Profile: Creagh O’Connor

Tuesday, 01 May 2007

Giles Parkinson photo
Giles Parkinson

    Creagh O’Connor is chairman of Cricket Australia and spoke to Giles Parkinson about the challenges of being on the board of a major sporting organisation.

    Baggy green business

    Creagh O’Connor clearly thinks there’s something very special about watching cricket. He speaks particularly fondly of his favourite innings – Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer’s double century partnership that led Australia to win an extraordinary match against Pakistan in Hobart in November 2003. He also savours Ricky Ponting’s second innings century to gain victory over South Africa in Sydney in January 2006. It was Ponting’s 100th Test and his second century of the match.

    Of course, there’s clearly something special about playing cricket too. Although, for O’Connor, at the age of 70, it’s been a decade since the chairman of Cricket Australia had willow in hand. “I would have enjoyed a greater ability, but I loved the camaraderie of the team and the lifelong friendships,” he says.

    O’Connor’s final game was an impromptu appearance for Old Scholars in the Adelaide turf competition. O’Connor had officially ‘retired’ a year earlier but kept his kit in the car ‘just in case’ of such an emergency. Summoned to appear one more time against Adelaide University, the middle order batsman put the final dot on a modest but enjoyable playing career with an innings of twenty-something not out in a losing team. “If I’d got 30, I might have got into the paper,” he quips. But it was time to leave the game. “I’d have to make 40 at the crease just to break even with my fielding. In Australia the summer is too hot and the joints get too old.”

    But if O’Connor finally had to draw the curtain on his own on-field activities, he has made it his ambition to open the curtain to the game for thousands of others across the country. He has set the lifting of the participation rate in cricket as one of the primary goals of his tenure at the helm of the game’s governing body.

    Strategic planning

    Cricket Australia has made major inroads into that goal with its ‘Backyard to Baggie Green’ campaign, which is based upon five strategic pillars to maintain its position as the country’s favourite national sport. These strategies are to reinforce and celebrate cricket’s place in the Australian community, to thrive at the elite level, to substantially increase sustainable participation in cricket, to grow the financial resources available to invest in the game, and to work efficiently in the game’s federal system.

    “I see participation as a very big challenge,” O’Connor says, noting the rapidly changing demographics of the country from the immigration patterns of the last 10 to 20 years.

    “A significant percentage of those born offshore do not have English as their number one language. I think the biggest challenge for us is to attract that group into cricket. I don’t think we have achieved that. In Australia, it is still very much an Anglo Saxon game. That needs to be addressed.”

    O’Connor is also keen to raise the profile of the game within the indigenous community, whose participation rate of just 0.4 per cent trails well below the national average of four per cent. He is a regular attendee at the Imparja Cup, the Alice Springs-based annual tournament that has become the showcase of indigenous talent. “I’ve been for the last three to four years,” he says. “It is a great carnival. I’m sure that out of there will emerge some more indigenous cricketers. I’m sure those skills they possess on the football field can be translated into cricket. We have been slow in developing that, so I see that as a very good challenge.”

    Women’s cricket is also vitally important, and the old black and white images of crowds populated uniquely by men in hats and three piece suits are very much confined to yesteryear. “Women are becoming more involved on and off the field. And remember, it is the women in the family who can have a major influence over what sport their children will play,” he says. That may prove crucial as cricket competes for attention against other sports – the growth in soccer and basketball for instance – and against the numerous diversions that technology has brought to the modern youth – iPods, play stations and the internet.

    O’Connor’s path into cricket administration was unusual in that he hadn’t been involved in a similar capacity at club level. When a vacancy emerged on the board of the South Australian Cricket Association (SACA) in 1990, he was asked by the then president, Jim Gross, to fill that roll. In 1999, one of the three SACA directors on the board of Cricket Australia decided to stand down, and O’Connor was appointed to take his place. He became vice chairman of Cricket Australia in 2004 and chairman in 2005. It is a role usually occupied for three years, although the appointment is renewed annually.

    State nominations

    O’Connor, who remains chairman of merchant banking group Rundle Capital Partners, and is a director of So Co Ltd and Broken Hill Cobalt Ltd, says the principal difference between Cricket Australia and commercial organisations is that the Cricket Australia directors are nominated by their state rather than recruited specifically to meet a particular need for the board.

