Rosemary Sinclair shares her experience of governing a sports club and the anticipated changes afoot in the energy sector. Christopher Niesche reports.
Being on the board of the Wests Tigers National Rugby League (NRL) team is a bit like running a small business, but with one key difference, says Rosemary Sinclair FAICD. “The fervor of the fans is an ongoing backdrop,” she says. “Each of these clubs is a relatively small business but what they do each week for 26 weeks is put on a national media spectacle.”
Sinclair joined the board in September last year after being approached by the NRL and says she was attracted by the specific challenges of being a member of a sporting organisation’s board.
It has a structure of CEO, coach and captain, who all need to be brought together for the club to operate effectively. Then there is the NRL’s federated structure, with all of the clubs relating to the NRL’s central administration. There are broadcast rights, which are split among the clubs, and then individual clubs’ membership, merchandise and game revenues.
“The interaction of performance and sponsorship and fan relationships all exist in a context of significant media interest,” says Sinclair, who has a background in telecommunications and media.
The core business of the club is how the team performs on the field and in the NRL competition. The board has governance oversight of this business and responsibility for the strategy to secure the future of the club, says Sinclair.
“That takes you into training facilities and admin facilities and certainly takes you into strategies around revenue, such as membership strategies and sponsorship strategies, as well as the grant revenue from the NRL.
“So in that sense, a football club is actually like any other business. You’re looking at the product, which is our performance on the field, and then relating the product to financial security and a strategic future.”
The board has put in place those governance systems which apply to any well-run board – strategy, risk framework, budgetary oversight, performance reviews and so on, but Sinclair says what sets it apart is the passion of the fans, who essentially monitor the performance of the club every week. “With rugby league, some people have said to me Wests Tigers is in people’s DNA – it’s as significant as that,” she says.
The year has been a difficult one for the club. It finished 15th out of 16 teams. The CEO departed mid-season and, at the time of publication, the future of the captain was yet to be determined.
These are just the types of difficult issues that any board would have to deal with, Sinclair says. “We’ve just had very careful, considered conversations in the usual way a board does, interrogating the position, exploring the data and evidence and looking very much to the future of the club.”
Sinclair attends all of the club’s home games and some of the away games because “you’ve really got to get that practical, on-the-ground sense of what the business is all about. Throughout my career I’ve found that I learn a lot by actually going to the practical places where people are doing the work.”
The game isn’t new to Sinclair. She grew up in a household with five brothers and a father who were “absolutely fanatical” about rugby league and supported the North Sydney Bears. “I spent my childhood going off to games at the weekends when they were suburban, non-professional competitions.”
Sinclair says that being a woman on the board of a male sports club has been “absolutely fine”. Having another woman on the board – publisher Marina Go was appointed chair in September last year – makes a huge difference, because there is a “critical mass” of women on the five-person board.
Sometimes when Sinclair has been the only woman on the board she says there has been the risk that she is perceived as too direct and inquisitorial. “But I’ve learned over the years that when my nose twitches and I don’t say what’s on my mind, then I generally wind up unhappy with the outcome,” she says. “So I just say what’s on my mind but I always do that in a context of trying to reach appropriate consensus on the board.”
The Wests Tigers club was formed in 1999 with the merger of the Western Suburbs Magpies and the Balmain Tigers, two teams that played in the first Sydney rugby league competition in 1908.
Like many other industries, sport is also being transformed by the digital revolution. “It’s very important in sports because the world is moving from a central focus on free-to-air to all sorts of other digital platforms and digital rights and securing financial futures through a range of different platforms,” Sinclair says. “That, I think, is going to be a real challenge over the next five years in particular.”
After studying Latin and Law at the University of Sydney in the late 1970s, Sinclair decided she was more interested in a business career, and joined what was then Telecom Australia for 15 years, where her career benefited from the focus the organisation was placing on opportunities for women. A year in consulting followed before Sinclair joined the ABC radio division as director of strategic development in the early 1990s.
This involved developing the ABC’s first internet strategy, restructuring radio production and developing a plan to help the broadcaster absorb $50 million in funding cuts. She also had a five-year stint as director, education, new media and export at publisher Scholastic Australia and spent a couple of years as director, external relations at the UNSW Australian Business School.
At the same time, Sinclair was building up a portfolio of board roles, including on International Telecommunications User Group, domain administrator AuDA, telecommunications network designer VASP Group, and as a council member of the University of Wollongong and a member of the advisory committee of the CSIRO Digital Productivity and Services Flagship.
Earlier this year, however, she took a step back from most of her board roles to take up the position of CEO of Energy Consumers of Australia, which was established by the Council of Australian Governments Energy Council to enhance consumer advocacy on the national energy market for household and small business consumers. She says the energy sector is about to undergo as much change as the telecommunications sector.
Stepping back into an executive role after several years of a board career has afforded Sinclair the opportunity to reflect on what she has learned serving on boards. “I would say it’s actually had an impact on me that I wouldn’t have imagined, for example in understanding the clarity that you need to have when you’re setting strategy,” she says.
Sinclair’s advice for anyone wanting to start as a director is to start with a board of something they’re interested in, especially in not-for-profit roles, then get whatever training they can and to seek out advice from fellow directors. As to Sinclair’s own future, she expects to step back into a portfolio board career one day, but not yet. “At the moment I’m finding the energy sector to be absolutely fascinating and going through a period of significant change.”
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