Game on! Craig Tiley sets a new baseline for Tennis Australia.

'You have to be willing to embrace change. For most people, fear of change is greater than fear of failure.' Craig Tiley, Tennis Australia

Craig Tiley sets a new baseline for Tennis Australia, harnessing the marketing clout of The Australian Open to extend its horizons far beyond Australia’s shores.

Leadership was Craig Tiley’s destiny. The chief executive of Tennis Australia and tournament director of The Australian Open was raised by his family to challenge the status quo and do his best, no matter what path he chose. In fact, he thought being an over-achiever was normal – his father, Alan, had sailed around the world (twice), climbed the globe’s highest peaks, was a navy captain, a deep-sea diver and at one time ran South Africa’s largest advertising agency.

Tiley got a late start in tennis – he picked up a racquet at 12 – and fought hard to catch up. He achieved a top ranking in his native South Africa and was on the European circuit for a few years, but coaching and running a business were to be his fortes.

After completing his compulsory military service in South Africa, where he learned about leadership in the officers’ training course, Tiley studied economics. He then moved to the United States, where he is credited with transforming the multibillion dollar business that is college tennis and was twice named US coach of the year.

For the past nine years the driven but highly approachable Tiley has been building tennis in Australia into a successful commercial business. Tennis Australia now owns and creates its own digital and broadcast content, has a strategy to capture the commercially viable and geographically logical Asian market, and runs the world’s biggest sporting event in January – with revenues of more than A$300 million – which kicks off the global sporting year. He recently explained to CPA Australia chief executive Alex Malley how he’s gone about it.

Alex Malley: Craig, as a young boy in South Africa what was the tone of the family and was sport at the core of it?

Craig Tiley: Yes, sport was always at the core. I’m the eldest of three boys and one girl. My father was very successful in everything he did. He excelled as a boxer, he held a South African deep-sea diving record and looked for every possible physical and mental challenge. So he did all those crazy things and I thought that was normal. At the same time he was the largest advertising practitioner in South Africa.

He didn’t mind what we did but he said whatever you do, just do the best you can. We grew up in a fairly disciplined family: treat people how you want to be treated and have good manners.

My father wrote a book about bridging the communication gap at the height of apartheid. He enjoyed politics and so the conversation around the table was about how South Africa needed to change.

Malley: That’s pretty courageous talk.

Tiley: It was, yes. We learned as kids to always challenge the status quo. I’ve done that pretty much my whole life. I’ve never accepted someone’s position as gospel. If something has been going on for a long time, I ask how do you improve it? That’s the privilege I now have in this role.

Malley: So when did this self-starter pick up his first tennis racquet and when did the focus on tennis become serious?

Tiley: Late, I was 12. My great uncle taught me. I was serious about it right away but I started late – I didn’t have the skills, so I was always behind everyone. I fought my way to where I could play nationally, got a top ranking in South Africa, travelled in Europe and played for a few years. Then I realised that I was using it as a tool to do other things. I wanted to live in America [but] first I had to do two years in the army.

"First of all, set the standard high early. Second, don’t expect anybody to do anything that you’re not willing to do." – Craig Tiley

We had a choice: hope the days go quickly or do the officers’ training, the leadership training, so I did that. It was very physical and mentally demanding. The moment that finished I went to university to get a degree in economics and then I went to the United States.

Malley: The move to the United States was very formative for you ...

Tiley: Definitely. I was thrown in the deep end. My folks said: “You go and make it, it’s up to you.”

Malley: I’m interested in what you were able to achieve at the University of Illinois, and you were twice named US coach of the year. [Tiley was head of men’s tennis at the University and is credited with revolutionising the way college tennis is run in the US.] What are your philosophies around managing people?

Tiley: I went into that environment not knowing anything about the systems and processes. The national associations for basketball and football in the United States are a multibillion dollar business. There are about 4000 colleges that offer hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and it’s a big TV business now, too. I didn’t understand any of that, but that really helped me because there was no defining paradigm to operate within. So instead, I used what I’d learned in leadership.

Malley: And what was that?

Tiley: First of all, set the standard high early. Second, don’t expect anybody to do anything that you’re not willing to do. Third, show everyone that you work with great care in their own development. Every day I built on that.

You know the things you have to do if you want to have success in anything. You have to be willing to make sacrifices. You have to be willing to work hard. There are going to be disappointments and losses and it’s your response to those, as well as your response to winning that has to be the same in order to determine the foundation.

Malley: Coming from the US to Tennis Australia, what were your early feelings about tennis in Australia?

Tiley: I was surprised. It’s Australian tennis! Historically it’s the best in the world. I felt this could be fun for three to five years and I’ll learn a lot. Then I got here, every day was a discovery. There were good people but it was just lost. There was no direction, no discipline, no structure. I’m not blaming the people because there were some good people but it lacked leadership.

It comes down to – and this is where you CPA guys are very good – it does come down to leadership. The right people in the right role with the right attitude. So I was given the mandate for change and I used it completely.

