Saviour or Scoundrel? The Lowy Question

There have been few more controversial figures in Australia’s long and tumultuous history with the world game than Frank Lowy. For some he is the saviour of football in Australia while for others he is nothing more than an opportunist driven by ego and self-interest. One thing that isn’t debatable is that the shopping centre magnate has left his mark on football, the mark being like something you’d see in the Rorschach test, open to interpretation. Frank’s involvement in football goes further back than when he became chairman of the Football Federation of Australia in 2003 and knowing this history is important.

Frank had his chance in the 1980s to leave a football legacy that only the harshest of critic could find fault with. There was a chance to take football from the fringes and thrust it on the national landscape like never before or since. The current FFA chairman could’ve gotten the jump on both Australian Rules and Rugby League had he chosen to use his position and influence to take a chance on the sport he professes to have loved since childhood.

It was the year 1987, that Frank could’ve changed the course of history for football in Australia if he had just chosen a path similar to fellow billionaires had in other sports. Kerry Packer in the 1970s and Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s were the protagonists in forcing change to cricket and rugby league respectively. When Packer launched the World Series in 1977 and Murdoch challenged the League establishment with his renegade Super League in the mid-90s, major changes were forced which can still be felt today. They were ugly times and loyalties were split but time has shown that these “revolutions” have seen the two sports prosper.

Cricketers were struggling to make a living from the game, rugby league had too many clubs that were not in economically viable positions; the World Series and Super League albeit short-lived went some way to improving the positions of both sports by bringing in more professionalism and improved TV & broadcasting rights.

In 1987, Frank Lowy’s Westfield Group bought the 10 network, one of only three free-to-air commercial networks at the time. One must wonder why a man often described as a longtime supporter of football in Australia wouldn’t take this opportunity to inject much needed funds and promotion to a game he said in 1980 lacked both.

“the clubs who provide the players bleed every week on the field for lack of support and promotion.” – Frank Lowy, February 27th 1980.

If this sentiment were sincere then wouldn’t owning one of the major networks be a perfect opportunity to give the support and promotion the sport badly needed? In fact, this would also have put Lowy in a strong position in football and given him the power in the game he craved. The juggernaut we know now that is the Australian Football League was still three years away from becoming the truly national competition it is today. As a PFA funded survey of 2002 showed, the biggest problem by far that kept fans away was promotion and lack of broadcasting. The sporting landscape of the mid-1980s was still there for football with much needed investment, promotion and broadcasting

One must remember that it was also 1987 when Frank – who was president of the Hakoah Social Club – pulled their team out of the National Soccer League with a two thirds majority, one round in to the season. The financial burden placed on the Hakoah Social club to support the football team was cited by Frank as the main reason to withdraw the team from the national competition. Despite the social club which was quite successful and ran at a surplus being originally established to support the football club as mentioned on the club’s own website:

Although Hakoah had become an icon in the community as a social club and diverse facility addressing many social and event needs, the original purpose of Soccer remained high on the list of the club’s activities well into the 1980’s

“I say without qualification that we cannot afford to maintain a professional team any longer. Despite the sentimental arguments I can see no justification for our current level of funding. The cost of running the team could be $300,000 and $500,000 would be needed to maintain a top-line professional team in the near future. The decision of your board of directors to bite the bullet on this issue is a sad one. But we must be realistic. Our support for Sydney City will have to end sooner or later.’ – Frank Lowy.

Entrepreneur and keen follower of football, Harry Michaels, offered a reported $650,000 to buy the licence and maintain a team in the league, which for some reason was rejected.

The Roar ran a story in March 2012 titled “The day that Frank Lowy took his ball and went home” which was in itself an interesting read but not as interesting as the comments section below especially from an insider at the time, Peter Scott’ another entrepreneur who was a contributor to Soccer Action, and a long time football fan.

Below are Scott’s comments on the article:

Lowy pulling the plug on football at Hakoah was a vendetta, pure and simple, after he got screwed by Arthur George and his buddies (this is referring to the 1982 ASF AGM where Lowy was soundly beaten in his attempt to get on the board).

The AGM (the Hakoah Social Club meeting where they voted to remain in the NSL, or not) was fixed. New members flooded the register beforehand and, lo and behold, they were Lowy’s men. He already tried to kill off football on a previous occasion and failed. This time he took no chances.

Hakoah used to attract many thousands of Jewish football fans to all their games – and their children – it was a way of life in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. However, Lowy had this fixation about being an “ethnic”, an inferiority complex about it, a giant sized chip on his shoulder, which led to the idiocy of the Sydney City Slickers experiment, identifying with the one part of Sydney, which had virtually no population. His expressed reason was the lack of support from the Jewish community. The reason for that? His and Andrew Lederer’s long standing determination not to allow any sort of involvement by anyone else in the running and administration of football – and to a large extent of the social club, as well – within Hakoah.

In a community of educated, successful people, there were no volunteers for “involvement”, which would have entailed the cutting up of oranges for halftime and not much else. In earlier years, under the presidencies of the likes of Walter Sternberg and Karl Rodny, supporters were involved, new and capable administrative talent was tapped, the juniors – the source of new followers – had meaningful representation on the Board of Directors (including myself for a period) and thousands turned up at the games each weekend to cheer for a club with some meaning and relevance for them.

