As a smaller, regional A-League team, the Central Coast Mariners have in the past struggled to keep up with the league’s big boys. But with fresh ideas about how to get the best out of a community-driven club, new CEO Shaun Mielekamp is not about to concede defeat in the race for A-League success.
“I first joined sport ten years ago at South Sydney Rabbitohs,” Mr. Mielekamp tells us, “and so was working for Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes à Court… I was there for two years until heading over to Penrith Panthers.”
Mr. Mielekamp was involved in the club’s ‘Pink Panther’ campaign, which he describes as something of a personal project for him, as well as helping coordinate much of the marketing and development when Phil Gould arrived at the club.
“My personal passion was really driving towards how sports clubs can engage with communities,” he says, “and how a sports club can grow with a community and help a community grow.”
At this time Mr. Mielekamp was lucky to attend a function discussing best practice for community engagement by sports squads, hearing from current Mayor of Gosford, Lawrie McKinna, who was representing the Central Coast Mariners.
“It was actually by going to that event that it followed with me meeting Lyall Gorman, who at the time was the head of the A-League, and Lyall then brought me over to the Western Sydney Wanderers.”
Mr. Mielekamp was a member of the team that started up the Wanderers three years ago, a club that has already seen a huge amount of success since that time: “[It] was really exciting to grow and be part of that journey,” he says.
“It’s now three years since I started there at the Wanderers. I’ve been living up here in the Central Coast for the last ten years and so now I’ve been given the opportunity to be part of the Central Coast Mariners.”
Mr. Mielekamp describes his new club’s biggest challenge as re-engaging with the community up in the Central Coast, to prove that a regional-based model for a sports franchise can compete on the national stage.
“One of the great things that happened for us at the Wanderers is, so much that we did at the Wanderers through Lyall, who was the former chairman at the Mariners, was the same blueprint that the Mariners was set up for.”
The Mariners blueprint is about reopening the playbook and revisiting the original ideas behind the club’s creation a decade ago. There are many similarities with the story of the Wanderers, and the success that club has recently achieved.
“The success of the Wanderers was truly about genuine engagement with the community,” Mr. Mielekamp says, “so actually listening… to what they are looking for from a sports club and then delivering on that.”
This community-focused model allows for fans, local businesses and community leaders to really feel involved in the running of the club, with the on-field presence of the team becoming the glue that binds the community together.
“For the Wanderers, the ability there for the community, through seven fan forums, to pick the colours, pick the name, even have a say as to who they feel should be the coach, pick where they should be playing, was really starting the building blocks [of the club].”
A similar model was used when building the Mariners back at the foundation of the A-League ten years ago, with a real community spirit underlying the creation of the franchise, and has continued throughout the history of the club.
“[For the Mariners] that community engagement has been crucial, and so for us at the moment it’s about really re-engaging that and taking that to new heights, to work with our community and be the club that actually represents the Central Coast.”
Having worked in both Rugby League and the A-League, Mr. Mielekamp is perfectly placed to take on board the positive and negative differences between codes and to use them to inform his new position at the Mariners.
“I think it’s the freshness of the A-League, that the A-League’s been in play for its eleventh season now, when compared to Rugby League or AFL which has got 100 years of tradition, so there’s over 100 years of good practices and also old habits.”
The advantage for football in Australia is that it represents a new challenge, a brand that’s on the rise, and can use the historical failings of other codes as lessons on how to avoid familiar traps.
“I suppose, also, as an emerging brand we are very mindful that we need to work really hard in the community and do more community hours and be generally part of the community, without the ability to just be the heroes. We’ve got to really earn it.”
“I think culturally as well,” Mr. Mielekamp adds, “there’s a really good family with football, because it’s such a widespread game through grass roots, it’s the number one sport played, and so everyone’s come through those systems.”
The connection with grass roots allows those in the game to feel as if they are really part of a footballing community in the country, something Mr. Mielekamp regards as vital for ensuring the on and off-field success of the sport.
Thinking Outside the Box
“Our goal at Central Coast Mariners,” Mr. Mielekamp says, when asked to outline the ambitions of the club, “is to be the most entertaining, innovative, and community-minded sports brand in Australia.”
“Breaking those down, innovation becomes a real key word. We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the financial capacity to just roll out the ability to go for best practice.”
Many of the other A-League clubs are more robust in terms of resources and finances, and in order to compete the Mariners must rely on innovation to take them to levels unreachable through traditional means.
“As we have less staff, as we have less resources,” Mr. Mielekamp explains, “it’s really [about] the new fresh ideas, new ideas to solve problems and to skip ahead of the competitors and really catch them off guard.”
Innovation as a business theory has therefore become crucial to the club’s strategy, both on and off the field—playing football on the pitch that is new and innovative, and coming up with new strategic ideas to push the club forward.
“If we have a problem, and we need a solution, the solution will not be just buying our way through and paying for it, we’ll have to come up with creative ways… to think outside the box, or find some good relationships that will get us there.”
“Innovation is something we speak about every day,” Mr. Mielekamp stresses, “and we’re constantly challenging ourselves to come up with new ideas, and it’s a big part of the brand.”
Likewise, Mr. Mielekamp understands that the club is primarily in the business of entertainment, and providing a spectacle for the fans must be a key objective. The club’s innovation and community focus offers a great platform to entertain.
“If you’re not entertaining then you can get forgotten about pretty quickly, and that community-minded component for us… that’s core to our brand. If there are issues out there for the community, they’re the things that we’ll stand up for.”
“What’s different for us in an operational sense is how we do business… [which] is fundamentally based on three waves. Our first wave is the wave of football, which is our A-League, our youth league and our academy structures.”
