Editorial by Nicholas Paul Griffin
The Kookaburras and the Hockeyroos, Australia’s men’s and women’s hockey teams respectively, are both evidence of the consistent high performance of the game in the country. Cam Vale, CEO of Hockey Australia, wants this success to continue, as well as moving Australian hockey into the international arena and setting goals for financial development. The Australian Business Executive spoke to Mr Vale recently about the organisation’s plans for improvement in 2016 and onwards.
Mr Vale has been working in sport for almost sixteen years, having made his way through finance positions and into higher roles, such as a broader COO role in the AFL, before reaching the position of CEO at Hockey Australia.
“The AFL background has certainly been a big part of that [development],” Mr Vale says, recognising the need to embrace a particular mentality in order to become a big part of any sporting community, not least an Australian one.
“As I was saying to a new staff member the other day, sport is very much about the highs and lows, and they can be quite extreme, which can make the industry very exciting to work in at different times, and very tough to work in at other times.”
Mr Vale is often asked about the difference between professional sports such as the AFL and those more Olympic sports like hockey. He admits that in many ways the disciplines are very similar, but with a few key differences.
“Probably one of the main differences and learnings for me is that, when you come from a top-down funded sport like AFL, you’re funded on broadcast, entertainment value and fans, it is a different sporting-business model to one that’s funded in a large way, from grass-roots up, through our state bodies.”
Hockey Australia in particular is funded by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), creating a business and funding model that is far more about performance than popularity and revenue generation.
“Grass-roots participants are our fan base,” Mr Vale tells us, “and supporters in hockey are different to fans that follow a football club, who can love the sport as much but don’t actually play or get engaged.”
Over the two and a half years that Mr Vale has been working in hockey, he has recognised the enormous potential of what he describes as “a great sport”, and believes the game should be looking to grow significantly in the next few years.
“In a lot of ways we should be one of the sports, not just in Australia, but internationally, that are ready to be the next big growth sport that we’re seeing… a traditional sport with maybe another version of the game that can enter into a real growth phase as part of our industry.”
Mr Vale likens this possibility to the growth of T20 in cricket, where a modified version of the original sport has been embraced with great enthusiasm by a whole new generation of fans ready to engage with it.
On the international stage, hockey is beginning to see impressive growth as well as potential, with each continent embracing some form of the game. In South America, with Argentina, and across Europe in countries like England, Germany and France, the game is thriving.
“[Hockey’s big] in Asia, and has a very big presence through India and Pakistan – and then, in the women’s game in particular with Japan, Korea and China emerging, and Malaysia… so they, with Australia and New Zealand, are probably the real strengths of the game.”
Mr Vale explains how there are some more “bespoke” versions of the sport dotted around the globe. One of these is the women’s team in the United States, which has grown recently to be a top ten team. Another success story is South Africa, where the game is developing hugely.
“Probably from a Hockey Australia perspective,” Mr Vale says, “like business and industry and government is now so aligned with this Asian Pacific Rim, if you like, that’s where Hockey Australia’s focus is, with countries like India.”
Hockey Australia is currently developing partnerships with Malaysian and Singaporean hockey, both of which hugely benefit the sport’s profile in Australia. But Mr Vale insists the immediate interest still lies in “our friends and rivals over in New Zealand.”
Hockey Australia works strictly within an international strategy, which supports the four pillars of the organisation. Those pillars are high-performance and sustained success, growing participation, addressing commercial targets and gaining the status of a top 3 governed sport.
The high-performance pillar looks at achieving the goal of winning 12 out of 14 possible medals in key events in a five-year period, and in terms of participation growth, the aim is to double those actively involved with the sport to around 250,000.
The commercial target aims to achieve 50% of income that doesn’t come from the ASC going forward, a number that was at about 22% two and a half years ago. The final pillar aims to take the sport in Australia to the very top level.
“They’re our four pillars,” Mr Vale explains, “but one strategy that supports all four is what we call our International Strategy, and that includes a real focus on Asia. The focus on Asia probably falls into three or four key areas.”
Hockey Australia recognises huge commercial opportunities in moving into Asia, which are mostly around the hosting of events, as demonstrated in the success of having the Indian men’s team touring Australia for three years running.
“This represents a huge commercial opportunity for Hockey Australia, creating broadcast and sponsorship and event incomes. Doing a deal with Malaysia is about that as well, they’re a very strong market commercially for us, but it’s about an area like grass-roots.”
The relationship with Malaysia sees Hockey Australia investigating ways to develop and utilise Hookin2Hockey (Australia’s grass-roots scheme) in an international capacity, based on the program’s success for the development of the game in Australia.
“That’s something that’s possible in Asia,” Mr Vale says, “but probably not possible in Europe. So, commercial focus is no doubt a big part. The second part [of the International Strategy], for us, is really about growing the game.”
