Quitting While Ahead?

They say that timing in sport is everything. This could also be true of sports administration.

Last week former CEO of Australian Rugby and Football John O’Neill was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. Sport Australia Hall of Fame selection committee chairman Rob de Castella hailed O’Neill’s feats claiming that they highlighted just what could be achieved through astute sports administration. “John O’Neill is the gold standard for inspired and calculated sports administration,” de Castella said the Australian “His leadership at two peak Australian sporting bodies has proven pivotal in the ongoing success of both rugby union and football in this nation.”

As is always the case in sport some will agree, some will not. It all comes down to opinions, or does it?

John O’Neill was appointed managing director and CEO of Australian Rugby Union in 1995. He had eight years at the helm, and during that time ARU revenues increased seven-fold from $10 to $70 million. Participation also grew, from 100,000 players to almost 150,000. In 2002 his achievements were acknowledged and he was named the Sport Executive of the Year. This award however had more to do with him securing Australia the sole hosting rights for 2003 Rugby World Cup. This was initially due to be shared with New Zealand, but there were issues over the naming rights of stadia that could not be sorted out. The 2003 Rugby World Cup was hailed as a huge success and more importantly the event made a profit of almost $90 million. Mind you, one would expect a tournament such as this to reap a financial profit, so was this down to good leadership?

Almost a month after the final O’Neill resigned. The announcement took many by surprise. However to those in the inner circle it came as no surprise as apparently he had fallen out with his employer. At the time there were rumours that the organisation was not happy that he had turned the World Cup into what they labelled “the John O’Neill show”. A documentary was made on the World Cup where he was the headline act. There was also criticism that he spent too much time schmoozing with the then Prime Minister John Howard. There was certainly bitterness amongst the hardworking staff at the ARU that he did not share the plaudits following the tournament. It was also said that his relationship with the then Wallabies captain George Gregan was also far from good. O’Neill it was alleged wanted to replace him as captain and then was forced to deny such claims that he was in fact the source of leaks to News Limited to undermine Gregan.

He resurfaced in football in 2004 as the new CEO of the Australian Soccer Association that was soon to become Football Federation of Australia. HIs key role was to improve the governance of the game and ensure that many of the recommendations of the Crawford Report, which had brought about change were implemented across the country. It was no doubt a tough gig, but not as tough as many maybe make out. Many in the game wanted change. The Federal Government wanted change and were prepared to inject money to ensure that change happened.

The ASA actually set up a task force made up of ‘football people,’ including ex Socceroos Charlie Yankos and Jack Reilly to look into the best structure for a new top flight professional league.

The old National Soccer League which was on its last knees was shut down and the A-league was planned to replace it, along with major corporate sponsorship and live TV coverage that the NSL had craved for so long. O’Neill claims a great deal of the credit for the birth of the A-League but it was his trusty lieutenant Matt Carroll who was in fact the man driving the bus. There are many who are still cursing the decision to go with Franchise owned clubs as season after season 90% are losing money.

O’Neill threw out many of the recommendations such as the league should start out with ten teams and two each in Sydney and Melbourne; the report actually recommended three in Sydney, two in Melbourne, two in New Zealand and one in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane.

There was no doubt that the slick marketing the like of which has not been seen since and the fact that fans had been starved of football for almost two years helped the inaugural 2005-2006 A-league season.

The major achievement of O’Neill’s time in charge of football was overseeing Australia’s move into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Both Australia and New Zealand were rejected Asian membership back in 1964, so it was never going to be easy. The main reasons Australia needed to be part of Asia was to gain access to lucrative Asian markets and tournaments; lucrative in terms of sponsorship and profile. The other reason was to ease their World Cup qualification path. To satisfy Asia promises were made as to the structure of the A-League and also the promise of what is now the FFA Cup; the problem was the FFA caused itself headaches by not implementing the promises in the agreed timeframes. Which begs the question was there really a long term plan in place or was it very much management on the run?

O’Neill was also in charge of the FFA when Australia finally qualified for the 2006 World Cup, a wait of 32 years. In the euphoria of qualification very few analysed what would have happened had Uruguay won on that November night in Sydney. Had not O’Neill and Chairman Frank Lowy not done exactly what their predecessors at Soccer Australia done in terms of gambling financially on qualification?

The qualification alone cost the FFA EUR1million to pay the coach, Guus Hiddink; He received another bonus for steering the team out of the group stage at the World Cup in Germany, as did the players. The chartered aircraft from Qantas to fly the Socceroos back from Uruguay after the first leg cost $850,000. In the end the money that Australia earned from qualification was eaten up in the cost of qualification and bonuses.

O’Neill resigned after the World Cup in Germany. He had spent three years at the helm of the game. When he left the FFA was undercapitalised and in a very fragile position. The World Cup had been a costly experience, and already the Franchise model of the A-League had seen one owner walk away, and the FFA left to keep Perth Glory in the competition. It came out in the financial year of 2007 the FFA only had $400,000 in the bank. There was a loss of $10.9million on revenue of $51.4 million. The game borrowed $3.24 million from the Australian Sport Commission and secured an overdraft of $1.37 million.

O’Neill then ended up back at Rugby union headquarters in 2007. He would remain in the post until 2012 when he left with 14 months still to run on his contract.

During that time the Wallabies improved their world ranking from fifth to second behind the All Blacks. As was the case when he left the first time the ARU claimed that “participation levels are at an all-time high.” They also claimed a stronger financial position.

The Australian Rugby Championship, which was brought into being by his predecessor chief executive Gary Flowers for the 2007 season, was scrapped by O’Neill after one season and once he left was re-introduced under a new name the National Rugby Championship. The initial competition threw up two players who may not have been discovered Luke Burgess and Nick Cummins, both who became Wallabies.

One story during his time as CEO was that he gave the Wallabies a dressing room rev in Auckland when he felt coach Robbie Deans did not after a heavy loss to the All Blacks. One has to question whether a CEO should in fact be in a Changing room on a match day, and if he is he should be there merely as an observer.

In the ARU Financial report for 2013 the Courier Mail reported that O’Neill was “listed in the financial notes as having been paid $2,187,789 in salary and incentives. The notes state O’Neill’s ‘remuneration includes payments made in accordance to annual remuneration structure until his resignation, partial payment of incentive based remuneration and other contractual and statutory entitlements.'”

At the time of his resignation ARU Chairman Michael Hawker stated that “the ARU has strengthened its financial position.” That was October 2012.

When the Financial report was published in April 2013 The ARU reported an $8.3 million deficit for the 2012 financial year, with a large increase in expenditure, a drop in sponsorship revenue. They also suffered as a result of currency exchange with the strong Aussie dollar devaluing the US dollar-negotiated SANZAR TV deal.

At the time some felt that the departure of O’Neill was an ARU strategy at play, that was the strengthening they were referring too. Instead of stretching the pain over two more years, the entire hefty sum of a pay out was rolled into an already sizeable loss. Then it was time to move on.

John O’Neill is now in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, there are many who feel he shouldn’t be and his induction has done the organisation harm. Some feel it was a case of ‘the boys’ looking after one of their own. Yet as an administrator there are always those who will be with you, and those who will be against you. John O’Neill was always bold with his views and strong in the way he expressed them, he was bound to polarise people. Yet the burning question that surely needs to be asked, as with athletes or coaches, did he leave the sport in a better place when he left than it was in when he arrived? Ultimately that is what he and other administrators should be judged on.

Quitting While Ahead?

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