Footy man­agers re­veal their game­plans

Three sports ad­min­is­tra­tors – two CEOs and a play­ers’ agent – ex­plain how they deal with off-field prob­lems and pres­sures

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Story by: Si­mon King Pho­to­graphs by: James Croucher Re­nee Nowytarger Aaron Fran­cis

“IF at first the idea is not ab­surd, there is no hope for it.”

AL­BERT Ein­stein’s words in­spire Rae­lene Cas­tle, the only fe­male chief ex­ec­u­tive in the Na­tional Rugby League, ev­ery day. “Don’t be afraid to think big and push the bound­aries,” says the New Zealand-born Cas­tle, who joined the Can­ter­bury Bull­dogs last year, the first woman in 15 years to run a Na­tional Rugby League club. “Peo­ple find that idea em­pow­er­ing and in­spir­ing — that you’re not work­ing with some­one who al­ways wants to do it how it’s been done be­fore,” says Cas­tle, who joined the Bull­dogs af­ter six years as chief ex­ec­u­tive of Net­ball New Zealand.

As Aus­tralia gears up for the Aus­tralian Foot­ball League and NRL grand fi­nals next month, The Deal spoke to peo­ple in­volved in the coun­try’s three win­ter foot­ball codes to learn their view on man­ag­ing their busi­ness and some of the coun­try’s finest sports­men. They were Cas­tle, an ex­pe­ri­enced sports ad­min– is­tra­tor who takes over a club keen to im­prove its image with women, An­drew New­bold, the pres­i­dent of Hawthorn AFL club since 2011, and the direc­tor of Play­ers Ink, Ben Wil­liams, whose sta­ble of clients in­cludes rugby union's Wal­la­bies cap­tain Michael Hooper and Waratahs cap­tain Dave Dennis, and AFL star Shaun Bur­goyne.

Cas­tle has “gen­uinely en­joyed ev­ery sin­gle minute” of run­ning one of the NRL’s big­gest clubs but the chal­lenges fac­ing sport­ing club chief ex­ec­u­tives, pres­i­dents and player agents as they look to grow their busi­nesses can be a mine­field of big egos, multi-mil­lion-dol­lar con­tracts, pas­sion­ate fans and player con­tro­ver­sies. “The re­al­ity of run­ning an NRL club is that we face the same busi­ness chal­lenges as any other busi­ness,” says Cas­tle. “But there is no doubt that work­ing in a high-per­for­mance en­vi­ron­ment gives you some in­sights that can be used in lead­ing ef­fec­tive teams.” She says the ma­jor chal­lenge she faces is “bal­anc­ing the rigours of run­ning a busi­ness within a com­pet­i­tive spon­sor­ship and com­mer­cial en­vi­ron­ment, while still work­ing to pos­i­tively man­age the sig­nif­i­cant de­mands of the me­dia, who are an im­por­tant stake­holder in a pro­fes­sional sports en­vi­ron­ment”.

While every­one in busi­ness is judged on per­for­mance, run­ning a sport­ing team or club, or man­ag­ing an ath­lete, can be much harder given the glare of week­end-to-week­end re­sults. Hawthorn’s New­bold says the big is­sues fac­ing him as an AFL club pres­i­dent in­clude “keep­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cused on the key ob­jec­tives at all times in an in­dus­try where the small­est things can of­ten be the cen­tre of at­ten­tion. The other ma­jor chal­lenge is to keep the club suc­cess­ful and ap­peal­ing to the pub­lic — es­pe­cially your mem­bers — even when you are not nec­es­sar­ily en­joy­ing ab­so­lute suc­cess on the field”. He says be­ing able to han­dle losses as well as wins is an im­por­tant part of the job of run­ning a foot­ball team. “The con­cept of los­ing with grace and win­ning with hu­mil­ity are things that I think one can al­ways get bet­ter at,” he says. “It’s how you win and lose that mat­ters.”

New­bold fol­lowed for­mer Vic­to­rian Pre­mier Jeff Ken­nett as pres­i­dent but in­sists he has his own ap­proach to the job. “Some have said to me, ‘It must have been like fol­low­ing the Bea­tles on to the stage’!” he says. “I haven’t re­ally seen it that way. Jeff is a won­der­ful char­ac­ter who was a great ser­vant of our club, how­ever, we are all just pass­ing through. It is ob­vi­ous that I am a very dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity and leader but I said from the out­set that I would do it my way and to the best of my abil­ity.”

Play­ers’ agent Ben Wil­liams says his busi­ness is a “com­pet­i­tive land­scape”. “There are a lot of agents and new ones com­ing in all the time. You just have to be switched on and al­ways try and im­prove.” One of the key is­sues fac­ing all three is bal­anc­ing the de­mands of the me­dia on their foot­ballers while pro­tect­ing them from what can be the harsh glare of pub­lic scru­tiny. “You re­ally

try and ed­u­cate all your peo­ple about the ben­e­fits and pit­falls of be­ing in the pub­lic glare,” says New­bold. “We have out­stand­ing wel­fare and devel­op­ment staff at our club that work with our play­ing group on a range of is­sues, in­clud­ing this one … the ex­ec­u­tives are also well versed in this as­pect of the game.”

Cas­tle adds it is im­por­tant to bal­ance the com­mer­cial and me­dia de­mands on play­ers and the need for them to train and pre­pare for games. “This is an im­por­tant as­pect of be­ing a pro­fes­sional club, un­der­stand­ing the bal­ance be­tween de­vel­op­ing the pro­file of our play­ers — that helps their and our com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties — but also en­sur­ing the player gets a chance to pre­pare pro­fes­sion­ally as an ath­lete. Hav­ing clear and sep­a­rate times for these dif­fer­ing ac­tiv­i­ties is key.”

