A troubled sports franchise makes two shrewd moves

Canterbury Bulldogs’ CEO Raelene Castle

A troubled sports franchise tries two shrewd CEO appointments: an innovative rookie and a woman who stuck the boot into gender bias.

It may boast it’s “the greatest game of all”, but rugby league hasn’t had a history of being all-inclusive.

Derived from rugby union when the 15-man code refused to accept professionals into its ranks, in Australia the sport was fashioned on the fields of working-class Sydney.

Full-contact and tough, it was – and is – very much a man’s game. For much of the past century that’s extended beyond the paddock.

While its peak body, the National Rugby League (NRL), last year enjoyed revenues of A$186 million and secured a five-year, A$1 billion television rights deal, women haven’t been able to cash in on the sport’s windfalls.

Largely confined to administrative jobs, as few as five years ago a female applicant for an NRL club director’s role complained she couldn’t meet one of the job’s stated requirements of “having played the sport”.

The treatment of women has been front and centre, too. Inconsistent handling of players involved in off-field assaults has undermined positive gender initiatives.

Mired in several of these controversies has been the Canterbury Bulldogs.

The south-western Sydney club battled gang rape allegations in 2004 and last year was fined A$30,000 by the NRL for derogatory remarks by a player to a female journalist in the wake of their grand final loss.

Seen by many as the club least likely to embrace female leadership, in July the Bulldogs countered expectations by appointing New Zealander Raelene Castle as CEO.

The former head of Netball New Zealand became just the third female club CEO in the history of rugby league, and the first in 15 years.

However, the trailblazer label sits “incredibly uncomfortably” with the 42-year-old.

“I understand gender is a discussion point now, but if it is a discussion point in 12 months’ time we have a problem,” Castle emphasises. “For the next person I would like it to be normal.”

Castle believes you just need to get on with the job. “Concentrate on the things you are good at, put your hand up and give it a crack. You’d be really surprised at how often you sit round the table and realise that the female in the room is equally as competent, if not more competent, than the men sitting at the table,” she says.

“You can’t be precious. You can imagine the conversations here, there’s some incredibly foul language. But I knew what I was walking into. I didn’t expect them to start watching their Ps and Qs, because that would be about me imposing my gender on their environment.”

While a canny move for a club with an image problem, Bulldogs’ chairman Ray Dib says Castle was selected because she had the whole package.

“She wasn’t selected as the best female candidate – she was the best candidate. The fact she is a woman was a bonus. She gets rugby league. She understands the business of sport, the corporate world, the media, social media – she just gets it.”

It seems the Bulldogs get it, too. If not gender-driven, Castle’s appointment coincides with a time when women are increasingly household decision-makers, the ones who determine where discretionary money is spent.

In a packed professional sports scene, franchises jostle to influence those who control the purse strings.

Yet Castle’s appointment was part two of the strategy to clean up the Bulldogs’ image.

Todd Greenberg

Todd Greenberg

The first was the 2008 appointment of Todd Greenberg as CEO when the franchise was at an historical nadir.

After once garnering monikers such as “The Family Club” and “The Entertainers” for their flamboyant style of play during the 1980s, the sobriquets had become decidedly more sinister by the turn of the century.

In 2002 systematic breaches of the club’s salary cap system saw it stripped of all competition points, and in its premiership-winning year of 2004 it was tarnished by gang rape allegations.

Then the club’s fractured board was confronted by the global financial crisis.

When CEO Malcolm Noad departed before the 2008 season began, the only logical move seemed to be appointing a leader of vast experience.

Instead, the job went to Greenberg. At 37, he was the youngest CEO in the NRL and a rookie at top-level management. It was a risky move, but then few people wanted to be associated with such a damaged brand.

Greenberg, who joined the Bulldogs family as events and operations manager from 1998 and 2001, had an excellent reputation from his time in management roles at ANZ Stadium.

The new board believed Greenberg could be a change agent; a man with ties to the club and sporting acumen, but with enough separation not to be drawn in to previous failures.

His ticket was to make better men, not just better players, and he cleared from the ranks those footballers he believed did not buy into the club’s culture.

“We had to change the culture of the club and we had to get some new blood into the place,” Dib says. “Nobody wanted to touch us five years ago. Our brand, our image – it was very, very low. Todd came in and he was very young, energetic. He was an opportunist.”

The tests for Greenberg came thick and fast. The departure of one of the game’s highest-profile players in Sonny Bill Williams, a bottom-line loss of A$1 million in his first year at the helm and, in footballing terms, the biggest body blow of all – finishing last on the competition ladder.

But he weathered the initial storms, engaged the media and made smart corporate moves like bringing in the children’s family cancer charity, Camp Quality, as a “sponsor” (the club paid for the charity’s logo to appear on the Bulldogs jumper) in an effort to rebuild the brand.

Now recognised as one of the region’s top sports administrators, Greenberg recently took up a senior role with the NRL.

How things have changed. Dib says the Greenberg of 2008 would have struggled to make the interview list.

For Castle, it’s quite simply a sign of markedly improved times. She’s inherited a club that’s had a 60 per cent rise in revenue and an almost six-fold increase in membership over the past five years.

“People have said to me, ‘Oh my god, how are you going to fill Todd’s big shoes’, and the answer to that question right now is ‘I’d rather be facing the challenge of filling some big shoes and continuing to grow and develop than picking up a basket case’.”

This article is from the October 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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