It’s a Rugby Thing… You Wouldn’t Understand

rugby Player and Business Exec

I’ve started writing this article as a thought piece. Not really knowing where it’ll go but I’ve had a thought that perhaps will help make sense of some of the things that are happening in our game (of rugby) and not necessarily present any solutions but perhaps change the way we think about the game.

I need to start this by saying that I love the game. I always have, and, probably, always will. I love the game so much that I’ve dedicated my career to it. I’ve been so critical of the coaching in this country that I’ve also agreed to put my money where my mouth and take on a high-performance coaching job with a program and a group of players I care deeply about.

But I’m not here to talk about that…

A few weeks ago a caught up with a friend of mine who works in the commercial team for a Super Rugby franchise. He stated he was having trouble communicating with the high-performance staff members within the organization. He felt that maybe because he didn’t have a rugby background he wasn’t speaking their language.  He felt this way because in his previous role (also in a professional sports organization) his request was seen as simple (we’ll get to it in a sec) however, was met with confusion and contempt in his current role. He thought perhaps I (someone who is a high-performance coach and Rugby fanatic) might be able to help him communicate with these individuals, or at the very least, gain an understanding of why his request was received this way.

So… I inquired, “what are you asking of them?” he told me that a fairly significant sponsor of the organization wanted to put on an event and have some higher profile players attend. He stated that the date of the event had been flexible and, he’d worked around the player’s schedules to make sure they didn’t have any conflicting engagements. I thought to myself seems reasonable and simple enough…

He wasn’t done…

The morning of the event one of the high-performance staff members comes up and says something along the lines of sorry, the coach has added a training session… Boys are no longer available.

My friend was perplexed as he’d been the middle man trying to make sure both parties were able to deliver on their promises. My friend then got into a fairly heated exchange with the staff member. Then my friend told me that this staff member had said: “look we just have different priorities”. At this point, I stopped my friend. I told him that this isn’t about not speaking the same language this is an example of an individual or group of individuals having a fundamental misunderstanding of what a professional sports organization is and each individuals role within it.

Since then I haven’t been able to let that comment go. It got me thinking perhaps part of the problem with our game is that some working within it have a fundamental misunderstanding of the game, their role, their priorities and why they do what they do.

You’re probably thinking Liam… What are you talking about?

What if we forgot for a second that professional rugby team (or any professional sports organization) is playing sport and we think of it and all its components as a business. Stay with me!

The front office are the people selling the product and getting it on shelves in stores and then into your homes.

The high-performance staff are manufacturing, they’re the people building the product and fulfilling the orders.

The rugby academies, senior club rugby, and junior rugby are research and development (R&D) they’re out identifying the best new products and the most efficient ways to create the products (this might be a stretch but I think you get what I mean).

Then finally, the athletes and the game are the product, they’re the thing that you want to go to the store and spend your hard earned money on and buy and have and use it in your home.

Now, I’ve never run a business per se, but I have run a program with a million dollar budget, and, I know some people who have started both successful and unsuccessful businesses. I asked them about their businesses, how they operate, how they make money, why they failed (if they did), how the moving parts affect each other and if the various parts of their businesses have different priorities? I then reflected on my own experiences and here is what I discovered.

The answers varied, but there were three very important takeaways that I think can and should be applied to the game of rugby (or any sport).

The first takeaway was best summed up by one individual I spoke to who stated: “our number one priority is to create the best possible experience for our customers, from the person answering the phones, right through to the delivery company we use, understands this.” They continued “done are the days where you can just sell a product, the customer has so many options available the experience is just as important” they summed up by saying  “the tasks are different and often they compete but the businesses priorities remain the same”.

The second takeaway is that there appears to be an understanding that the different areas of the business don’t function without each other. Take my friend who operates a small decking business as an example. He no longer works “on the tools” meaning he doesn’t produce the “product” anymore (he’s not in manufacturing anymore). He spends most of his time providing quotes to prospective clients (sales), meeting with new distributors (R&D) and scheduling his staffs time to make sure they’re able to deliver a high quality and timely product. He also has a second office staff member who looks after the books. He understands that without his tradesman the work doesn’t get done, without his bookkeeper there’s no cash to run the business and without him, there’s no work to be done.

The final takeaway (which really hit me hard) was how all these businesses markup their products and services to make sure they’re turning a profit. The results here varied wildly industry to industry but, conservatively you should be aiming to at least double your expenditure. So if a product costs $6 million to manufacture the business should expect that product to generate $12 million in revenue. Now I’m not saying a sports organization needs to generate this type of return but is it too much to ask that the investment is at least matched in terms of revenue back to the organization?

OK, so now let’s go back to the original problem and remember again that this is a professional sports organization we’re talking about and ask this question. What is/are the priority/priorities of a professional sports organization? I asked a colleague of mine who is an extremely successful sports coach turned administrator who has been at the helm of one of Australia’s most successful sports teams. I was told that it’s really easy for an organization to say winning is the number one priority but in reality, the priority is to put the best possible product out there within the means available to an organization. They also mentioned that many of the things they do outside of their sport ultimately open up opportunities to sell the product (the game) to a broader audience and provide valuable content for their partners.

Now, if we go back and look at the various parts of a professional sports organization (in this case a rugby team) there should be an understanding of the different parts of the business and how they affect each other.

Without the rugby academies, senior and junior club rugby (R&D), the high-performance staff (manufacturing) don’t have any new products or materials to build into super rugby players (the product). Without a product, the front office staff doesn’t have anything to sell. If there’s nothing to sell there’s no money coming into the organization to fund manufacturing and R&D.

So one final time, if we go back to the original problem and ask ourselves why do the players need to show up to this event? Let’s assume it’s two players and they earn a combined $400,000. The Sponsorship is $500,000 each season ($550,000 if you include GST). For those two players (by keeping the sponsor happy) they’ve justified their $400,000 combined salary (and made a little on top) for maybe 2 – 3 hours of their time. By doing this they’re also helping the commercial team keep their jobs and continue to sell the product, which provides the funds so that the high performance team can continue to manufacture the talent.

Could it really be this simple? Or am I missing something?

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