Give clubs a sporting chance

The drugs scandal engulfing top sporting clubs has revealed one of the great challenges facing not-for-profit administrators. As clubs become more corporatised, administrators lose touch with the rank and file, and the concerns they might divulge.

How much blame should be put on the boards of the sporting bodies that have plunged into dangerous drug territory?

I believe that the structural problems, which have emerged in our top sporting clubs, have a similarity with what can happen and has happened in top schools.

This morning, writing the in The Australian, Patrick Smith bemoans the shortage of top sporting administrators. While that is no doubt true I think the problem goes deeper.

Business people have moved onto the boards of the top sporting clubs and schools and have introduced professionalism to the management of these bodies, which has enabled them to expand dramatically.

In the case of AFL football, rugby and soccer clubs, substantial media revenue has also transformed these clubs to be run almost like public companies with performance targets and elaborate professional management tools.

The problems of the state educational system has caused a similar thing to happen in many top private schools.

But football clubs and schools are not public companies – they are not-for-profit organisations with a different cultural base.

Go down to the local suburban and country football (any code) or cricket club and you will find that the board, the sponsors, major supporters and the players meet after each game. The culture of the club and the board are the same. If something is happening that should not happen the board knows immediately.

Similarly in smaller schools and not for profit organisations the board is right on top of what is happening.

As these bodies get bigger the base culture can be lost. And so we saw with the high profile Melbourne school, Methodist Ladies’ College, the board treated its principal in a way that did not take into account the culture of the school. The rights and wrongs are not relevant – the school was damaged, as were the board and the former principal.

I know of one situation where a board got an outside group to prepare a "risk register”. There were hundreds and hundreds of risks isolated but the school could not afford the management structure to cope with that bombardment. It was not a public company.

In some top football clubs the players are basically cocooned from the board and major supporters, at least when compared to what happened two decades ago.

The old players are full of the stories sometimes covering a century of history and the young players just wonder at what has taken place. It’s a cultural disconnect.

And it has happened quickly without board members and the club fully realising the risks of such a rapid transformation in what is a non-profit sporting organisation – not a big public company. The management of these organisations do not have the checks and balances that go with large public companies as the role of boards and operations are separated.

The top sporting clubs can’t go back to the ways things were a decade or so ago. But they have to find a way to re-connect with their cultural roots. The club under most pressure, Essendon, has responded by appointing a recent senior player who has strong connections with the supporter base into a top management position. It’s a good start but a lot more will need to be done.

I must add that I know a lot of top sporting club and school board members who have made a great contribution. But where the culture is lost or disconnected, the connection must be restored or the whole organisation risks going off the rails.

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