Footy managers reveal their gameplans
Three sports administrators – two CEOs and a players’ agent – explain how they deal with off-field problems and pressures
“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 WILLIAMSDIRECTOR, 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.