Wil­liams says play­ers are be­com­ing more aware that they have to “play ball with the me­dia”. “The play­ers’ in­come is de­rived from the money the me­dia put into their re­spec­tive code,” he says. Deal­ing with the me­dia will in­crease their pro­file, he says, but it can also open them up to ex­pos­ing their per­sonal lives. He notes that foot­ballers are rel­a­tively young peo­ple man­ag­ing a high-dis­pos­able in­come. “A for­eign hol­i­day is some­thing I en­cour­age, it’s great for them to recharge their bat­ter­ies, ex­pe­ri­ence new cul­tures and also get away from their scru­ti­nised lives.”

Wil­liams is in­evitably drawn into the broader as­pect of his clients’ lives away from the foot­ball field. “You have to be able to un­der­stand what is im­por­tant to that player or entertainer and what they are go­ing through in their life,” he says. “For them to be the best they can be, they have to be happy away from their ca­reer and if they are not happy, what is the rea­son for that? You just have to be aware what is hap­pen­ing in their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional life and try and marry it all up.”

Wil­liams says han­dling in­ci­dents where play­ers find them­selves in hot wa­ter re­quires a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act. “Each in­ci­dent has to be taken into iso­la­tion as there are usu­ally lots of fac­tors at play: the player’s in­di­vid­ual brand, the club and code’s brand, a po­ten­tial vic­tim of a con­tro­versy and also pos­si­ble le­gal­i­ties which take prece­dent,” he says. “It is usu­ally in the player’s and club’s best in­ter­est to min­imise the dam­age.” He says it is im­por­tant to have clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the player, the agent and the club. But, “as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the client we also have to be aware that the player isn’t be­ing hung out to dry”. Cas­tle says: “The key is to be as up front as pos­si­ble and en­sure that all key stake­hold­ers are kept in­formed of de­vel­op­ments within the process.”

New­bold says suc­cess­fully run­ning an AFL club in­volves giv­ing peo­ple the space to do their jobs. “I am a strong be­liever in em­pow­er­ing one’s staff to per­form their jobs to the best of their abil­ity,” he says. “I am also a strong pro­po­nent of hon­est feed­back, so that no one is sur­prised by any con­ver­sa­tion. They should not be in any doubt about how they are per­form­ing — oth­er­wise as a leader you are not do­ing your job prop­erly. A strong sense of how best to man­age peo­ple and self-aware­ness is paramount in get­ting the or­gan­i­sa­tion to per­form at its best … The other thing I have learnt is that you can’t please every­one all the time and so you must have an in­nate self-con­fi­dence and a strong con­vic­tion about what’s right and wrong.”

Cas­tle says her job in­volves “strong com­mer­cial ex­pe­ri­ence, great peo­ple skills and an in-depth un­der­stand­ing of how high­per­for­mance sport adds sig­nif­i­cant value.” Wil­liams be­lieves he is only as good as the peo­ple he has around him, which in his case now also in­cludes a new staff mem­ber, for­mer Sydney Swan Jude Bolton. He says part of his job, as the man in the mid­dle, can be han­dling the fact that you can’t please every­one. “I have learnt that not every­one likes you in this busi­ness and you have to be com­fort­able with that. You have to work for your client and rep­re­sent him to the best of your abil­ity and that can put peo­ple’s noses out of joint.”

New­bold says that one of the main sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween run­ning a foot­ball team and a busi­ness is the need to main­tain strong links with cus­tomers. “In our case (it is) our mem­bers and sup­port­ers. It is fun­da­men­tally im­por­tant to run­ning any busi­ness. Look­ing af­ter your as­sets — in our case our peo­ple — is also just as im­por­tant in foot­ball as it is in any busi­ness that re­lies on its peo­ple. You must never un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of the club and the game to so many in our com­mu­nity.”

Cas­tle says the big­gest les­son of her ca­reer in sports ad­min­is­tra­tion is the im­por­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key. You will al­ways find things that with hind­sight you would have done dif­fer­ently and the learn­ing is never make the same mis­take twice!”

BEN WIL­LIAMS

DIREC­TOR, PLAY­ERS INK Started in player man­age­ment 10 years ago and has owned Play­ers Ink for eight years. Has of­fices in Sydney and Mel­bourne rep­re­sent­ing ath­letes in rugby union, AFL and me­dia per­son­al­i­ties. Staff in­cludes two-time AFL pre­mier­ship player Jude Bolton and as­so­ciate direc­tor An­drew Fair­bairn. Ne­go­ti­ated the deal which saw Shaun Bur­goyne move from ri­val Port Ade­laide to Hawthorn.

RAE­LENE CAS­TLE CHIEF EX­EC­U­TIVE, CAN­TER­BURY BULL­DOGS The first fe­male chief ex­ec­u­tive in the NRL for 15 years. She joined the Bull­dogs from Net­ball New Zealand. Was a mem­ber of net­ball's ANZ Cham­pi­onship Board and played a key role in bring­ing the com­pe­ti­tion to mar­ket. Has pre­vi­ously worked for lead­ing New Zealand com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Tele­com New Zealand, BNZ, South­ern Cross Health­care and Fuji Xerox. Is a board mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Net­ball Fed­er­a­tion and was awarded a Sir Peter Blake Emerg­ing Leader Award in 2011.

AN­DREW NEW­BOLD PRES­I­DENT, HAWTHORN FOOT­BALL CLUB A lawyer with more than 20 years ex­pe­ri­ence prac­tis­ing law. Found­ing direc­tor of re­new­able en­ergy com­pany Wind Power which was sold to Ori­gin En­ergy in 2009. Has served on the Hawthorn board since 2003. Suc­ceeded Jeff Ken­nett as pres­i­dent in 2011.

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