AFL Debate Club: What is Gillon McLachlan's defining achievement as AFL CEO?

Dillon to be AFL CEO, discussing Gill's legacy (2:41)

Rohan Connolly discusses the appointment of Andrew Dillon as AFL CEO, and raises the strong legacy outgoing CEO Gillon McLachlan leaves behind. (2:41)

Welcome to ESPN's AFL Debate Club, the column in which our writers and contributors will take one prompt from the week and put their opinion on the record. The kicker? No opinion is immune from criticism!

This week, Rohan Connolly and Jake Michaels look at outgoing AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan and the legacy he will leave behind.

What is Gillon McLachlan's defining achievement as AFL CEO?

Rohan Connolly: There's certainly some substantial achievements from which to choose. Negotiating the minefield COVID-19 introduced was massive, obviously, given the disastrous financial implications of the pandemic. And the most recent broadcast deal worth $4.5 billion over seven years should ensure much of the damage of that previous blow has been reversed.

But I think it's the establishment of the AFLW competition, years ahead of when most people thought possible, that will be McLachlan's defining legacy.

Simply to have an elite tier of the women's game and professional backing provided for it has guaranteed enormous exposure and proved a catalyst for so many young women and girls to embrace the sport as participants rather than just spectators.

Think of how quickly the AFLW has grown, from the initial eight clubs in 2017, to 10 in 2019, 14 in 2021 and finally all 18 men's teams with a women's companion team in 2022, and you realise how crucial was McLachlan's decisiveness on women's football.

Women had long represented close to half AFL football's supporter base, but without a vehicle to drive their elite level playing aspirations, while other sports like cricket and soccer had domestic women's competitions thriving.

Prior to McLachlan's boldness on women's football, the proposed starting date of AFLW wasn't until 2020. Who knows how many thousand potential elite women's footballers may have been lost to those other sports in those missing three years? Or indeed, whether COVID might have seen even that timeline scuttled altogether and women still waiting for their own league?

Instead, we have a thriving competition in which already new generations of players reared in far more professional environments are raising the standard of play exponentially season after season. We'll all be the beneficiaries of that. And that is a legacy of which McLachlan can be justly proud.

Jake Michaels: To hold the position of AFL CEO for a decade and face little scrutiny during that tenure highlights the professionalism of Gillon McLachlan and the lasting legacy he will leave behind when he walks out of AFL House for the final time.

McLachlan's achievements have been well documented since he announced he would be stepping down from his post early last year, but there's three which stand out to me.

Number three: landing a $4.5 billion broadcast deal, the biggest in Australian sports history.

Number two: pioneering the AFLW competition and growing women's football around the country. This will likely be what McLachlan's remembered for decades from now.

But in my mind, his greatest achievement has to be the way in which he navigated the league through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 season was suspended four days after it had commenced when the virus began wreaking havoc around the country. As the weeks passed, case numbers multiplied and travel restrictions were put in place, there was a growing fear the season would be a total write-off.

Not only did McLachlan and his team manage to save it, but they did so while ensuring total equality. A 17-round season saw every team play each other, the league using hubs in Queensland and Western Australia as workarounds to the travel bans. Richmond was crowned premier for the second year running and, as proof of the monumental effort by McLachlan and the AFL, nobody views the season as an asterisk year.

There was no blueprint or precedent to follow, yet McLachlan expertly steered the AFL through the ongoing crisis and endless complications. I said it at the time and I'll stand firm on this; players, coaches, media and football fans should all be thanking him for his leadership, as without him, that season, and the next one, could easily have been lost.