Malley: The strategy behind bringing Tennis Australia and The Australian Open under the same umbrella, that has proved to be a successful move.

Tiley: We need to give Steve Wood [Tiley’s Tennis Australia predecessor] credit. Steve had the foresight [to make the change]. Why they were separate baffles me still to this day. Everyone thought The Australian Open was in great shape. It was not in good shape. It had poor growth and was losing ground compared to the other Grand Slams. We were a company that had two HR teams, two finance teams etc, it made no sense. Steve initiated a process in 2006 for the change and it was very simple: The Australian Open is just one of the company’s assets. It happens to be the biggest and the best one, so let’s leverage and integrate across the business. That change took about three or four months.

My recommendation would be whoever sits in this chair [CEO of Tennis Australia] is also tournament director because The Australian Open is a profile role in the eyes of the media. It’s much less sexy and much harder to get people excited about Hot Shots [a learn-to-play program for young children] or tennis in clubs, but much more exciting to have a conversation with Roger Federer or Serena Williams.

Malley: Television rights are a big part of things. We are seeing more of the disruptive technology; mobile technology and so on. What impact has that had and how do you see that impacting into the future?

Tiley: If you don’t own the data and you don’t create unique content, you’re going to die. So we’ve been down the path of grabbing all our data, owning it and creating more opportunities to get it. In 2015 we will be the first Grand Slam to do that – be the host broadcaster as well as the production house. We will now own unique content and we will provide a clean feed to our partners that they can manipulate in a way they see fit. That helps us because we can be more specific to the market, we can give them more because we have the relationships. So we can go to Roger Federer just before he walks on for the finals and say, “So you mind if we have a little chat or film this?” Whereas if someone he doesn’t know goes to ask the same question, he will say no.

When you talk about the future, I think there are five things that we have to do for a competitive advantage: geographic expansion, to create unique content, to own your data, provide avenues for the marginalised groups in sport – multinational, women, indigenous – whoever, and to innovate. That’s where the growth is.

Malley: I’ve watched The Australian Open move to The Australasian Open, if you like. How tough is it to maintain the challenge to own this tournament in such a competitive region?

Tiley: The answer is to embrace it and grow it. And that again is leadership, I’m in this role trying to make more things happen. We are the world’s largest sporting event in January, but we are more than sport, we are about entertainment. When we talk about growth and expansion opportunities I think Asia, because its time zone fits well. Our Asian strategy is going to be based around partnerships. We are going to pick the market that we can get two to three partners early, and commercialise the opportunity for both of us. But we are going to be much bigger than that. We are looking at January as launching the sport entertainment season for the rest of the world and it happens to be here in Australia.

Tiley on leadership

  • You have to be willing to embrace change. For most people, fear of change is greater than fear of failure
  • Successful outcomes are achieved by teams rather than individuals
  • You have to be willing to say no
  • You have to be willing to make the tough decisions, put others ahead of yourself and be willing to take risks
  • You have to ask the people that have gone before you. There is a lot of wisdom out there which you need to grab
  • Have the right attitude. Anything that gets thrown at you just take it on … the world’s work gets done by the busiest people
  • Be a great listener … but you have got to be able to hear it

The China Tennis Boom

Interest in tennis in China – be it extraordinary capital investment, surging participation rates and swelling audience numbers – has exploded over the past 20-odd years, and that’s a trend which spells potential for Tennis Australia.

Interest in the sport germinated with the debut of tennis as an Olympic sport at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and garnered much national pride at the Beijing Games in 2008. Interest crystallised with the star power of China’s pocket rocket top-ranked women’s player, Li Na. When Li won the French Open in 2011 she was the first Asian-born player to ever win a tennis Grand Slam singles event. She made the cover of Time magazine’s 100 people of influence in 2013 before winning The Australian Open this year. (Li announced her retirement in September.)

The interest has seen an astronomical rise in local investment in the sport. The WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) estimates that tens of thousands of tennis courts have been built during the past decade. Qizhong Forest Sports City Tennis Center in Shanghai and the National Tennis Center in Beijing each boast an audience capacity of 15,000 – a crowd size that matches centre court at Wimbledon and The Australian Open.

Up to 14 million Chinese now play regularly, including influential decision-makers in government, and those players also watch tennis. The broadcast of The Australian Open reaches 100 million viewers in China, which is one-third of the total global audience of more than 300 million. And visitors from China are the fastest growing category of fans walking through the Melbourne gates each January.

For a nation that has long dominated world racquet sports – badminton and table tennis – tennis is a natural and now highly appealing extension.

Tiley on drugs in sport

“Sport is not winning the battle [on drugs] and I don’t think it’s winning the battle on illegal gambling either. I have a very, very strict discipline rule on this: you can’t be soft on it.

"It’s illegal to take any performance-enhancing drugs and it’s illegal to kill someone. You can’t have a conversation to help you get over it. If you willingly break those rules you should be punished.

"If you get caught taking performance-enhancing drugs you shouldn’t be allowed to play the sport. If you get caught betting illegally, you shouldn’t be allowed to play the sport.”  

This article is from the December 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK


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