Eye for the Ball
Ben Buckley’s sport and management pedigree has him well placed to lead the round ball code into the future. By Jennifer Alexander
Australia’s football codes don’t just dominate the sports pages with match results; the games’ administrative leaders and the decisions they make in their codes’ best interests are often headline news. But what makes leading a national sporting body a different ball game from a more traditional business? Ben Buckley, CEO of Football Federation Australia (FFA), explains the similarities and the differences, including the important role sport plays as a social agent for change.
Q: How would you describe your current role?
A: It’s the traditional role of the CEO: strategic planning; managing the day-to-day operations of the business; working on finance and personnel issues; and working with the board. A CEO in sport is pretty much the same as the CEO of any other large or medium-sized business. The one aspect that does differ is that a national sporting organisation is not owned by one entity, being in effect owned by the people who follow and engage in the sport. As such, the commercial imperatives are slightly different.
Q: Could you expand on that?
A: Just because you’re a sporting organisation doesn’t mean that you need to approach the professional and commercial aspect of what you do differently than a normal, non-sporting, commercial enterprise. Major commercial enterprises look at how to provide better returns for shareholders; but we manage a wide range of stakeholder interests, and the success of the sport isn’t always about bottom-line performance. A sporting organisation’s goals are not quite so focused on commercial returns, it’s also about what you can put back into the community as a sport.
Q: Football in Australia has something of a turbulent history. What have been the major changes?
A: While I think there have been higher-profile reforms concerning the national competition and the way we manage our national teams program, the changes that will have the biggest impact over time have been getting the governance structure right, and bringing all of the disparate interest groups together with an elected, independent board to make decisions.
Q: Can you clarify the corporate structure of the FFA?
A: It’s a very democratic organisation. In effect, a number of different zones and regions in each of the states and territories elect people who represent them, who, in turn, elect a state governing body who, as members of Football Federation Australia, elect and appoint a board to manage and engage with the management. If you track down to the core people who are registered participants in the game, be they players, coaches or administrators, they actually have a say in who is on the board of the FFA.
Q: What do you like most about your current role?
A: It’s a great challenge; football in Australia has had a lot of potential for a long time. In recent years it’s made a lot of inroads and reforms, particularly in the area of governance models and governance structure, plus the establishment of the Hyundai A-League and, of course, the success of the 2006 World Cup team. My great enjoyment is to work in a sport that is trying to consolidate a lot of changes and build a business organisation that will allow it to realise its potential over the next five, 10 and 15 years.
Q: What are the core strategies of the FFA?
A: We set our strategic plan up around four pillars. First, success of national teams at all levels. A core part of that is to provide a well resourced pathway and identification program for the young elite.
The second pillar is the Hyundai A-League, and making that a high-profile, high-quality, entertaining sport to go to week in and week out that young kids can aspire to participate in one day.
The third pillar is the community aspect. This is to bring together all of the states and territories to work on development plans at the non-elite level so that we are developing facilities and infrastructure around the country, developing high-quality club environments, recruiting and educating coaches and referees, to provide kids a really positive experience when they play.
The fourth element is being able to go out and secure major international events to build a strong profile for the sport in Australia and showcase the country to the world. That involves World and Asian Cups and we’ve drawn up strategies for pursuing them as future events. I think everyone in Australia would love to host a World Cup and we believe that the impact could be as powerful as the Olympic Games.
Q: What does success look like for you and for the board?
A: Success includes making the men’s, women’s and youth World Cups every four years and being successful in Asian competitions; making the Hyundai A-League the pre-eminent professional sport in the country; attracting the best athletic talent to play our game; and being financially successful to provide the revenue to invest in both elite and grassroots levels. With our recent ground attendances and television audiences, we’re starting to feature among the top four sports in the country; ultimately, success is defined by our market position and ability to have active participants and consumers in numbers greater than our competitors.
Q: What is the link between team success at the international and national level, and revenue?
A: The revenue streams in sporting organisations are similar and typically come from media rights, sponsorship, gate receipts, major events and tournaments, government funding, registration and participation fees. If your national team is successful on the international stage it allows us to generate greater interest, therefore greater attendances and greater TV audiences. This gives a greater ability to sell bigger sponsorships and so on. One of our goals is to harness our participation on a global stage. We hope to be able to attract sponsors out of the Asian region as well as domestically.
Q: What is the connection between the role of the board and international success?
A: The board reviews management’s strategy and our operating plans to see if we’re fully harnessing our opportunities. From a management standpoint, we like to work with our board to try and leverage opportunities that might exist outside of Australia. We have a number of board members who have extensive international experience, which we hope to utilise over time. That’s a strength of any board and it’s no different for our board than it is for a normal commercial enterprise.
Q: How important is having a high-profile board or chairman for a sporting organisation?
A: I wouldn’t say that it’s essential for a sport to have that. We are very fortunate that our Chairman, Frank Lowy, is one of Australia’s most successful business people. His knowledge and his contacts certainly work to the game’s advantage. But people should know that Frank has history in football at many levels. He was a president of a local club and he’s seen it from that side as well as from the very elite level. It also helps that he is very passionate and gives an immense amount of his time to advance football’s cause.
Q: What do you least like about your job?
A: Queues at airports… Seriously, there’s no aspect I don’t like. Working in sport you’re very fortunate. You have the opportunity to combine your personal passion in life with a high-profile professional career. The beauty is I get to work in a business environment that people love and that they really love to be involved in. Sports administrators around the world are pretty lucky people because it’s all about harnessing people’s passions and we get to do that on a daily basis.
