Diving Australia: Cultivating Success

Diving Australia: Cultivating Success

David Bell is the CEO of Diving Australia, the National Sporting Organisation for the Olympic Sport of springboard and platform diving. He has been in sports management and administration for over ten years, after spending over 5 years as a commercial lawyer.

After a stint in the event management team of V8 Supercars, with a particular focus on the iconic Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, David took on his first CEO role at Queensland Athletics. Following that he spent 3 years as the General Manager of Virginia Golf Club before accepting his current role.

David has undergraduate degrees in Law and Business (Accounting), a Masters in Sports Management and is undertaking a Masters in Business Administration. He is admitted as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of Queensland and the High Court of Australia. He is a Member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors as well as the Sport Management Association of Australia and New Zealand and the Australia New Zealand Sports Law Association. David is also a non-executive director of Golf Queensland Ltd.

In our exclusive David discusses the unique environment of competitive diving.

J. Landry: Can you tell us about your background?

David Bell: I am Brisbane born and bred and the eldest of 4 children. My father and uncle were in law (David’s father Graham recently retired as the second longest serving Australian Federal Judge ever) and as my main role models law was a natural progression for me following school. I had always loved sport and played cricket, rugby and tennis at a reasonably high standard as a child and once I was studying, I found myself spending a significant amount of time involved in sport.

Diving Australia CEO David Bell
Diving Australia CEO David Bell

I was not an excellent scholar, perhaps because of my love of sport, but following university became a solicitor at HopgoodGanim Lawyers – one of Queensland’s largest independent law firms. I was a competent lawyer but struggled to achieve my quotas of billable hours due almost entirely to my fascination with keeping up to date with all things sport and the business of sport. HopgoodGanim were a great employer and were supportive of me when after four years practicing as a lawyer, I decided to study for a Masters in Sports Management while still working full-time. At the conclusion of that degree, knowing my heart was not in law, I moved on to a position at V8 Supercars.

After two amazing years with the V8 Supercars making some lifelong friends and gaining a huge amount of skills and insight into the business of sport, I was lucky enough to be offered the role of CEO of Queensland Athletics. One of the young stars of Queensland Athletics (QA) at the time was Sally McLellan (later Pearson) and I look back at my time at QA really fondly in the great work they carried out and the small part I played in the development of athletics in Queensland and Australia.

From QA, I accepted a role as General Manager of Virginia Golf Club (VGC), a 27 hole facility with bar, restaurant and gaming facilities on Brisbane’s northside. VGC is famous as the only golf Club in the world that I know of with two former Club Champions going on to win a Golf Major Championship. Both Greg Norman and Wayne Grady are former Club Champions at VGC. I saw this as a great opportunity to learn more about running a business and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. If you want to see grassroots politics in action, suggest layout changes to a members golf course!

After my time with VGC, I was offered the CEO role at Diving Australia.

JL: How did you get involved with Diving Australia?

DB: I had agreed with my wife that six months after the birth of our second child I would take some time off to be a stay at home dad and assist in her return to work. We had agreed that I would spend about 6 months as a stay at home dad before I started to look for a new opportunity. After about five and a half months, the CEO role at Diving Australia (DA) was advertised.

Diving is a sport that I have loved watching over the years and have always been amazed at the skill and grace required. Also, DA’s offices are based in Brisbane so it seemed like an opportunity I had to throw my hat in the ring for. It has been a steep learning curve as diving is such a technical sport but I have learnt a lot and am proud to be working with our excellent coaches and amazing athletes.

JL: Are there similarities in the sport management industry that has made it easy to crossover from one code to another?

DB: The short answer is absolutely. All sports that I have worked at have their own unique challenges and issues which take some time to get used to, but all sports have the same broad challenges. Communication and stakeholder engagement are at the top of the list. I have a very firm view that good communication is not a destination, but rather a journey that you will never complete. I always try to improve the communication and engagement in the organisations I work in, but I freely admit there is always opportunity for improvement.

Another example of similarities are the financial (P&L, balance sheet, cashflow), legal (risk managements, contracts etc) and human resource management areas. There are some peculiarities, but the broad issues remain constant.

JL: How many types of diving are involved in the organisation?

DB: The traditional disciplines are 3 metre springboard (and to a lesser extent 1 metre springboard) and 10 metre platform.

There is also 3m and 10m synchronised where 2 divers perform the same dive at the same time, and recently FINA (the international governing body for diving) introduced mixed synchronised. This is quite a difficult event as male and female divers usually do different dives, so to “match” up a male and female is challenging.

These events were held for the first time at the World Championships this July where our 10m pair of Melissa Wu and Domonic Bedggoood managed a bronze medal and our 3m pair of Maddison Keeney and Grant Nel finished 4th.

In addition, High Diving has become more mainstream and was also held at the World Championships this year. For the women it is 20m and for the men it is 27m. This is something DA will be looking to invest more in over the next few years just like mixed synchronized. High Diving is not yet an Olympic discipline, but it may become one.

JL: How many members does the organisation have currently?

DB: There is no denying that diving is a niche sport. We currently have around 2,000 members, which includes coaches and officials.

There are 6 excellent, passionate and committed State Associations – Diving Western Australia, Diving South Australia, Diving Tasmania, Diving Victoria, Diving New South Wales and Diving Queensland that do a great job.

JL: In the face of such a competitive sporting landscape, how does Diving Australia try to recruit new participants?

