Former AFL chief executive Ross Oakley was in charge when the league made the painful transition to a national competition.
The empty envelope was an early sign for the AFL that private ownership might not work.
Former VFL and AFL chief executive Ross Oakley recounted the moment in 1986 when the Brisbane Bears were unveiled officially.
Businessman Christopher Skase was bankrolling the new team and fronted the team launch with Oakley.
Skase handed Oakley the envelope that everyone thought would contain a cheque for $4 million, which was the team’s licence fee.
“He handed me the envelope and I thought it was a great media opportunity,” Oakley said.
“I was going to tear it open and hold the cheque up for $4 million.
“I went to start to tear the envelope and he leant across to me and said ‘gentlemen don’t open envelopes in public’.
“As soon as the launch of the team finished, I ducked into the toilet and tore it open – there was absolutely nothing there.”
Eventually, Skase became one of Australia’s most notorious failed businessmen and the league’s “bad news Bears” merged with Fitzroy to become the Brisbane Lions.
As AFL boss, Oakley oversaw a tumultuous period in the 1980s and ’90s when the VFL transformed into the AFL and became a national competition.
The Oakley years are recounted in a book he has co-authored, The Phoenix Rises.
Flamboyant doctor Geoff Edelsten also owned the Sydney Swans in the ’80s, but that did not last as well.
“The game is far better off not having privatisation involved,” Oakley said at Tuesday’s book launch.
“What we’ve found … particularly in Sydney, is that the supporters don’t feel enough ownership of the team.
“That’s where the real passion comes from.”
Peter Gordon took over as Footscray president in 1989 after the league tried to engineer a merger with Fitzroy.
Fans were furious and it led to the famous “Up Yours Oakley” bumper stickers.
Oakley and Gordon, now back as Western Bulldogs president, were enemies at the time.
But they later became friends and Gordon helped launch the book – something unthinkable a quarter of a century ago.
Oakley donned an “Up Yours Gordon” t-shirt at the launch and handed the Bulldogs’ boss a double-sided framed version of the bumper sticker.
The other side read “Well Done Gordon”.
New AFL chief executive Gill McLachlan also spoke at the launch and Oakley had a warning for him.
“‘Up Yours McLachlan’ has a nice ring to it,” Oakley said with a mischievous grin.