Behind every elite athlete is a network of people championing their place in sport. For AFL players – past, present, male and female – the AFL Players’ Association is the number one advocate. It makes sure players’ voices are heard and invests avidly in their wellbeing and development.
As CEO of the AFL Players’ Association, Paul Marsh has a unique view of the Australian sports industry and the challenges its executives face. He shares his approach to leadership, what excites him about the digital disruption of sport, and how AFLW is bringing new commercial opportunities to the game.
Sport has always been in my blood. Sadly, I wasn’t good enough to make a career out of playing it, so working in sport was the next best thing. I’ve spent the last 17 years working for Player Associations and I love the diversity of what we do. Sport throws up so many different issues that you never know what any day is going to bring. Every day I’m challenged by something that I haven’t necessarily anticipated.
The biggest challenge for a CEO is getting all of your people heading in the same direction, working towards a common goal. I put a lot of time into finding, developing and supporting our people to achieve our objectives. A huge part of this is developing a culture that people want to be part of and one where they have a genuine care for what we do. If you can achieve this, you’re halfway there.
Your people need to be able to understand and buy into the direction you want to take. Having a clearly articulated vision and strategy is critical, because people need to know why they are being asked to do what they’re doing and what the direction is.
Good communication is also critical. Having principles and integrity and being consistent in how you behave is a non-negotiable for me. Throw in some determination and tenacity, and an attitude of having fun and celebrating your wins, and that pretty much rounds out my approach to leadership.
My previous boss Tim May, former Australian Cricketers’ Association CEO, always said: ‘You need to be smart enough to know when you aren’t smart enough’. What he meant was that we work in a complex industry where players are looking to us for advice on issues that often have the potential to either profoundly help them or, if we get it wrong, profoundly damage them. He was huge on making sure we got the best advice or help for our players whether that be from inside or outside our organisation – and to not be too proud to go outside.
That advice has been invaluable throughout my career. To be a successful Player Association you need the buy-in and trust of the players. Delivering outcomes, and being reliable, accurate and responsive is the only way to achieve this and you won’t get there by guessing or providing second rate advice. Tim’s lesson has always stuck with me and held me in good stead.
I’ve been at the AFL Players’ Association for three and a half years and during this time our team has achieved many things. The stand-out highlight was last year’s Collective Bargaining Agreement with the AFL. We secured a revenue share model for the first time in our history, a significant pay rise for all players, some game-changing outcomes around a better model for the AFL industry in player development, a significant past player injury fund, better travel conditions for players and various other outcomes.
Outside of this, I’m proud of the work we’ve done in representing AFLW players, as well as social causes such as marriage equality, racism and mental health, and the daily impact we’ve had on our members through the support we provide them.
I’m genuinely excited about what AFLW will bring to our sport. AFLW should bring more female players and fans to AFL, which should in turn grow interest in the sport, and from that will come more corporate interest and memberships. We’ve obviously made a significant commitment to support our female members and this is a big step forward for our sport. I hope we can professionalise the AFLW competition as soon as possible so that we have a product that everyone wants to watch, that in turn will grow the broader AFL game.
Sport is a demanding industry and I’m always looking for graduates with initiative and work ethic. You can also never go past having good people with business skills and who are strong people managers. The ability to get the most out of players, staff and stakeholders will set graduates apart.
An ability to capture meaningful data and insights will also be vital. Sport on and off the field is moving towards insights to create competitive advantages and points of difference, so this is certainly one area will grow. All sports are battling for revenue, so anyone who can generate revenue will always be valued.
The traditional sports broadcast model will continue to be disrupted by mobile and streaming platforms. We’re already seeing companies like Facebook, Netflix and Amazon acquire sports rights, so we’ll have some interesting and exciting times ahead as this all plays out.
The other significant area of change is player-owned data, largely via wearable devices. Athletes have the ability to share – and therefore commercialise – data relating to performance, health and wellbeing. This is a complex area and will change some of the traditional business models of sports.
The industry itself is one that so many people are genuinely passionate about. I love turning up to work knowing that it’s meaningful to so many. I also love representing the athletes. Without proper representation there is no doubt they’d be exploited and it’s always been important to me to stand up for people is these circumstances. The people that work for Player Associations are some of the most passionate, principled people you will ever meet. I love working with them, and I’ve made some great friends along the way.
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Top image: 2017 AFL Grand Final panorama. Image credit: Wikimedia.