DB: I mentioned our State Associations previously and they are a big part of our recruitment process. Within each State are local Clubs that seek to recruit new participants via come and try days, holiday clinics, regional events and more. Diving is a little challenged in a facility sense. There are not that many indoor pools with a full 10m platform so that is certainly a constraint. That said, our Clubs and our State Associations do a great job in trying to utilise the resources that we do have. Particularly in light of the difficulty of getting the balance right between grassroots participation and our high performance aspirations.

In a high performance sense, diving in Australia is an incredibly successful sport internationally. We derive the significant bulk of our annual revenue from high performance grant funding and as a result, we need to prioritise pool time to our high performance programs which we are certainly aware creates issues for States and Clubs, but they are great partners in what we are trying to do.

In terms of recruiting new participants for high performance, we look to good Club divers and we also have a big focus on talent transferring from gymnastics. A huge number of our elite divers were high level junior gymnasts and we are indebted to the preparation work that Gymnastics Australia and its States and Clubs do.

We recently commenced a partnership with Gymnastics Australia and Ski and Snowboard Australia titled ‘Spin to Win’, a targeted program around finding more young athletes that have excellent spatial/aerial awareness and the ability to spin, and directing them to either gymnastics programs, diving programs or aerial skiing.

The 2015 Diving Australia National Team
The 2015 Diving Australia National Team

JL: What is the relationship with the Australian Institute of Sport and how do they compliment your activities?

DB: We have a very close working partnership with the AIS. They fund us to the tune of a little over $2.1m per annum which makes up the significant bulk of our annual revenue.

In addition to that, the AIS provides servicing support for our top end athletes. This includes physiotherapy, soft tissue therapy, psychology support and logistics support for our younger elite athletes. That is, liaising with their schools and universities to ensure they are able to train to the right degree. Elite divers will train 10 sessions a week which equates to about 27 hours plus massage and physio appointments. The AIS also provides significant system support through advice, training and development.

It is absolutely true to say that without our great relationship with the AIS we could not have been as internationally successful as we have been. As a headline statistic, Diving has won 11 medals across the last 4 Olympic Games – 2 Gold, 3 Silver and 6 Bronze. We are really looking forward to adding to these numbers in Rio next year!

JL: What is the perception of the Diving Australia brand internationally?

DB: Diving is such an international sport with a large number of participants. Australia is right up there among the best and we are regularly in the top 3 or 4 medal winning countries at major events. In fact, we recently returned from the World Championships in Russia where we won 2 bronze medals.

Diving Australia is very much considered a strong diving nation. China is dominant, there is no escaping this fact, but we are very much in the next level of countries including USA, Mexico, and Russia. Only three countries other than China have won at least one Gold Medal in the last 4 Olympics combined – Russia 3, USA 2 and Australia 2 (note: there are 8 gold medals on offer at each Olympics).

JL: How is the organisation funded?

DB: Our AIS funding contributes the significant bulk of our annual revenue, in excess of 80%. The remainder is self generated either through events, memberships, or training fees from younger athletes. We have very little in the way of sponsorship and this is an area that we could really use some additional support. We have amazing athletes that are great ambassadors for our sport and I would love to be able to get them some more exposure and assistance.

JL: Since most athletic organisations are not run on a for-profit basis, what constitutes good governance and how do you benchmark success?

DB: As a former lawyer, I am really interested in governance – and ensuring organisations I lead practice good governance. I have found that corporate governance principles apply equally to not-for-profit organizations, but often have challenges in implementation for reasons like revenue constraints and the ‘passion’ involved in sport.

Having good diversity on the Board is a key component with a strong skills mix and the ability to appoint some Directors to ensure that any skills shortages can be addressed. I am lucky at DA to have an amazing Board with an excellent mix of skills.

We recently made some constitutional changes to fully adopt the AIS’ Sports Governance Principles and this is another area that the AIS offers great assistance to us. They also help with benchmarking in providing good data across all spots as to the kind of things that are in place in the governance area and where we should be striving to reach.

Integrity issues are key in sport (Anti-Doping considerations etc) and I have found that good communication (eg policies and education) and transparency are so important in addressing these issues.

As a public company limited by guarantee, we are required to adhere to the Corporations Act (2001) which requires high levels of reporting, transparency and integrity.

The 2015 Diving Australia National Team took home medals at this year's World Championship in Russia
The 2015 Diving Australia National Team took home medals at this year’s World Championship in Russia

JL: You’re currently investing in a number of new areas, can you tell us about this?

DB: The AIS’ high performance strategy, Australia’s Winning Edge, has required sports to rethink their operating methodology and to take on increased accountability for performances. DA has embraced this and has increased our presence in 2 of our 5 high performance centres. We are lucky enough to be in partnership with 5 of Australia’s State Institutes/Academies of Sport (VIS, SASI, WAIS, NSWIS and QAS) and we are now investing heavily in Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney. These three locations represent the best facilities in Australia. Although, recently an excellent new facility opened in Melbourne. This new facility may take on an increased focus for us in future.

We are exceptionally lucky to have great support from our partners including the AIS, our State Institute partners and the AOC and ACGA. This really helps us to deliver world class training programs to our athletes – the reason we do what we do!

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To read and download the full profile click on the cover image below. To view this editorial as it appeared originally in The Australian Business Executive magazine, click here.

Interview by J. Landry