Lowy and Lederer ran a two man band, in the end there was only the two of them left … and then nothing. No team, no social club. At the very end Lederer saw the stupidity and vindictiveness of it all, but still did not have the gumption to come out openly in opposition to Lowy, fearing possible adverse effects on his business relationship with Westfield. Wasn’t alone in this view.

At the very end, a group of Hakoah people with ability and backing worked out a business plan, which would have enabled the club to continue in the NSL that season and more than likely beyond it, without it being a financial burden on the social club. The guarantee of competence would have been the presence of Harry Lakmaker, universally recognized as one of the top administrators in the game. A younger generation of businessmen, lawyers, professional people were ready to take over, but were screwed over by Lowy and his stacked meeting (see above). At an open meeting I attended football fans begged for at least a State League team to be maintained, so that the Hakoah name and image be carried on. Lowy contemptuously tossed it at his audience, that he did not wish to be involved in a team, which was not necessarily the highest possible level. Never mind, that legally it was not HIS team , but that of the members, nor that he was not asked to be involved. My response was a prediction, that with such an attitude the time was nearing when even the social club – which was founded by football and for football – may be a thing of the past, concreted over and turned into another shopping centre. Zoning regulations prevented that from happening in Bondi, but I wasn’t far wrong. I think it is now an apartment building.

Harry Lakmaker and his group were not allowed the chance to try and salvage the disaster Lowy and his yes men conjured up, because there was a clear and present danger they may have succeeded and how would that have looked for Frank Lowy?

Frank Lowy was a one man band then and he is still a one man band.

Finally, Lowy did not start any amateur team. There was a number of them in existence long before the drama of Hakoah’s demise. As for Maccabi, already in existence, he used it as a pathetic fig leaf, throwing a few bucks – emphasis on the few – at them, because the Hakoah Social Club’s articles of association mandated financial support for football. The irony was and is, that those articles were written into the founding document at Lowy’s firm demand. He insisited, that this would prevent any danger of non-football people taking over the club in the future and turning it into nothing more than a poker machine palace.

These are the facts of the case. I was there, right in the middle of it, from the early sixties. Everything else you are told is rubbish, pathetic self justification. And, to hear Lowy boasting a few days ago about how he empathises with clubs, having been a club president himself for a couple of decades, well, all it does is add insult to injury.

If even half these allegations are true then it is damning proof of the spitefulness that Frank had towards the ASF that when he was in a position to really help the game he instead opted to hold a grudge. Scott did go on to say that Frank had had the best of interests of the game before he was trumped by Sir Arthur but that humiliation changed the renowned philanthropist.

As touched on in Scott’s comments, Frank didn’t want to hand over the football club because if it did succeed it would look bad on him that he had failed. His personal pride was placed ahead of the club and ultimately the game. Imagine the outcry today if an owner pulled their team during the season.

Scott’s “one man band” comment could explain why Frank didn’t come to the rescue of football with a TV deal. If he had done that then he’d have had to share some of the limelight with his footballing foes and for a proud man like Frank, who has regularly stated he hates to lose, this would be beyond the pale. Frank’s venture into the TV world only lasted a couple of years with the Westfield Group losing around 300 million dollars in the venture that had initially been encouraged by the succesful businessman, David Gonski.

Frank stepped away from football completely until 2003 when the government armed with the Crawford Report and 15 million dollars coaxed Frank back to be the figurehead and autocratic leader of a new regime. It represented the last chance for a man who could hold a grudge to get the last laugh on those who he felt shunned him all those years ago.

Before the Aleague kicked off Frank admitted he was fearful of failure. He had warned those working for him that failure wasn’t an option. This saw the Aleague launched with such ambitious goals driven by fear and short-sightedness that ten years on the jury is still out on the success. Crucial aspects from the Crawford Report on governance have not been implemented, numerous ownership changes, teams have disappeared, disappointing TV ratings, no promotion/relegation, and expansion put on the back burner while almost half the existing clubs are in serious trouble; are just some of the issues that need addressing.

Today the game has made some significant improvements in the coverage and commercial side of things, particularly at the very top. Frank Lowy deserves some credit for this as he was chosen to lead the revival of football.

However, the interest level with 3.5 million watching the 2002 World Cup Final to make it the most watched sporting event in Australia that year, and participation of football being the highest team sport participation at 500,000 in 2002 would’ve seen someone step up to take over what was and has been a popular sport and pastime for many Australians for generations.

One can’t help but wonder where the game would be today if one man had put aside his personal feelings and given the game he professed to love the boost in the arm that it needed? Sure he’s here now but is it too little too late?

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One response to “Saviour or Scoundrel? The Lowy Question

  1. With a record of journalism behind me, stretching back to 1965, I was never, ever in the habit of contemplating publication of anything, that may be described as, “If even half these allegations are true…”.
    If it wasn’t all true, it didn’t bear my name and I am still proud of that record.

    Liked by 1 person

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