SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 13: Steven Lowy of Westfield speaking with Robert Harley from AFR at The Westin on October 13, 2016 in Sydney, . (Photo by Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media) SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – OCTOBER 13: Steven Lowy of Westfield speaking with Robert Harley from AFR at The Westin on October 13, 2016 in Sydney, . (Photo by Christopher Pearce/Fairfax Media)
Professional sport in is at the crossroads: some have travelled so far down the corporate path, they are too business-oriented to be called a sport.
Others are retreating back along the amateur path, too inherently sport-minded to be considered a business.
The tortured delay in Cricket reaching a pay deal with its players; the indecision of the Rugby Union in sacking a team; the revolt by stakeholders of Football Federation ; rugby league’s problems in achieving a functioning independent commission and the AFL’s relentless push to be standard-bearers of social equity in the nation are evidence of this confusion.
John Wylie, an investment banker and chair of the n Sports Commission, has been active in taking the Olympic sports down the same route as the professional codes, installing businessmen with no elite experience in a sport as chairs.
Mining giant Rio Tinto, with its reputation for union-busting tactics, was seen as the ogre in CA’s problems in reaching an agreement with the n Cricketers Association. CA chair David Peever is a former managing director of Rio Tinto and recruited a Rio Tinto executive and an adviser to assist CA on the pay negotiations.
However, it would be a mistake to assume elite businessmen who take a ruthless approach to dealing with cricketers don’t love sport.
Peever, for example, was a frequent attendee at Storm home games until he moved inter-state.
Nevertheless, the brutal negotiations between CA and the ACA and the stratospheric salaries paid has produced the perception that ‘s favourite summer pastime is now more of a business than a sport.
By contrast, the inept leadership of the ARU by former NAB chief executive Cameron Clyne, in failing to cull an n Super Rugby team, has pushed the code back to its roots. Rugby union people now prefer to stroll down to a suburban oval to watch a game between amateur teams, while sipping on a beer and eating a hot dog.
Rugby union boasts it has the most corporately qualified and diverse board in , yet the failure of the code, when challenged by the demands of its international partners, exposes it as still too much of a sport to be a business.
Both rugby league and soccer face problems over governance, with demands from stakeholders for more power. The heads of both codes, the ARLC’s John Grant and FFA’s Steven Lowy, have demonstrated that their business skills have not been enough to achieve corporate stability.
Grant, a former Kangaroo, led a successful IT company but was effectively absent from the game for 20 years. This became an asset when the newly formed ARLC needed an independent chair. The code’s stakeholders, none of whom trusted each other, decided that no one could sit on the commission if he/she had been involved with rugby league in any way in the previous three years, apart from being a passive fan. The pendulum swung too far to business and the fans of the code have been seeking a saviour, one with a celebrated past in the sport, since.
Lowy, the chief executive of Westfield’s overseas investments, inherited the FFA’s chairman’s role from his father, Frank, one of ‘s richest individuals. The A-League clubs want greater representation on the congress that elects the board. Their owners are losing money but believe they have the gravitas of a Manchester United.
Ironically, that great bastion of sport/business ethics, FIFA, is sending out emissaries to end the sport’s civil war.
The AFL has its own links to Rio Tinto via recently retired chairman Mike Fitzpatrick and former AFL commissioner Chris Lynch, the mining giant’s CFO. The code boasts a national leadership role in promoting gender equity, Indigenous and refugee causes and gay rights. A cynic might suggest this is done with an eye on government grants. The AFL chairman, Richard Goyder, said, when replacing Fitzpatrick, “The AFL is more than a business because of the way that it reaches into all these communities.”
Goyder is the outgoing chief executive of Wesfarmers and the first chair of the AFL who has not played the game at the elite level. A former Wesfarmers chairman, Bob Every, sits on the board of Cricket .
The common thread in many of the appointments to the boards of professional sports is the promotion of independence over competence.
In the rush to recruit top business people, they have neglected what might be called the affection and affinity for a sport.
Furthermore, many of the corporate heavyweights are not accustomed to the intense – sometimes personal – scrutiny from the media. What might work in the corporate world doesn’t necessarily translate to the world of sport.