Q: You played Australian Rules at an elite level. How important is it to have had a sporting background in order to manage a sport?
A: I don’t think it’s an essential ingredient for anyone who manages a sport. There are many people who have worked in senior roles in sport who have never played the game but have great business acumen or other skills to bring to the table. I think it helps me from time to time; I understand the psychology of what players and coaches go through and what happens in team and club environments. So you have an empathy for certain situations that you might not otherwise have, but it’s not essential.
Q: Does it give you credibility having been a player even in another code?
A: Maybe it does to some degree; I believe sometimes I make better decisions because I have an insight into player and team issues in competitive sport. Being involved in sports organisations since the age of eight – from the grassroots to the elite and back again with kids – all that helps build up your knowledge base to test your decisions against.
Q: Could you comment on what leadership insights playing elite sport provides?
A: I believe sport does help you prepare for a leadership position. It teaches you a lot about team dynamics, communication within teams, personal leadership styles and providing constructive and negative feedback on getting people to perform better. It also helps engender discipline and work ethic. There are a lot of values that come from successful sports organisations, or stem from a successful sportsperson or being a part of a successful team, that you can adopt into a professional career.
Q: Are there any lessons in particular?
A: My sporting background was in a team environment. In all teams people have certain roles to play and they’re expected to play those roles at a certain level, within certain rules and within certain team dynamics. Being able to communicate so that the team performs to its utmost is something you learn from and can apply in many leadership situations.
The first lesson that sticks out from my team background is about creating a set of values and having everyone in the organisation understand and live them. Second, it’s about the discipline from playing as a team that an organisation – with its interdependencies between different business units – needs. Good organisations operate the same way as good sporting teams do: everyone understands the role they play, how they’re to play it, the team’s guiding principles, and the team’s cultural values. This applies to any organisational environment.
Q: What are the values of the FFA?
A: Foremost, we’re about excelling in what we do; a strong work ethic; creating partnerships with our stakeholders; respecting the different stakeholder groups that we are engaged with; and making decisions that are based on fairness. When you’re regulating a competition you make a lot of decisions about whether people did or didn’t breach rules and we must make them against certain criteria.
Q: What role do you see sport playing in wider governance and social or cultural matters?
A: Two things: one, sport cannot set itself aside from what society’s standards are, and two (and more importantly), sport can lead positive social change. Whether that’s in advancing a range of social causes in the health and wellbeing of young people, such as educating people about the dangers of illicit drugs, responsible behaviour towards women, or playing a role by taking a stand against racism, there’s a range of societal issues that sport can play a positive role in. Sports people and their organisations are highly influential on standards within their communities.
Q: Well, we’ve all heard about the ugly parent on the sideline. What can the FFA do about that?
A: One of the key strategies that we have is making sure there is a code of conduct for every team, at whatever level, that participates in the football competitions across Australia. It’s about positive encouragement and celebrating everyone on the team; it’s not getting caught up in refereeing decisions. The ugly-parent syndrome is prevalent to some degree in every sport across the country, but we’re working hard at all levels to stamp out negative behaviour.
Q: Growth is a big issue. What strategies does the FFA have for growing its female following?
A: That’s something we’re working very hard on. The Hyundai A-League now plays in all of the major venues around the country, which means better facilities and a safer environment, plus we’ve worked hard to eradicate negative crowd behaviour. In the past two years there have been a lot more women and young families coming to the game than five to 10 years ago. Longer term, we are one of the football codes that is played at the entry or junior level almost equally between boys and girls. So we have some strategies in place that should see, in generations to come, a strong fan base stemming from both genders.
Q: It’s often said our most powerful learning experiences are where we make mistakes.
A: One of the CEOs I worked for had a phrase over his desk: “The team that makes the most mistakes wins”. Now, you don’t want to make too many, but you’ve got to try new ideas. Innovation is a buzz word in business. You always have to look at things differently and try and take some educated and calculated risks and not be afraid to fail. But if you do, learn from your mistakes. Perhaps that’s where I can draw from my sports experience, where, in that environment, your performance is being analysed all the time. Coaches will tell you very directly what you got right and what you got wrong (mostly what you got wrong!). You do get used to receiving feedback, so maybe, when you are beyond the fear of making a mistake or getting some criticism, you’re prepared to take more risks.
Q: What have been your most powerful learning experiences as a businessman?
A: By taking certain cues and watching the people around you. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked for and with some outstanding leaders and very influential people. I think sometimes you don’t realise it, but you’re actually learning because you see the way people approach certain matters, which can help when you come across similar issues yourself. There is a degree of leadership quality that everyone has; but some people will prefer not to be leaders, but still be very constructive and influential in their own right. I absolutely believe you can learn leadership, and it’s not always out of a textbook; it’s about watching and learning from certain situations.
Born in 1967, Ben Buckley commenced as CEO of Football Federation Australia in December 2006. Previously, he was the Australian Football League (AFL) COO from 2005. As COO, he had responsibility for strategic planning, managing media contracts, venue agreements, facilities development, and scheduling. Prior to this Buckley was AFL General Manager from 1999, responsible for broadcasting, strategy and major projects.
Buckley joined Nike, Inc. from 1994 as Director of Marketing in Japan and later took over the same role in Australia. He was General Manager and Vice President of Australasia operations for video game company EA Sports between 1996 and 1999.Buckley played 74 games with the North Melbourne Kangaroos in the AFL between 1986 and 1993 and was vice-captain from 1990 to 1992.