It takes more than money and brains to run a sport
Passion is an under-rated commodity in the workplace these days. Cool, level-headed conservatism is in. Get someone with brains and nice suits and the ability to manage finances and hey presto! There’s your new boss.
It’s upside down logic. Passion for the business is valuable in any major enterprise. Say what you like about my boss Rupert Murdoch, and many of you will, but you can’t argue that the guy loves the game. The same with the late Kerry Packer.
Over in the AFL, you get the impression Andrew Demetriou is so passionate about his sport, he still rips into a new box of Weet-Bix to see if he can find a Buddy Franklin card at the bottom. The NRL could have followed suit and installed a leader who knows and loves the game. They didn’t, and they’ll likely pay for it.
The NRL’s new boy is a Welsh banker called David Smith, who presents in about as colourful a manner as his name. Australian Rugby League Commission chief John Grant unveiled him two weeks ago. Grant is a former league player so you’d think he might have chosen one of his own.
Nope. He went for a hollow suit. A man whose chief recommendation is that he managed $50 billion worth of assets at an investment bank. Well gee, why not? After all, what grief did bankers ever cause in the world?
Smith failed his first test so spectacularly, you wonder what on earth prepossessed him to attend the red ribbon-cutting press conference at which his appointment was announced.
He couldn’t name players on an image behind him on the wall, and was blank when asked to name the current Australian captain. For the record, it’s Cameron Smith, a man who needs three mantelpieces for all the honours he’s accumulated in the game.
Smith not knowing the other Smith was like Alan Joyce walking into his first Qantas presser and not being able to identify the A380.
Speaking of Joyce, there’s a perfectly sound argument that he didn’t spend his childhood playing with model planes nonstop, but what’s that got to do with running an airline? A good CEO is a good CEO.
That’s all well and good, but business and sport are different. This is the crux of this issue. It’s one thing memorising Sun Tzu’s Art of War and all the corporate doublespeak that goes with CEOing, but there are some “industries” where your skills do not transfer. Sport is one of them.
Rugby league needs someone who knows the rules so they can act swiftly when there are debacles with, say, the obstruction rule, as there was in 2012. It needs someone who understands the fans so they can make the right decisions over expansion teams. It needs someone who understands 100 year old interstate and international rivalries so that they can rule firmly on the heated issue of rep player eligibility.
These are but three examples. But they all pertain to the unavoidable fact that rugby league is a tribal game, which needs at the helm someone of the tribe.
David Gallop was a middling city lawyer before he became NRL CEO but he succeeded because he loved the game. He attended matches in his spare time long before it became his job to front the media on Monday morning and explain why a boofhead shat in a hotel hallway.
Can you see David Smith handling a situation like this with authority? I can’t. The bloke needs to be part referee, part schoolmaster, part policeman, part rabid fan and part boofhead himself. He also needs to be part businessman of course, but the numbers game, which he’s undoubtedly good at, is but a fraction of the equation.
Everyone with a good word for David Smith says he’ll do exactly the things you’d pretty much expect his financial team and back room staff to keep doing anyway, with or without his urging.
Right now, rugby league seems like a sport which doesn’t trust itself. It doesn’t need a businessman at this point in its history. Didn’t it just seal a billion dollar TV rights deal? What the sport needs is a statesman. An insider who understands the fine line the sport must tread between its proud bogan instincts and its middle class aspirations.
Brains and the ability to manage finances will get David Smith only so far. He’ll be lucky to last the season.
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