    “Around the table we have directors elected by the states and we have a good mix of skills,” he says. “But if a vacancy emerges in a commercial organisation you might look for someone with a particular talent. Here, you get someone sent to you by state body, and it may be that you could find you are already overloaded with that particular skill.”

    State issues can also be a sticking point in this federal system. “Directors are responsible to Cricket Australia, but they are appointed by their state, so when there are state issues to be discussed, they have to bear that in mind,” O’Connor says. “That has proved to be a problem in the past, but I think we are getting better at managing those issues. The debates can become pretty robust, but in most instances we come to conclusions that everyone is comfortable with. Once the vote is taken everyone gets behind it and moves on. We’ve got a good relationship between the various directors and it is very important to maintain that.”

    In many ways he compares the function of the Cricket Australia board to that of a Senate. His is very much a non-executive role, but while it is voluntary – as are all the directors – it is very time consuming. The Cricket Australia chairman, for instance, also acts as the country’s representative on the International Cricket Council (ICC). “One thing we have to guard against is that it doesn’t become a haven for superannuated people in what is a very significant business,” he says.

    Big business

    Indeed, cricket is big business. The game in Australia generates revenues of around $100 million a year, but unlike commercial organisations that usually work on one-year cycles, Cricket Australia operates on a four-year cycle so it can cater for the pattern of media rights, player contracts and game timetables, which in the case of the World Cup are set up to 12 years in advance.

    The game’s contracted players, either directly through Cricket Australia or through the states, receive 25 per cent of what is defined as Australian cricket revenue – media rights, sponsorship, gate, ICC distributions, interest on investments and merchandise – while annual operating surpluses are distributed equally to all member states after provisioning for reserves.

    O’Connor says the longer business cycle of the international game makes it easier, and necessary, to take a long term strategic view. “That does allow for a bit of forward planning,” he says. “We are a not-for-profit organisation but we will always have a bottom line focus as we have to generate a sufficient surplus to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, namely the state associations. They have all got extensive grass roots programs, and these are very expensive to maintain and to expand.”

    Organisational structure

    Cricket Australia organisational structure is based around the CEO, James Sutherland, who reports to the board and in turn, has a senior management team and executive office reporting to him. The three key drivers in his structure are: game development, which broadly speaking, markets cricket to the community to encourage as many people as possible to play the game, both formally and informally; cricket operations, which runs the cricket competitions, including the national men’s team, and negotiates games played against other countries; and cricket marketing services, which encompasses the commercial division, responsible for sales and marketing. These three divisions are supported by finance, administration and human resources, legal, business affairs and public affairs functions.

    O’Connor says it is imperative for Australia to maintain the quality of its elite team. “We have got to recognise that the balance of power is on the subcontinent, particularly with India which is by far the richest cricket country. We are not going to compete with them financially, as they probably handle 70 per cent of world cricket money, but we do need to be attractive (to the consumer).”

    O’Connor is a supporter of the new 20/20 competition – the smash and grab version of cricket that is designed to attract new viewers to a game which takes about the same time as a film or a football match. “We have got a community that is strapped for time, due to work and family commitments, so 20/20 can satisfy that,” he says.

    Test cricket

    “I believe if they can become involved in that, it will increase the overall interest in the longer game.” O’Connor points to the influence that shorter versions of the game have already had on the five-day version. “The resurgence of test cricket has been great,” he says. “Australia can take some pride in its role in that resurgence because of the attractive cricket the players have provided. And I think a lot of that has come about from one day internationals, which have led to an enormous improvement in the quality of fielding, and helping batsmen realise what is achievable at the crease.”

    Right now, things are going pretty well for cricket in Australia. Even the Ashes loss in England in 2005 led to a boost in participation, simply because the cricket was so exciting and the closeness of the matches was so gripping. “We have an attractive team and we are the number one cricket nation,” O’Connor says. “But we cannot afford to be complacent. We have to be passionate in our commitment. Cricket is Australia’s favourite sport, but we have to be continually looking for ways to increase our participation.”

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