their case to the NRL have not received the response desired. Efforts to utilise the correct channels to challenge and initiate change have fallen through. The problem that imbues St George Illawarra supporters is the apathy they now fall victim to through years of neglect by the club. For change to be made, significant supporter effort and sacrifice must be spent to raise the necessary motivation to drive for it – which is exactly what fans feel sapped of.
If things are to change, something momentous and radical must take place by the supporters to show the NRL and the club they are ready to step up to the plate. It is only when the supporters rally together, as in the case with Save Our Saints in the 90’s, that real and meaningful change will be enacted.
Supporters need to begin to believe the words of Bono, who said ‘The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.’ Fans need to believe the power in their unity, and work with each other and in every way possible to drive for the change that will see the Red V succeed into the future.