This growth will come about from Australia taking responsibility of its strong hockey infrastructure to drive the game through Asia. Both Malaysia and Singapore, particularly with the women’s teams, are still a little way off being major international forces in the sport.
The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is used for Hockey Australia to develop relationships with Asian countries and form mutually beneficial partnerships to forward the regional and international status of the sport.
“These countries have the ability, over the course of these MOUs, for us to be able to influence the game, through particularly coaching and officials and some high-performance crossover, and really have these countries improving and developing.”
For Hockey Australia, it is becoming increasingly important to be seen as a good “hockey corporate citizen”, a status which will see benefits flow into the country as well as out, giving Australia more influence internationally.
“If you’re a country that’s leading and influencing success and good outcomes in some of your so-called rival countries, it can only strengthen your standing politically in the game, and they’re probably the two key reasons that we’ve entered into this International Strategy.”
The third reason is that it ultimately helps the performance of Hockey Australia, giving them excellent content organised with countries they want to be facing on a regular basis, as well as creating reciprocal arrangements by competing in major tournaments overseas.
“The Indian example is a great one, where the Indian men touring Australia was a tremendous commercial opportunity for us, but the benefit for India is that we have, as part of the MOU, released our male athletes to compete in the Hockey India League for the next three years.”
The India League is essential to the country’s commercial and high-performance aspirations and planning. The fact that Australia is now the highest represented country outside of India in the league helps the tournament to reach a higher level of performance.
“In a lot of these cases,” Mr Vale says, “when you go down this path, they’re MOUs because you’re looking basically at mutually beneficial ways of helping each other, and at times we all bring different strengths to the table.”
The relationship with Hockey India means Hockey Australia is able to secure a fantastic event and a key event-partner through one of the big event bodies in Australia, allowing it to put on a great spectacle to be broadcast not just nationally, but internationally as well.
“There’s no doubt they’re a big draw card. They create a lot of economic activity for government, which is obviously a key driver, and exposure of a key Australian domestic market into India from a tourism and branding perspective is very high.”
In addition to the commercial appeal of the event, this relationship helps to drum up sponsorship for the national teams and events, with the hope of appealing to some of the big multi-nationals in Australia looking for national and international exposure.
“It becomes a centrepiece, like so many sports need. Horseracing is a great example, where their business model around the Melbourne Cup and the major spring carnival sustains the whole industry. This event won’t sustain hockey, so to speak, but it will be a big, big driver for us to do other things that we would like to achieve over the next 3 to 4 years.”
The TV deals for broadcasting these events are varied, incorporating both free-to-air and Foxtel in Australia, and the same in the international market. Hockey Australia controls the international TV rights to the event, providing it with a strong reach into Asia.
Some of the markets in India are significant, providing audiences of around 10-15m for a domestic match, offering some huge numbers for Hockey Australia to look forward to, particularly if Pakistan joins the event to make it even more of a spectacle.
“From an Australian perspective, hockey really hasn’t had a permanent broadcast footing for a long time. We’ve had mixed results, it’s fair to say, and we’re one of the higher watched sports for the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, but because we haven’t had a sustained broadcast model… it’s very, very difficult to build a strong audience.”
The bigger sports such as Big Bash Cricket are proving that it can be done, but benefit from a regular appointment for games, something which hockey has not had before. Mr Vale is hoping this event will signal the beginning of something similar for the sport.
“This is the start, hopefully, of a week a year, there’ll be guaranteed coverage, it’ll be the same time, and then as we build the rest of our events around this one, it will hopefully open up greater broadcast opportunities.”
Hockey already benefits from significant relationships with broadcasters, with networks such as ABC, Channel 7 and Foxtel having aired various games in the past, and Mr Vale is confident that a significant broadcast deal will be arranged for this event.
“Ultimately,” Mr Vale says, “Asia and our international strategy is certainly very much about commercial. It’s about being a really good hockey citizen and leading the way internationally, and thirdly, for us, it’s about high-performance.”
One of the four pillars of Hockey Australia’s domestic policy looks towards a move away from such a high level of government subsidy for the sport, something Mr Vale admits is extremely important to the continued growth of the game.
“That effectively means we would be 50% Australian Sports Commission,” he explains, “and 50% non-ASC. Two years ago, it would be roughly 75% ASC and about 25% commercial, so we clearly don’t want to lose our ASC funding, we would want that to increase.”
The level of government funding is based largely on performance, and Mr Vale is clear about the fact that Hockey Australia does not want to cannibalise one to feed the other. It is about growing the non-ASC income and getting away from a model that it is mostly about winning.
“We’re looking at the other areas where sports business needs to be: growing your events, growing your profile, growing your grass-roots and participation. Those are the things that drive and lead to commercial outcomes.”
