AFL 2023: Craig Kelly new Chief Executive of Collingwood; How will it work?

Collingwood’s new CEO has been at the helm of AFL contracts for decades and can only add a massive edge to the Pies’ premiership hopes. Watch the interview with Craig Kelly.

Craig Kelly will begin his journey as Collingwood’s new chief executive, fully aware that he could be at the helm when the club eventually fires his son Will and high-profile TLA client Craig McRae.

The 1990 Premier League defender and hugely successful players manager has finally achieved his dream of returning to Collingwood and the trip promises to be the opposite of boring.

Kelly knows where every body in the AFL is buried; has a notoriously volatile temper; calls a spade a bloody shovel at every opportunity.

In short, he’s a walking headliner, also entering a club in his son’s break-of-break season and with his TLA company managing many of the Pies’ coaches and players in a clear conflict of interest in a game in which they are blooming.

Kelly will fervently hope son Will becomes a 15-year-old player and McRae secures a Jock McHale-style tenure, but both the club and Kelly are smart enough to consider how to handle either scenario if it does goes wrong.

This is a brilliant move by his awesome sidekick and second-year president, Jeff Browne, given Kelly’s extraordinary business achievements, vast network of football allies and intellectual property across the board in commercial draft-free agencies.

Kelly wants to make this club a “juggernaut” again and will try to do so of her own free will.

Kelly has severed his ties to the TLA management company he founded, but retains all the knowledge he has built up in his inside role over five different decades of football, beginning with SANFL Norwood in 1984.

The easiest way to put it – how can there not be a massive competitive advantage to recently own a company that represents 300 of the AFL stars and so many of the league’s leading veteran and experienced assistant coaches?

Twelve months ago, Steve Hocking returned to Geelong as Chief Executive, fresh from his tenure as AFL football boss, who introduced a series of tweaks and rule changes to speed up football.

A year later, Geelong had won the Premiership by playing a new, faster style of play, due in no small part to Hocking’s demand that the Cats adapt to the rules he had introduced.

Collingwood hopes that Kelly’s off-field expertise will not only help them advance their core business, but also bring similar benefits.

Geelong won a flag for exceptional salary cap management by staying ahead of free agency trends by every list management ploy in the book.

Can Kelly read the game’s trends ahead of time on free agency, on the inevitable introduction of a mid-season trading period?

Can he use every mechanism legally available to allow his stars to thrive off the field with the kind of merch, apparel, third-party and sponsorship deals that have made him a millionaire in the business many times?

The conflict of interest is real and needs to be managed, but at least the size of football clubs and reporting lines will allow Kelly to steer clear of those emotional decisions.

Collingwood and Kelly are adamant he will walk away from any decisions about his son as they believe the coaching will bridge “old” conflicts of interest that are now irrelevant as he will make every decision based on what is best for the pies.

Son Will Kelly’s injury-prone career was summed up by the dislocated elbow he suffered on an otherwise promising debut in July 2020 and has only played two more games since and none last year despite playing 17 VFL games.

Kelly’s new role will make any decision more emotional, but in reality he will not be on the management team’s list as director of football Paul Licuria already has board responsibility for the role.

His role won’t set a precedent either, if Blues List boss Steve Silvagni while his two sons were playing, and Hawthorn’s Justin Reeves adequately handle a similar conflict with son Ned.

In truth, if Kelly is dropped from the list, it will be a far cry from the first painful father-son decision after a collection of Clokes, Shaws and Browns have come and gone in recent years.

It was impossible to imagine that Kelly would ever become CEO of Collingwood when his great friend and client Nathan Buckley was a trainer, because how could he ever part with a decision on when to keep or fire the Pies legend?

In a perfect world, Kelly will hand over a Premiership bonus he would have negotiated to client Craig McRae this September.

But the history of football shows that Kelly McRae is more likely to be sacked than eventually win a flag.

Collingwood has made it clear that a decision on her position as senior manager would never be more than a recommendation from Kelly and football boss Graham Wright to the board, but a concrete decision.

But in reality, the TLA-Kelly connections will always be in the spotlight, as TLA managed or has managed Pies coaches McRae, Justin Leppitsch, Brendon Bolton, Scott Selwood, Andy Otten and Jordan Roughead.

So on February 20 Kelly will begin what is a return to the big, brash Collingwood of formerly under Brown and Premiership hero Kelly, with the Pies believing they have the best CEO in the business.

If winning premierships is about making dozens of elite football and commercial decisions in a row — and avoiding the disastrous decisions that can bring a club to its knees — then Kelly’s recruiting in the No. 16 flag race can only help.

Originally published as AFL 2023: How Craig Kelly will handle Pies conflict as ingenious move brings the club closer to flag 16 AFL 2023: Craig Kelly new Chief Executive of Collingwood; How will it work?

Ryan Sederquist

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