The football wave is particularly important in terms of allowing the club to push forward into the second wave, which is that of accessing the community. Mr. Mielekamp insists this third wave is at the core of the club’s strategy.
“By playing entertaining football,” he says, “by playing innovative football, and by having our players engage in the community, [that] allows football to grow the next wave, which is the wave of community.”
By winning A-League games and playing attractive football, Central Coast Mariners hope to significantly grow crowds, create a good feeling in the community and encourage more memberships and commitment to the club.
“We look to make sure that our community focus is on the ‘Family First’ initiative, and so ensuring that… we make sure mums all feel welcome. For our dads we have a partnership with [domestic violence prevention campaigners] White Ribbon.”
In addition, the club engages with local primary schools to promote healthy eating, nutrition and lifestyle, as well as speaking with elderly family members about falls prevention.
This involved, rounded approach to the family is a core element of the Mariners’ community project, and stands as a message to the family unit about making the right choices on safe and healthy living.
“[We’re also] working with the cancer council for skincare as well, [which] crosses all components… so that’s our community wave there, making a true difference into the community.”
The community platform allows the club to move into its third wave, which is the wave of business, working with local businesses to leverage the engagement with the community to create economic gains.
“Our business wave becomes really crucial for us,” Mr. Mielekamp explains. “We refer to Mariners in business as our ‘program’, it starts from packages right at the entry level, at $1,500.”
These packages allow local businesses to not only engage and network their businesses on Sundays, but also to use the Mariners brand, acting as a partner with the club to promote their own brands and forward their businesses.
“There are 21,777 small businesses on the Central Coast, so enabling them for growth will allow us to engage with bigger companies and organisations that have the same community mindset.”
The commercial benefits that come from having a strong business wave allow the club to put profits back into the football team, using commercial partnerships to enhance the profile and performance of the team.
“Through partnerships we can then enhance what we can deliver on the pitch through football, making sure that we’ve got the best coaching practices, we can invest in our playing squad, we can invest in our scouting opportunities.”
The operational model of the club allows the football wave to grow the community wave, which likewise grows the business wave, which is then able to feed back into the football wave and begin the cycle again.
As one of the A-League’s smaller, regional clubs, it certainly takes a new approach to make sure the club is staying financially stable, especially as there have been significant financial concerns for some larger A-League clubs in the last season.
“The rules are the same for all sports clubs,” Mr. Mielekamp says. “Regardless of the size, the revenue streams are the same. We do get a grant from the FFA, which comes via the TV broadcast rights.”
The ability of the FFA to grow TV deals in the next few years will therefore be vitally important for clubs, which will receive greater grants depending on the level of money coming in through broadcasting contracts.
“That grant gets married off by the salary cap,” Mr. Mielekamp says, “so the larger that grant is, the better we can invest into our playing squad, which will improve the quality of football, so they sort of balance each other out.”
The other key commercial revenue lines for the club come from corporate sponsorship and partnership, from either local businesses or national businesses that will look to leverage the club’s brand to help promote their own.
“[Also] merchandise sales, through jersey sales and kit supply sales… and also what goes to mass market through royalties that are generated off Mariners products that are sold through nationally, becomes a key revenue stream for us.”
As with all Australian sports, membership sales are likewise extremely important to the club’s overall revenue intake, uniting the two waves of business and community and benefiting from the goodwill created by the club.
“As the community feels highly engaged, and they’re looking to come to games, by becoming a club member and getting a season ticket… there’s a whole range of benefits that they receive, through exclusive content, through discounts on merchandise, through the ability to have a voice with the club.”
In combination with ticket sales, the pool of memberships that the club can secure becomes a hugely important commercial revenue stream, and one that helps the club no end to move through its waves of growth.
Similarly, a successful academy set up is becoming increasingly important to A-League clubs, and the same can be said of the Mariners, allowing not only the improvement of the playing staff, but also increasing revenue from potential transfers.
“The opportunity for the Mariners brand,” Mr. Mielekamp stresses, “where it is a little different to the larger clubs, is a young, talented, up-and-coming athlete will get an opportunity with the Mariners at an earlier stage than some of the bigger clubs.”
“The bigger clubs who have got marquee players, who have got players on high salaries, generally will take the starting position from some of the younger kids who have got to stand in line.”
The Mariners as a club prides itself on offering first team opportunities to its academy prospects, giving them the chance to play against the marquee players and superstars of the A-League, and to prove themselves at a high level.
“That becomes a better proposition to take to the global market for transfers, and that’s a key part of the brand. That’s being innovative for us, finding different ways to have a competitive team, when we don’t have the financial resources to throw at it.”
A Destination For Sport
Another of the key developments in the club’s strategy is the building of a brand new Centre of Excellence in the area, which will provide great sporting facilities on a national scale.
“Our Centre of Excellence is really the long term viability of the club, which is really important. Stage two is about completion, so stage one was for eleven astro-field courts and training facilities for our A-League.”
“The second stage is a six-story administration block, that has medical facilities, the head office of the club and numerous tenants to come through which really provides a strong platform.”
Stage three will involve the building of an eight-storey hotel, student accommodation and licensed bars and restaurants, as well as conference and daycare facilities. Stage four will see the inclusion of gym facilities and indoor football and basketball courts.
“Stage five for us is looking at a grandstand and some additional fields for further development of our academy. When combined as a precinct, [the centre] becomes very exciting, as it’s one hour outside of Sydney.”
The advantage this gives, to have international and national sports teams travel a short way out of Sydney for top-of-the-range training facilities, as well as a whole host of leisure facilities, is a huge offering for the club to be able to make.
“[That] is something that provides not only the Central Coast, not only New South Wales, but Australia with a destination for sport, which becomes very exciting. So that’s our long term future, which is looking very prosperous.”
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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
Editorial by Nicholas Paul Griffin