Mr Vale is clear that sport needs to be commercially focused, creating a challenge for Olympic sports and those below the top-tier, which have been too commercially conservative in the past, struggling with certain issues such as lack of TV deals and exposure.
“It’s easy to say all the reasons we shouldn’t be growing commercially, but you need to look at your business model and identify what does make sense, and we, obviously being a dual-gender sport, have been offered some great opportunities.”
At the end of 2015, Hockey Australia benefitted from the involvement of Curtin University, which wanted to work with a dual-gender sport on research and innovation. This is a commercial partnership currently working very well for both parties.
Likewise, the Project Group, a Singapore-based company, was secured last year. It too wanted to get involved in hockey across two national teams and is currently building a profile in both Australia and Asia.
“That’s where we want to be,” Mr Vale says. “So our government funding has traditionally hovered around the 75% mark, which sits at around $6-7m per annum, and we’ve been around $2-2.5m for non-ASC.”
In a perfect world, Hockey Australia will look to increase commercial revenue to around a similar $7m mark to what it currently receives from the ASC, representing a massive increase, but one that is achievable and looks to be reached sometime before the end of 2017.
Hockey Australia is also looking to bolster its position by becoming a top 3 governed sport, which comes down to a range of self-assessed criteria including financial stability and compliance with the ASC corporate governance standards.
“We’ve been producing a profit year in and year out, and growing our reserves,” Mr Vale explains. “And the ASC have a range of 20+ standards that they believe all Australian sports should be meeting and exceeding.”
These corporate standards include important barometers such as having a board that is 40% female, a high standard of reporting of financial accounts and a high level of governance surrounding the board and similar processes.
“We also look at our standing internationally, how we’re received by our international governing body, the International Hockey Federation. But the best way to describe governance would be around the Australian Sports Commission’s benchmark criteria, which they produce annually through the Australian Sports Performance Report.”
There are a range of other smaller governance issues that are taken into consideration, including the engagement at state level in terms of aligning with state objectives. By the time 2018 is reached, Mr Vale believes Hockey Australia will be very near the top.
“To be honest,” he says, “we really don’t think there are too many sports that have the governance record that we have, and it does come down to the fact that this sport has not had the major negative issues so many other sports have had.”
Mr Vale describes this as an intangible the organisation must take into account when moving for a top 3 place. Hockey’s record is exceptional in terms of managing gambling, poor athlete behaviour and other issues that can see a sport on the front pages for the wrong reasons.
Through both the ASC and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), many great relationships have been formed which has seen hockey benefit from the experiences of other codes and sports.
“I’ve found, in my time in sport, that the industry works really well informally, and being able to pick up the phone and ask a colleague about what their strategy or policy is around a crisis or an international travel policy or your benchmarking around financials, is great.”
A lot of this networking involves very proactive conversations with colleagues, sharing confidential and sensitive information in a manner that is both responsible and actively beneficial to the growth of other sports.
“In the AFL, even though you’re competing with other clubs, the business executives would look at ways of sharing good IP that basically allows us all to benefit from it. You hear the saying, it’s swings and roundabouts, and its very true in sport.”
Mr Vale has found that giving good information to somebody in another code or sport will be reciprocated at another time, when certain hurdles are hit that are new or require some further advice to navigate.
“You can ring your colleagues and really share information and learn off each other,” Mr Vale adds. “It certainly happens formally, but I think the real value at times is through the informal communication.”
“One of the key things for us, high-performance wise, is that we are the only sport in this country that is equally a dual-gender, team-based sport, that basically has a centralised training and program.”
Despite having all the hallmarks of the professional football codes – like centralised, full time programs – the athletes in hockey are still at best semi-professional, relying on funding from many different quarters, including sometimes part-time employment.
“It’s a really tough existence, if you’re in that middle ground of not being fully, professionally paid and not being in a true amateur or camps-based sport, so I think our sport at times gets overlooked.”
Mr Vale admits even the high level of integrity on and off the field can mean the sport gets overlooked, as a consistent expectation of performance has been established, meaning the teams can sometimes blend into the background.
“It’s a fascinating part for me, as CEO, to see how often we’re just overlooked in issues we would hope we would have a higher profile – when it comes to the discussion around gender balance in sport, I don’t think anyone can match our record.”
The athlete agreement between the Kookaburras and the Hockeyroos is strong and unprecedented. In addition, Hockey Australia already has a board made up of six women and four men, and an executive team including four women.
“It’s not because we force these things,” Mr Vale concludes, “it’s just the nature of our sport is so balanced. It sums us up in a lot of ways, and the ingredients of our business model are very good.”
“Our challenge is to keep finding ways to turn that into something that represents a really high commercial and business outcome that rewards our athletes, that rewards grass-roots and supports what we do.”
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